Two-time Olympian Nzingha Prescod announced her retirement from the sport after a career that has spanned nearly two decades and four Senior World Championship medals. Photo Credit: Getty Images.
Prescod (second from left) won Worlds in 2018 with teammates Margaret Lu, Lee Kiefer and Nicole Ross. Photo Credit: #BizziTeam
The hardest decision for an athlete can be walking away.
Coming into the qualifying season for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, Nzingha Prescod appeared to have it all.
After competing at the London and Rio Olympic Games, she made the decision to try for a third Olympic Team and was a key component of the U.S. Women’s Foil Team’s most successful period in history.
An individual bronze medalist at the 2015 Senior World Championships, Prescod had some of the best performances of her career at the last three World Championships where Team USA won its first-ever Senior World title in foil in 2018. The medal came in the midst of a trifecta of podium finishes with the team winning silver in 2017 and bronze in 2019.
“One of the best fencers in the world.”
“One of the greatest of all time.”
When asked about Prescod’s talents on the strip, Olympians Lee Kiefer and Nicole Ross didn’t hesitate to describe their teammate as one of the toughest opponents to face on the circuit and someone they were proud to have as a teammate and a friend.
Prescod had made history and broken boundaries repeatedly in her career, winning back-to-back Cadet World titles in 2008 and 2009, leading a 1-2-3 podium finish at the 2011 Junior World Championships and becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual Senior World medal in any weapon.
What most fencing fans didn’t know, however, is that some of Prescod’s most outstanding performances came during periods of tremendous pain due to a degenerative hip condition. Prescod has dealt with hip pain since 2014 and underwent two hip surgeries in 2014 and 2016 to address the labrum and cartilage damage. Despite the procedures, the issue progressed and a combination of bone cysts and trauma-induced avascular necrosis, a condition where a loss of blood supply results in bone death, rapidly caused her right hip to break and collapse.
Just two months after she stood on top of the podium at the 2018 Senior World Championships, Prescod left the Fencers Club to walk to the subway and, half a block later, had collapsed on the sidewalk.
“I first started having issues walking in September of 2018 and, honestly, I did not pay attention that much because I’ve dealt with pain before and I thought ‘Oh, this will resolve itself’ and it never did. And it just escalated, escalated, escalated. Then finally one day after practice I was literally collapsing trying to walk just to the end of the block,” Prescod said. “The Fencers Club is in the middle of a block. At the end of the block I’m collapsing and I can’t put weight on my leg and I’m like ‘this is not normal. This is way more than a limp at this point. I need assistance.’”
Prescod consulted a team of medical specialists in December 2018 and took a month off from fencing before returning to competition in January of 2019. By February, she posted a top-16 result at the Torino Grand Prix that would guarantee her a position on her 10th consecutive Senior World Team.
The next day, however, she collapsed again – this time in an airport on the way home from competition. Rosslovingly arranged wheelchair assistance for Prescod to make it home, and was forced to take another two months off from fencing.
“It’s so hard to grasp this reality because walking is like nothing and then, all of a sudden, it’s this huge task and you’re still trying to do it and you can’t and you’re like ‘what’s going on here,’” Prescod said. “I couldn’t even do rehab because I was so swollen and irritated around my joint and then, in April, I was able to start doing stuff again and had built some strength back to support my joint.”
With the goal of returning to the medal stand at the Senior World Championships in Budapest in July of 2019, Prescod worked with her coaches to restructure her fencing technique.
“She always had that long, strong lunge. Her mobility was one of the critical parts of her game and then all of a sudden she had to change that to shorten her lunge and use her footwork a little bit differently. That was very difficult,” said Buckie Leach who is both the U.S. Women’s National Team Coach and Prescod’s personal coach for most of her career. “[Coach] Sean McClain helped her with that and then [Coach] Andrea Magro helped her with that, but finding a good solution for her when she was in that much pain was kind of a challenge and they worked it out very well.”
At that point, one might guess the pounding of fencing would be something Prescod dreaded, in fact, it was fencing where she found some refuge.
“I’ve fenced for a long time and I could still move once I was really warmed up. At that point in July, fencing wasn’t as bad as walking. Walking was my worst enemy. Every time I got up to walk, I was just dreading it,” she said. “Fencing was still hard, but I’d found ways to adjust my fencing to deal with it and Andrea was really helpful with that.”
In Budapest, Prescod earned a top-32 finish in the individual event at the World Championships while using a crutch to keep the pressure off her hip when she wasn’t competing.
