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African-American Fencers Aim to Make History in Rio

02/28/2014, 11:30pm CST
By Nicole Jomantas

(Colorado Springs, Colo.) – Last summer, Miles Chamley-Watson (New York City, N.Y.) made history as he became the first U.S. men’s foil fencer to win a Senior World title and the first U.S. man to win individual gold at the event.

Chamley-Watson also reached another milestone in 2013 when he became the first African-American fencer ever to win an individual Senior World title.

Ranked as high as No. 2 in the world prior to competing at the London Olympic Games, Chamley-Watson just missed winning bronze at the 2010 Senior Worlds and his breakthrough in Budapest just five months ago made him a hero for young fencers around the nation.

“A lot of kids see me as an inspiration and that helps drive me to try and do it again,” Chamley-Watson said. “Fencing is known as more of a Caucasian sport a lot of times, but winning Worlds encouraged me to keep working hard and I know my teammates are all doing the same, so I may have been the first, but I hopefully won’t be the only one.”

In fact, three of Chamley-Watson’s teammates at the 2013 Senior World Championships are African-American fencers who have their sights set on the 2016 Olympic Games.

London Olympian Nzingha Prescod (Brooklyn, N.Y.) made history in 2013 when she won gold at the Marseille Grand Prix, becoming the first U.S. women’s foil fencer to earn a Grand Prix title.

Prescod quickly returned to the podium this season with a silver medal win at the Gdansk Grand Prix earlier this month in Poland and has climbed to No. 6 in the world rankings while still a junior at Columbia.

She said that one of the best aspects of fencing is that she can tailor the sport to her strengths.

“What’s most important for fencing, besides training hard and consistently and having the drive to win, is knowing what you're good at on the strip and honing that. Then you can develop a repertoire that complements it so you have a semi-organized system of actions you can rotate through,” she said.

Prescod is one of thousands of fencers who were introduced to fencing through the Peter Westbrook Foundation.

Founded by Peter Westbrook (New York City, N.Y.), a six-time Olympian and 1984 Olympic medalist, the foundation’s mission is to bring fencing to youth from underserved communities.

The program has become one of the most successful clubs in the country, not only at reaching athletes from all backgrounds, but also at creating Olympians.

Since 2000, Westbrook has had an athlete on every Olympic Team with Beijing Olympians Keeth and Erinn Smart (Brooklyn, N.Y.) becoming the program’s first Olympic medalists in 2008.

Three-time Senior World team medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad (Maplewood, N.J.) also represents PWF and she grew up with Westbrook as one of her role models.  

“When I think about what he has accomplished as a minority fencer, during times when there were still remnants of fascism and racism, I am in awe. He was able to overcome adversity, both on and off the strip, despite the cards he was given,” Muhammad said. “What is best about Peter isn’t his Olympic medal or his other athletic achievements, but how big his heart is. He is one of the most giving people that I know. He saw what sport did for him and how it changed the path if his life and decided that he would dedicate his life to do the same for other inner city and minority youth.”

A bronze medalist in team saber at the last three Senior World Championships, Muhammad’s ultimate goal is to represent Team USA at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro where she could become the first U.S. woman to compete in a hijab.

It's not easy being a hijabi or minority on the international sports circuit. I hope that my journey as a minority athlete encourages others to challenge cultural and societal norms. I take on every obstacle I face because I hope to make it easier for the minorities who come after me.  I have found my voice through sports and hope to leave a lasting impression on the world when I'm done,” said Muhammad who dedicates her time off the fencing strip to being a sports ambassador for the U.S. Department of State through the Council to Empower Women and Girls.

London Olympian Daryl Homer (Bronx, N.Y.) grew up idolizing many of the top professional athletes that his classmates did and lists Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Ken Griffey Jr. as being some of his favorites.

But growing up as a saber fencer in New York also meant that Homer had role models virtually in his backyard as Keeth Smart and 2004 Olympian Ivan Lee (Cambria Heights, N.Y.) were making their mark on the international scene as Homer was first beginning to compete at the national level.

Now friends with the athletes who he looked up to as a child, Homer describes the African American community in fencing as a tight-knit one and says one of his greatest challenges is living up to the expectations of the generations proceeding him.

“Peter Westbrook, Don Anthony, Keeth Smart, Ivan Lee … there’s so many really strong African American fencers, particularly in saber, that there’s a lot of expectations. But it’s also a great support network and you always have people looking out for you,” Homer said.

Homer plans to make his mentors proud in Rio where he hopes to follow a top eight finish in London with a trip to the top of the podium in 2016.

“The goal for Rio is definitely gold.”

With Chamley-Watson, Prescod and Muhammad each striving for the same goal, any of the four athletes could become the first African American fencer to win gold at the Olympic Games, but all four have already begun inspiring the next generation. 

Miles Chamley-Watson.

Daryl Homer.

Nzingha Prescod.

Ibtihaj Muhammad.

Tag(s): News  Daryl Homer  Miles Chamley-Watson