Westbrook, Peter 1952–
Peter Westbrook 1952–
Olympic fencer, foundation executive
As a young boy growing up in the Hayes Homes Projects in Newark, New Jersey, Peter West-brook used to fantasize that he would swing down from the church balcony with his sword in hand and perform daring rescues. “I wanted to be Zorro all my life,” he related in his autobiography Harnessing Anger. While his life story may not always have been of storybook quality, Westbrook has truly made his mark with his sword.
Peter Westbrook was born on April 16, 1952 in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents had met while his father, an African American Army corporal, was stationed in Kobe, Japan after World War II. His mother was part of the wealthy Japanese Catholic minority, and her father worked for the Japanese government in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. By the time Peter celebrated his first birthday, his sister Vivian was born, and the family had moved to Newark, where his father worked as a bartender. The family remained in Newark for the next 12 years.
Domestic abuse marred Westbrook’s early childhood years, and his parents divorced by the time he was five. His mother earned a meager salary assembling television picture tubes. She also found employment cleaning the priest’s rectory at St. Peter’s Catholic School and serving drinks at the parish bingo in exchange for her son’s school tuition. Although his family was poor, Westbrook remembers living in a comfortable home imbued with his mother’s strong values. His mother instilled within him the belief that good manners, tenacity, and sound discipline would help him to succeed. In Harnessing Anger, Westbrook summarized his mother’s philosophy: “And if we should survive the fight, we should get up and fight some more … I was raised militaristically.”
After graduating from St. Peter’s, Westbrook enrolled at the predominantly white Essex Catholic High School in 1967. Westbrook’s mother believed that enrolling her son in a private school would teach him self-discipline and keep him away from the violence of the streets. The school also offered an excellent fencing program. Raised in a family with a history of samurai warriors, Westbrook’s mother encouraged her son to
At a Glance…
Career: Computer salesman, IBM, 1975–78; Pitney Bowes, 1978–79; marketing director, North American Van Lines, 1979–90; 54ime member U.S. Olympic fencing team (1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992); 6-time member U.S. Pan American Games fencing team (1975, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1995); 11-time member U.S. World Championships team (1974–75, 1978–79, 1981–82; 1985, 1987, 1989–91 ); 13-time U.S. National Champion, men’s sabre (1974–75, 1979–86, 1988–89, 1995); 9-timeparticipant, U.S. Olympic Festival (1978–81, 1983, 1985–86, 1989, 1991, 1993); member U.S. National Team 1989–95.
Awards: Bronze medal, individual men’s sabre, 1984 Olympic Games; bronze medal 1975, gold medal 1979, 1983, 1995, silver medal, 1987, individual men’s sabre, Pan American Games; member, silver medal team, Pan American Games 1975–91; member, gold-medal team, Pan American Games, 1995; gold medal, 1978, 1981, 1983, 1985–1986, 1989, 1993, silver medal, 1979, bronze medal, 1991, Olympic Festival; USFA Athlete of the Year 1980, 1983–84, 1989; New York University Sports Hall of Fame, 1985; Sports Image Award, 1995; F. Don Miller Award, US Olympic Committee, 1996; USFA Hail of Fame, 1996; New York Public Library Best Books for the “Teen Age” 1998; Distinguished Alumnus Award, New York University, 1998; Japanese American of the Biennium Award, Japanese American Citizen League, 1998.
Member; Board of directors, US- Olympic Committee.
Addresses; Office —The Peter Westbrook Foundation, G.P.O. Box 7554, New York, NY 10116; 212-459-4538.
become interested in the sport and paid him five dollars for each lesson he completed. Westbrook was immediately attracted to the sport and soon attended lessons willingly.
Under the guidance of Samuel D’ambola, Westbrook first began training with the sabre, the military sword favored by cavalry captains and pirates. Fighting came naturally to Westbrook, for in many ways it mirrored life on the streets. Moreover, as a minority student attending a predominantly white school, Westbrook struggled with his identity. In Harnessing Anger, he recalled the advice of his friends’, “Pete, don’t say you’re black, ’cause you’re not. Your mother is Japanese.” Becoming a successful fencer, however, “brought me a feeling of acceptance that I never had before.” During both his junior and senior years, Westbrook was selected as captain of the fencing team.
