En Garde

Olympic Fencing ChampTeaches Sport In Tough NYC Neighborhoods

The sport of fencing - that swashbuckling art of swordplay - has long been seen as the pastime of the privileged, a sport most often associated with aristocrats and upper-crust opponents.

It's been dominated by Europeans for centuries, and every match still begins with the French word "en garde" in a nod to its heritage.

But now, the greatest fencers in the world are hearing the challenging call "en garde" from a place you'd never expect.

In the last decade, one American has been taking kids from some of the toughest and most deprived neighborhoods in New York City and training them to wield a sword.

And, in the process, he's turning out champions who may finally knock the Europeans off their pedestal. Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports.

Peter Westbrook is in the business of creating champions.

He'll try encouragement, enticements, intimidation and anything he can think of to turn his crop of young recruits into world-class swordfighters.

"I see how much work it's going to be for me. That's the first thing I see," says Westbrook, who sizes up the kids once they come in. "If this guy is a knucklehead, a pure knucklehead, or someone that just needs to have his feathers massaged before I can get my Picasso."

He searches for his Picassos in some of New York City's toughest neighborhoods. They start here as young as 7.

"Kids that don't have a lot of structure in their lives, kids that come from, many times, single-parent homes, kids that are poor and ashamed that they are poor, kids that are African-American and ashamed that they're African-American," says Westbrook. "So my job is to transform all those things, to create great kids, great citizens, academic scholars. And also the icing on the cake is to create world-class athletes."

More than 100 kids come to his fencing boot camp at the Fencer's Club in downtown Manhattan every Saturday. They learn to cut, to parry, to lunge and thrust. Pushed by parents, or maybe concerned teachers, they're mastering the three weapons of fencing – the saber, the epee and the foil.

"All of us as kids have something inside of us. We want to be like swashbucklers. We want to be Zorro," says Westbrook. "So everybody has an opportunity to live out their fantasy. And in the meantime, we have the opportunity to instill discipline, pride and excellence."

How does fencing do that?

"Fencing is a one-on-one sport. You have to look at yourself to see what it is that you're afraid of. What it is that you have to overcome to win," says Westbrook.

It's also an extraordinarily fast sport, so fast that for the uninitiated, it's just a blur. But within the frenzy, there is a deep precision. It takes careful footwork and immense skill.

Westbrook showed Mabrey what he teaches his students. The goal is to get a point by scoring a touch against your opponent before he can block you.

"Hit me on my head. Hit me on my stomach. Hit me on my other side. That's all you need to know in attacking," says Westbrook. "So now we're going to fence three touches. In a tournament, they say, 'Fencer's ready.' We'd say, 'Yes, ready. Fence.'"

After a point is scored, the two fencers stop and start over again.

But teaching proper technique is far from the only challenge. When Carlton Henry walked in at the age of 18, he was a member of the Bloods street gang, and he'd been kicked out of school for carrying a knife.

He took to the sport right away. What do his old gang members now think of him?

"They're still doing the same thing. Every now and then, you have people that make jokes to be funny," says Carlton. "The thing I hate the most, people say, 'Oh, you do that sport, what's it called, jousting?' I'll be like, 'Jousting, where do you get that from? That involves a horse.'"

But a few months after he started fencing, Carlton began to miss practice. He was back hanging out with his old gang instead, so Westbrook gave him an ultimatum -- if you miss another practice, you're out. He calls it a "lovingly hands-on approach."

"We were going to go to a party one night, and then, for some reason it just clicked. I really heard his voice, like, in my head, like, 'Dag, are you sure you want to be running around in the streets doing all this crazy stuff?' And I was thinking about the things I could have been giving up. The next day, I was in practice," says Carlton.

Westbrook knows what it's like to be torn between two worlds. Twenty years ago, he was competing in his fencing prime, but it wasn't an easy road to get there.

Deserted by his father at 3, he was an angry, troubled kid who grew up in one of the worst housing projects in Newark, N.J. It was his Japanese mother who convinced him to harness his rage and, in a nod to her heritage, start fencing.

