About three hours before having her braces removed, 19 year-old Nzingha Prescod showed off her first tattoo. On her left rib cage were five, small interlocking circles suspended above an olive wreath and the number 2012. This July, Prescod will be competing in the summer Olympic games on the US national fencing team for the first time. She says that an impulse led her inside the “rinky dink” neighborhood parlor—yet her first tattoo symbolizes ten years of meticulous regimens and hard work.
“You have to stay focused and do the same routine everyday,” said Prescod, a rising sophomore at Columbia University. She took leave last year to dedicate her self solely to fencing. After competing in eight fencing World Cup Series and three national competitions last year, she earned the second of only three spots onto the women’s foil team.
On July 28, the second day of the games, Prescod will compete in both the individual bout and team bout. She hopes to win a medal in both events and says that “anything can happen in the Olympics.” Prescod seldom shares her Olympic news with others, but often leaves listeners dumbfounded when they hear the sport. “I guess I don’t look like a typical fencer,” says Prescod. “It’s typically considered a white man’s sport. There aren’t a lot of Black fencers in the sport.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Prescod discovered fencing at the age of nine, when her St. Vincent-born mother Marva read about the prestigious Peter Westbrook Foundation–a fencing clinic based in New York City for youth from underserved communities—in a newspaper. Learning about participants who would be going to that year’s Olympic games inspired her to sign both of her daughters up for the foundation’s Saturday fencing lessons.
“I thought, somebody’s got to go [to the Olympics,] why not my kids?” said Marva.
As a young girl, Prescod seemed destined for athletic greatness, having excelled at nearly every extracurricular activity conceivable, including gymnastics, tennis, piano, ballet, baseball, and swimming. However, once placed in the Peter Westbrook Foundation, the young athlete demonstrated an exceptional talent and fierce passion for fencing and was soon offered a scholarship for advanced instruction at the foundation’s homebase, The Fencers Club. At first glance alone, the chances may have seemed slim based on Nzhinga's inner-city upbringing— which typically produces more children bouncing balls than wielding pointed foils.
“I really think fencing is a sport more minorities should be involved in,” Prescod said, one recent Wednesday afternoon at the Fencers Club. Her once freshly coiffed hair, pressed straight by her older sister the night before, now clung to her damp forehead after a few drills with a fellow club member and friend. “Sports like basketball and football, where a lot of people compete in it, it’s a really competitive field. Fencing is a smaller community so there are more chances to do well, to get somewhere, and to be really successful.”
Including Prescod, only four of the sixteen team members on the 2012 national fencing team are Black, a low statistic that clearly demonstrates the racial makeup of the sport in general. Prescod represents an even smaller minority as the only African-American female on the team.
As for Prescod’s fencing role models, she points to Olympic medalist and PWF alumni Erinn Smart, 32, as a life-long mentor. Prescod says Smart advised her on everything from learning her own strengths to transitioning into international competing. “Through my career, she’s been there,” said Prescod, who also now teaches the foundation’s younger generation. “Once you’re at a higher level, you teach younger kids so they can fill your spots,” she said.
Between now and the Olympics, Prescod will continue to travel and train before heading to London on July 15. Winning is high on her list of things to do while in London, but so is meeting fellow Olympians, watching other events, and getting complimentary gear. Still, fencing has taught the Olympian focus in the face of busy movement.
“It’s a game of chess,” she added. “You’re thinking of the move you should do and how you should execute it.”
Prescod has checkmated the competition for the past decade and shows no signs of stopping.
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Patrice Peck is a writer and journalist whose work explores the intersection of race, culture, and identity. Her work lives at www.patricepeck.com.