Although his mother strongly encouraged him to complete his college applications, Westbrook’s only interest during his senior year was to be the best high school fencer in New Jersey. However, New York University recognized his talents as a fencer and offered Westbrook a full scholarship, which he accepted. He initially enrolled in the School of Education because, it had the easiest admissions process. Realizing that he was uncomfortable speaking in front of others, Westbrook decided to enter the School of Business instead. However, he ultimately discovered that teaching was much easier than communicating with business people.
Westbrook discovered that his impoverished background left him ill-prepared for the transition to college life. He lacked many of the social skills that others take for granted. As Westbrook remarked in Harnessing Anger, “Grinding poverty in the land of plenty does deprive people of some of the common civilities that we generally take for granted. You are forced to conform to the law of the jungle.” Fencing became his saving grace because it was “the only positive force in my life… It gave me goals and a sense of accomplishment and self-worth.”
In 1972, at the suggestion of his college coaches, Westbrook began training with the Hungarian sabrist Csaba Elthes at the New York Fencers Club. Considered the best sabre coach in the United States, Elthes proved to be physically and emotionally abusive. Westbrook stopped training with Elthes after just one month at the club.
This negative experience did not diminish Westbrook’s love for fencing and he continued competing as a member of New York University’s fencing team. In 1973, Westbrook won the NCAA fencing championships and was considered the nation’s best college sabrist. One year later, he decided to train for the Olympic fencing team. He retained Csaba Elthes as his coach and began training with him seven days a week, five to six hours each day. Westbrook’s hard work paid off when he won the 1974 U.S. Fencing Association’s National Championship, becoming the first African American and one of the youngest competitors ever to win the tournament. He would eventually capture 13 national titles and become one of the most successful American sabrists of all time.
In 1976, Westbrook was named to the U.S. Olympic team and attended the Summer Olympics in Montreal. Four days before the fencing competition, he tore two ligaments in his left ankle. Despite the injury, Westbrook decided to compete and finished in 13th place.
Fencing had become a dominant force in Westbrook’s life. Although most of his energies were consumed by fencing, he supported himself by working as a computer salesman for IBM. Westbrook soon discovered that the discipline and concentration he developed as a fencer served him well in the business world. As he related in Harnessing Anger, “The skills of concentration and analysis that I have developed have taught me not to let my anger become a controlling factor, but rather to keep it as a reservoir of energy that I can use to my advantage.” Following stints with IBM and Pitney Bowes, Westbrook worked with North American Van Lines for 11 years, ultimately serving as marketing director.
Despite his career responsibilities, Westbrook continued to fence competitively and won several competitions. He was also named to the 1984 Olympic fencing team and won a bronze medal, becoming the first African American to win a fencing medal and the first American to win a fencing medal in 36 years. Westbrook also competed in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games and carried the American flag during the closing ceremonies of the 1992 Olympics. In 1994, he competed in the Pan American Games and carried the American flag during the opening ceremonies.
During his fencing career, it became clear to Westbrook that his experiences growing up in the projects and the unresolved anger that he harbored towards his abusive father provided him with ample energy to fence successfully. Rooted in the framework of the ghetto, he envisioned his opponents as his prisoners for life. “[B]eing an African American in America gives me the fuel I need [to stay one of the top sabrists.]” he related in Harnessing Anger, “The extra edge comes from all that was missing from my relationship with my father. The more social injustice I see, the more my store of anger against injustice increases. I have an ax to grind. [F]encing is where I channel all my anger.” Also, being successful in what has traditionally been considered a “white, elitist sport,” helped Westbrook to feel adequate and escape the insecurities and poverty of his childhood. Fencing also gave Westbrook the opportunities to avoid many of the pitfalls that destroyed the lives of others. As he remarked in an interview with Richard Wolkemir of Smithsonian, “Of the kids I grew up with, about five percent are on drugs right now, and five percent are in prison, and 90 percent are dead.
In 1987, Westbrook began to channel his energies and the lessons he had learned into helping others. His friend, entrepreneur and businessman Tom Shepard, suggested that they organize a fencing clinic for inner-city children. Westbrook built upon the idea and, in February of 1991, the Peter Westbrook Foundation was launched at the New York Fencers Club in Manhattan. On opening day, only six children took part. One week later, however, 40 students participated and the numbers have continued to grow exponentially. In 1998, the Foundation hosted 80–100 students between the ages of nine and 17 every Saturday morning for three hours. All of the instructors are African American males, many of whom are Olympic medalists. The mission of Westbrook’s foundation is clear: the “Development of the Individual Through Fencing.” Westbrook hopes to use fencing to inspire his students to develop their bodies and minds and offer them an alternative to life on the streets.