"I was the only fencer in the whole city of African descent," says Westbrook. "There were no fencers in my neighborhood. I never saw an African-American fencer in my life."

Westbrook went on to become the greatest American fencer of his time, going to the Olympics six times and winning the bronze medal in 1984. In 1991, he started the Peter Westbrook Foundation.

"I tell the kids, 'Look at me. If I can make it, a guy from the inner city, dirt poor, single-parent home … If can make it, all of you surely, can make it without a doubt.' And they believe that."

They believe it because they see his commitment. On a shoestring budget, with money collected through fundraising, Westbrook finds the best coaches he can for his advanced fencers.

But the secret to his success has been to find the demons inside his students and harness them in competition. Sometimes it's poverty, sometimes it's anger or, in the case of Ivan Lee, personal history.

"Ivan Lee has had a hard young childhood. People picked on him as a child and it left a lot of scars on him," says Westbrook. "Sometimes, when you talk to Ivan, he becomes like literally raving. Raving and screaming. Sometimes, that scares me when I see him do that."

"Peter is a motivator to me," says Ivan. "He brings out the fighter in me. I try to stay very calm, very relaxed. But when I turn the switch on, it's hard to stop me."

But the real challenge for Ivan was to see if he could turn the switch on this summer in Austin, Texas. It was the National Fencing Championships and all the best fencers in the country had gathered to compete. There were fencers from places such as Columbia University, Harvard and Penn State.

With Westbrook looking on, Ivan beat out competitor after competitor until he captured the gold medal. But he wasn't the only one. Westbrook's fighters took home four of the top six medals in saber, securing their place among the top-ranked fencers in the country.

"We all feed off each other and make each other better," says Ivan.

Sitting with Ivan are saber teammates Akhnaten Spencer-El, Herby Raynaud and Keeth Smart. They've been with the Peter Westbrook Foundation almost since the beginning.

"It's not just about fencing, it goes beyond fencing, you know," says Akhnaten. "It's a community."

"None of us would be where we all are if it wasn't for everyone else," adds Ivan. "And I think a lot of people don't understand that because it's too much of a business elsewhere, whereas here, we're a family."

And now Westbrook is determined to have his family capture the most elusive honor of all – an Olympic medal. No American has brought home a medal in 20 years – not since Westbrook won it himself. And so this summer, the Westbrook team traveled far from their homes in New York City to Cuba.

Cuba was hosting a critical Olympic qualifying tournament. Finally, after months of training, they would see if they could compete against the most dominant fencers in the world: the Europeans. Unlike Americans, Europeans train full time and receive lucrative sponsorships.

Ivan stepped onto the stage, winning bout after bout. Then he drew a competitor from Romania, who was favored to win. They were neck and neck. Finally, the score read 14-12. Ivan attacked, blocked and got the point. He had made it to the quarterfinals.

"These other countries, they don't want to mess with us anymore because they know that we're up and coming. We haven't really tasted success at its highest yet," says Ivan. "So we're hungry, a lot hungrier than a lot of other countries out there who won medals."

Ivan lost in the next round and ended up finishing seventh, but Keeth Smart - who earlier this year became the first American ever to be ranked number one in the world - won the bronze medal.

Westbrook's fighters had stunned the world -- three of them finishing in the top eight spots. They're now a step closer to making the Olympic team. And Keeth Smart is their best shot at a gold medal.

"We have a great system here, like the school," says Keeth. "Everyone's our competitor, but we want everyone to succeed at the same time. We want all four people to go to the Olympics."

Their goal? To dominate the sport.

Remember Carlton Henry? He went to his first national tournament this summer, and won the gold medal in his division.

Back home in New York, with the help of a foundation-sponsored tutor and the support of his fencing family, Carlton finally graduated from high school at the age of 20.

Westbrook says that watching his kids succeed in life is what his work is all about. But that doesn't mean he's forgotten there's an Olympics right around the corner.

"I have the Olympic team sewed up for 2004; I have another crop for 2008," says Westbrook. "These are my new, young, fertile crops. All I have to do is put grass seed and a little more water and they'll grow."