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THE SOUL IN THE SWORD
THE SOUL IN THE SWORD
By Art George -Special to BASN
The sport of fencing is combat with swords, and historically in the United States has been moneyed and elitist. This year’s U.S. Olympic team included Black faces under the sport’s white uniforms and, for one female, the Muslim hijab traditional head covering scarf; five of the 17 members of the team are Black. On top of those uniforms by the conclusion of the Games rested three Olympic medals. And behind those successes is the history and legacy of coach Peter Westbrook, who 32 years ago was America’s first Black Olympic individual medalist in fencing.
At Rio de Janiero, Daryl Homer won a silver in individual sabre and became the first American to win silver in that sport in 112 years; Westbrook had won a bronze with that weapon in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Ibtihaj Muhammad earned a bronze in women’s team sabre, becoming the first American to compete and the first American woman to earn a medal while wearing a hijab, which she wears in adherence to her Muslim faith. Miles Chamley-Watson took a bronze in team foil.
THE WESTBROOK FOUNDATION
Both Homer and Muhammad trained at the Peter Westbrook Foundation which Westbrook established in 1991 to introduce fencing to urban youth. It was his way to give back what had been given to him in training and success. More than 9,000 youngsters have since experienced his program of training and educational assistance, and 200 congregate each Saturday for lessons and practice.
Westbrook grew up poor in Newark, New Jersey. Born in 1952, less than a decade after the conclusion of World War II against Japan, he encountered particular hostilities as the biracial son of a Black father and Japanese mother. Even his home was a battlefield between his parents, until his father left and his mother remained.
He says that fencing saved his life, giving him a way to channel his youthful rage and get outside the housing project in which he lived. Westbrook’s autobiography is titled “Harnessing Anger: The Inner Discipline of Athletic Excellence.” He himself once called fencing “that strange white sport,” but went to the Olympics six times and was U.S. national champion in sabre for 13 years. Now he believes that fencing is a natural draw for youths who might otherwise be involved in more deadly street skirmishes: it’s combative, physical, athletic, and disciplined, and you get to play with a sword.
A vision of such swordplay is what engaged silver medalist Daryl Homer when as a child he first saw fencers pictured in a children’s dictionary and then several years later in a TV commercial fighting over a taxi. “The dude in the white outfit. He looked swagged up,” Homer recalled. ”And you put a sword in any kid’s hand, they’re going to like it.”
Miles Chamley-Watson agrees: “Every little kid loves playing with swords. And that’s exactly how I got my start in fencing. When I was young, I used to get in trouble all the time. I’d pick up sticks and poke my classmates and tell them ‘You’re it!’ I had to stay after school and get disciplined for this, and that’s how I discovered this incredible, historic sport. “
Fencing uses three weapons, with separate competitions for each for both individual and team medals in the Olympics. The sabre is a thinner version of the curved blade as used by cavalry horsemen, and is used for slashing or cutting at the opponent with the blade. The epee is a heavier weapon that most resembles swords used for dueling; the foil is thinner than the other two swords. Both epee and foil score with the point only. In epee, the whole body is the target; in foil, the target is only the torso. The weapons are not sharp: the tips are blunted.
Fencing is one of the five original Olympic sports, contested at every summer games since the 1896 Athens Olympics. Italy and France dominated Olympic fencing through the first half of the 20th century. Italy has remained strong, but Hungary and the former Soviet Union emerged as powers from the mid-century point onward. These teams simplified strategy and the geometry of offense and defense. The sport became more dynamic, the fencers more mobile, blade motion more fluid, even as critics said the sport had abandoned the formalism of its classical foundation which was based on dueling and the pretext that the weapons were lethal.
For Ibithaj Muhammad growing up Muslim in Maplewood, New Jersey, a suburb of Newark, the religious Muhammad family searched for a sport in which their daughter could remain modestly dressed. Still, Muhammad would often stand out by wearing sweatpants when others wore shorts or longer sleeves when others had their arms exposed. Fencing caught Muhammad’s mother’s attention because the body is already covered by a mask and protective tunic and long pants. Mrs. Muhammad suggested her daughter try the sport, which the young lady did in high school and then added work with Westbrook.
Though Muhammad sought out fencing because it fit her devout beliefs, she had to fight past those who believed she did not belong in the sport because of her race and religion. She went on to Duke University to become a three-time All-American, graduating in 2007.
Even as an Olympian, particularly as an Olympian, she encounters anti-Islamic hostility. She has feared being prevented from boarding flights on the way to Olympic qualifying meets because of her hijab or the fencing equipment she carries. She is routinely pulled aside for extended screening as her teammates are cleared to board airplanes. She compares fears and prejudice about Muslims now to what Japanese, such as Peter Westbrook’s mother, had encountered around the World War II era. Internment camps then, talk of closed borders now.
“America is all that I know. I feel American down to my bones. For anyone to challenge that idea, that I’m not American or that I don’t belong, it’s frustrating,” Muhammad has said. ”I’m African American. I don’t have another home to go to. My family was born here. I was born here. I’ve grown up in Jersey. All my family’s from Jersey. It’s like, well, where do we go?”
Miles Chamley-Watson was born in London, came to the United States at age 9 and eventually fenced at Penn State. He has created his own fencing move, called “The Chamley-Watson,” in which he strikes his challenger’s sword out of the way, draws his own weapon back across his body and around behind his head, even turning his back on his opponent, and then drops his point into the exposed rival.
It is an irregular move, disconcerting to opponents, used sparingly, and defies the fencing convention of keeping one’s weapon always directed at the adversary as if the weapons were sharp and deadly. It’s perceived as an exciting disruption even to modern fencing orthodoxy, a move that others dare not risk. Chamley-Watson can pull it off because he is lanky at 6’4,” and fast. He will use it if he is ahead in a bout, just to add some dash.
Daryl Homer was born in the Virgin Islands and grew up in the Bronx. He was a four-time All-American at St. John’s University. He also has a signature move, a leaping, flying lunge, called the “flunge,” by which he soars toward his opponent, cutting downward with the saber. The move offsets the height advantage that many of his opponents have over him; they may be taller, but he takes his game up higher and brings it closer.
Muhammad, Chamley-Watson and Homer have each said that they enjoy the aggressive nature of fencing competition. “It’s the closest representation of who I am,” Muhammad told The New York Times. “I’m very aggressive, that’s who I am.” Chamley-Watson says he still seethes with the anger of having been raised in a single-parent home, like Peter Westbrook, and uses fencing to inflict that anger on this opponent. Afterwards, they can be friendly; he has vented his anger on the fencing strip. Homer has said that when he scores a point, “You can feel your opponent’s soul kinda leaving when your sword touches. It’s that slow, whoosh,” he told SB Nation, simulating the opponent’s soul leaving. “You can feel it.”
It is combat, with swords.