During the team event, her teammates stepped in to help in any way she needed.
“I was literally using Lee as my crutch to get from the team space to the strip. Lee was giving me her shoulder because it was so uncomfortable to walk,” said Prescod who was grateful for the support she had in and out of the box from the squad. “They’re all awesome, I love them all.”
On the fencing strip, however, Prescod stood alone as the Americans fought through match after match to get to the bronze medal final against France. With the Americans down by five touches after the first four bouts, Prescod swung the momentum for the Americans with a critical 7-5 win in the fifth over 2018 Senior World individual silver medalist Ysaora Thibus and bested three-time Senior World medalist Anita Blaze, 5-2, in the seventh as Team USA went on to win the match, 45-43, and earn the bronze.
The clutch wins were what her teammates could expect from Prescod who swung Team USA’s semifinal match against Russia with an 8-1 win over 2016 Olympic Champion Inna Deriglazova at the 2017 Senior Worlds and bested Camilla Mancini by the same score in the finals against Italy at the 2018 Senior Worlds, shifting the momentum for the Americans who went on to win gold.
“Her discipline, her work ethic, her talent, her performance in clutch situations. You can put Nzingha in in that last rotation and she can make magic happen. It’s really amazing. Even under extreme physical duress, she just shines under that pressure and under the lights,” said Ross who competed with Prescod at the 2012 Olympic Games as well as every Senior Worlds from 2010-2019.
With her teammates by her side and a fourth career Senior World medal to her credit, it was that team bronze medal in Budapest that Prescod says is one of the greatest moments of her career.
“I really liked this past Worlds because I felt like I could still contribute,” said Prescod who said that standing on the podium was bittersweet. “I was realizing that this was going to end soon. This was just not sustainable and I was holding just holding on for as long as I could and I really just wanted to appreciate everything.”
With nine months remaining in the Olympic qualification period, Prescod’s condition began to rapidly worsen and she was told by her team of doctors that competition was all but impossible and she would need a hip replacement at the age of 27.
Prescod would compete once more on the World Cup circuit in Cairo in November and again at the December NAC before making the painful decision to retire.
“When I walk, it feels like nothing is there and it just feels like there’s a hole when I put weight on the leg. I was back on the crutch very regularly and then that’s when they said that 10 out of 10 doctors would say you need a hip replacement right now,” Prescod said. “The thing about it is that every day is really different. Some days, I could fence a few bouts really effectively, but the problem is that, after a few bouts, I can’t move anymore and I get really swollen. I have a definite cap of bouts where I can fence where I’m effective and not on the ground in pain. And that threshold is not very high and, to make the team, I would need much more than just those couple bouts.”
Day-to-day functioning had also become a challenge, requiring Prescod to use a crutch to get around her house and a motorized scooter to navigate New York City.
“Now that I’m not fencing, the pain is better, but I’m still walking with a limp. Like right now I just woke up and the limp is better because I haven’t loaded it, loaded it, loaded it, but it gets worse throughout the day,” Prescod said. “But I’m still trying to live my life … that’s just kind of the person I am. Whatever the reality is, I just always want to keep it moving and so I have an electric scooter to get around because, really, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. The scooter is a godsend and really lets me live my life.”
In the coming weeks, Prescod is looking at a hip replacement – an operation she says doctors rarely do on someone her age.
“I’m excited to get it resolved. But it’s still a little scary because it’s a very major surgery. I’m losing part of my body and it’s scary,” she said. “It’s scary because I’m so young, but I know the medicine will improve as the years go on and I’m hopeful for the future.”
With the operation ahead of her, Prescod announced her retirement on Instagram in January stating, in part:
“For 19 years, fencing has been my best friend, one of my oldest friends. @peterwestbrookfoundation introduced me to her & @whathebuuuck taught me how to love her. I’m incredibly lucky to have enjoyed her and have been so spoiled with her affection. She’ll always be in my heart because she offered me the most complete friendship filled with every possible emotion. Fencing knew everything about me - my best and worst habits, my most intimate details - because I gave it everything. And so it is a huge part of me. My love for fencing will never change but our relationship will now be different. In this next chapter, I’m looking forward to empowering kids from my community with this special kind of love - the priceless opportunity and satisfaction to become masters of their craft. I’m really proud of my experience in the sport and will always have fond memories. I love you all and will still be around to cheer for my team.”
Following the announcement, Prescod was overwhelmed with the support she received from fencers around the globe.