Westbrook’s students are certainly passionate about fencing. As he noted in Harnessing Anger, “Since fencing is a combat sport, the transition from life to fencing is a very natural one for kids from this kind of background.” During the week Westbrook and his coaches work one-on-one with the most talented and dedicated students, refining their skills for competition at the highest levels. In 1996, two of his students made the under-17 and under-20 world championships teams. In January of 1997, one of his students placed first in the U.S. National Tournament. At the Junior World Championships in Valencia, Venezuela in May of 1998, six of the 28 U.S. representatives had trained at the Foundation, and Westbrook’s team boasted the only individual medalist. Four of his students have attended Ivy League schools on fencing scholarships.
Fencing offers Westbrook the opportunity to teach his students about winning and losing gracefully, managing stress, controlling emotions, and striving for excellence. “Excellence,” he repeatedly reminds his students, “is no accident.” Westbrook further realizes that his students must excel in school as well as in fencing. He holds his students to strict academic standards, even monitoring the report cards of his elite students. He also employs tutors, paying them $25 per hour to help his students with their homework. Westbrook also invites exemplary African Americans from the inner city to speak with his students and encourage them to excel. Ultimately, as his mother once desired, Westbrook hopes to use fencing as a gimmick to make his students more well-rounded, more productive members of society, and to make them feel special.
Funding is now the major issue facing the Peter Westbrook Foundation. Students contribute only what they can afford. “If they could only afford a quarter, I tell them to pay a quarter,” Westbrook recounted in Emerge “I want to teach children the value of investing in themselves.” The maximum tuition is $25 per semester. From 1995 to 1997, Westbrook received a $35,000 annual grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee, and the remainder of the funding comes from private donations. Celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Neil Diamond, himself a former New York University fencer, have also contributed financial support. Westbrook himself draws no salary. In 1998 Westbrook raised a total of $125,000–130,000, not including all of the contributed in-kind services he received. He hopes to raise seven times that amount of money in the coming years. Eventually, Westbrook hopes to hire a full-time staff person and a fundraiser so that he can focus primarily on the school and his students.
When not training students or soliciting funds, Westbrook travels throughout the country as a motivational speaker. He concentrates his efforts on preaching to troubled youth in schools, churches, and homeless shelters to inspire them to realize their full potential. His speeches generally focus on how all individuals are different and yet all similar in their struggles.
Westbrook now lives in Harlem with his wife Susann, and his step-son Dorian. “I am certain,” he claimed in Harnessing Anger, “that living in a positive black environment helps me to communicate and contribute not only to black people, but to our society as a whole.” Westbrook hopes that others can draw strength and encouragement from his example so that they can also conquer their own personal difficulties. “We need to develop enough self-awareness not to pass on our own faults,” he remarked in Harnessing Anger, “Only then can we empower young people to overcome the obstacles blocking their growth.”
Perpetually enhancing the Peter Westbrook Foundation in order to address the various needs of today’s youth is Westbrook’s lifelong commitment. Through his mentoring program, he wants to help children to constructively focus their energies on academics and improve their social behavior within their families and communities. Westbrook would like to stay with the foundation until he dies. As he related to CBB, “When I die, I would like it [the foundation] to be set up so that it will be endowed to keep the program running so that the legacy continues. I want to make sure the foundation is self-sufficient and great people are in charge working to save the lives of our children.”
Booklist, May 15, 1997, p. 1555.
Christian Science Monitor, July 10, 1996, p. 15.
Emerge, September 1997, p. 18.
Jet, July 16, 1984, p. 56.
New York Amsterdam News, June 18–24, 1998, p. 55.
New York Times, June 8, 1997, p. VII:25; June 12, 1998.
People Weekly, June 16, 1997, p. 71–72.
Publishers Weekly, April 28, 1997, p. 61.
Smithsonian, June 1996, p. 76–84.
Sports Illustrated, July 15, 1996, p. 50.
Sports Illustrated for Kids, July 1997, p. 21.
Westbrook, Peter. Harnessing Anger, Seven Stories Press, 1997.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the ESPNET, SportsZone, and Team USA Biographies Websites; promotional materials from the Peter Westbrook Foundation; and an October 8, 1998, interview with Lisa S. Weitzman.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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