“Everyone has been so nice. It’s bittersweet, honestly. I was in pain for so long and I’m happy to not be in pain like that fencing and then people’s messages were so sweet and supportive,” Prescod said. “I know I’m not alone in this. I love the fencing community. That’s probably the hardest part of leaving the sport is having that constant companionship.”
While she has left the competition strip, Prescod says she will remain involved in the sport she has loved for nearly all her life and continues to help teach at the Peter Westbrook Foundation on Saturdays.
It was Peter Westbrook and his non-profit organization that she credits with getting her started in the sport and supporting her as she went on to receive her degree from Columbia University.
The model that helped Prescod climb the ranks from being a nine year old who had never seen a foil to an Olympian and World Champion is what she hopes to be able to use to introduce future generations to the sport.
“I know there’s a problem with access to sport everywhere and it excludes a lot of the population that needs it the most. So that’s my mission, to figure out how high quality sport education can be more accessible and I think that would be my legacy,” she said. “I’m a product of someone who made sport financially accessible to me and without that I never would have been able to do it, so I feel responsibility to continue opening up that access systematically and that’s what I hope to do and that’s what I want.”
She also remains the U.S. Women’s Foil Team’s proudest supporter who her teammates say has had an astounding impact on their lives – as a teammate, competitor and friend.
“Nzingha is, hands down, one of the best fencers in the world. To have that person on your team is a huge boost. She’s brought so much talent, but also her work ethic which is pretty much unmatched,” Ross said of her teammate. “Those are some of the amazing things she brought to our team, but also a smile when you needed it, a hug when you needed it. She’s so warm and fun to be around. When we were younger, it was a lot about that – just having fun and being together and being great friends. And as we grew older, we developed that kind of deep connection where we could talk about anything, but that sort of fun, goofy side was always a hallmark of Nzingha and she’ll always be that way for me.”
Kiefer and Prescod grew up fencing each other in the youth events and were among each other’s top rivals as cadets, juniors and seniors.
When Kiefer qualified for her first Cadet World Team at 13 years old, it was Prescod who would be her roommate and together the two would stand on the podium with Prescod winning gold and Kiefer bronze.
“That first Worlds in Sicily, I was so scared, but Nzingha was my roommate and she really helped me through everything,” Kiefer said.
While competing against each other as individuals and then together as teammates can be a challenge, Kiefer said that she and Prescod were friends from the beginning and have remained that way for nearly 15 years.
“I know competing against each other is hard a lot of times and things can get tough, but we were never like that. She’s always been so supportive of me and she’s had so many amazing moments that I’m proud to have been there for too,” Kiefer said. “I remember when she won gold in Marseille [in 2013] and she was the first [U.S. women’s foil fencer] ever to win a Grand Prix gold medal and how great it was to see her have that moment and it was more than just seeing your teammate win because we were friends too.”
Ross echoed that she counts celebrating her teammates’ success among the best memories of her career.
“I remember the first time she medaled at a World Cup and she was like 15 and she was fencing [Olympic Champion Valentina] Vezzali in the semifinals in Las Vegas and I was so proud. I was like ‘that’s my friend, that’s my teammate!’” said Ross who noted her appreciation for her teammates’ support during the best moments of her career as well. “When you feel Nzingha and Lee cheering for you when you’re having that breakthrough performance, there’s nothing like it. It’s like we’re accomplishing it together … It sounds cheesy, but it’s been such a privilege to be able to support her in those moments and she’s done the same for me and it’s such a great feeling.”
Prescod, Ross and Kiefer won gold at the 2009 Junior World Championships and have been together ever since. While women’s foil was not contested as a team event in Rio, Tokyo will be the first time all six team events will be held at the same Olympic Games and Prescod was a front-runner not only to qualify for the team, but to be part of a squad that had its eyes set on a first-ever Olympic gold medal for a USA Fencing team in any weapon.
Prescod, Ross and Kiefer have each been ranked individually in the top five in the world and each had discussed retirement after 2016, but their goal was one final Games together with the potential for Olympic gold on the line.
Since Prescod’s retirement, Kiefer has now earned the first of the four U.S. Women’s Foil Team berths to the Games with three remaining positions as both Ross and a host of first-time Olympic hopefuls compete in the final qualifiers before the team is named in April.
“We competed together for so long and, you never know what will happen at the Olympics, but we knew we had the potential to win in Tokyo,” Kiefer said. “I can’t imagine being there without Nzingha, but I know we’ll always support each other wherever we are.”
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