Peter Westbrook is turning inner-city kids into America's top
Since fencers don't earn points for backstabbing, Keeth Smart
decided to tell his opponent right to his face what he thought
of his tactics. Never mind that the foe for this training bout
in New York City was Smart's coach, the retired six-time
Olympian, 47-year-old Peter Westbrook. "Second time you stepped
on my foot," snapped Smart, who at 21 is the top-ranked sabre
fencer in the U.S. as well as a two-time NCAA champion at St.
John's. "Sorry, Keeth," Westbrook replied. "Accident, you know.
Probably an accident."
Apologies and weapons extended, Westbrook won the bout 15-11.
"Old man still doing good," Westbrook said. Then he pulled Smart
aside and the real work began, a counseling session between the
venerable Westbrook and his protege. "See, Keeth, you get mad
like this and like this and like that and you lose three, four,
five points in a row, uh-huh," said Westbrook. "Stay mad and it
won't get any better."
By instilling that spirit of self-discipline, Westbrook has been
working wonders with inner-city swashbucklers since 1991, when
he and Olympic teammate Mika'il Sankofa (known then as Michael
Lofton) recruited six black children to come to Westbrook's
first fencing class. Enrollment in what became the Peter
Westbrook Foundation is now roughly 100. "No question, fencing
gave me my life," says Westbrook, who grew up in Newark. "If not
for fencing, I would have been another city kid on drugs, taking
my hurt out on somebody else."
Westbrook's foundation has become one of the most successful
inner-city sports programs in the country. Four of the top five
sabre fencers in the U.S. have come through it, including Smart,
Akhi Spencer-El and Herby Reynaud, members of the four-man U.S.
team that won a bronze medal at the Pan Am Games in August. Last
year Spencer-El became the first American to be ranked as the
world's No. 1 junior in sabre. Keeth's 19-year-old sister,
Erinn, who also trains under Westbrook, is the No. 3 American in
women's foil. The foundation emphasizes education as well as
fencing and has helped several participants get scholarships at
colleges and New York City private schools.
Westbrook has a simple rule: Do well in school or don't fence.
He hires tutors and holds bimonthly essay-writing contests,
awarding $50 prizes to the top three entrants. He charges kids
for private lessons so they'll feel obligated to get the most
from their investment. The fee is a rock-bottom $20 a year, and
he often reduces even that by asking, "So what can you pay?"
Westbrook began fencing when he was five. He used a knife to
carve a Z for Zorro in his mother's coffee table, and she
insisted he take a fencing lesson, hoping it would help him mend
his ways. Westbrook went on to win 13 national titles before
retiring after the 1996 Atlanta Games. His bronze in '84, at Los
Angeles, was the first Olympic medal by a U.S. fencer since 1960.
Last year Westbrook raised enough money to stake the foundation
to a $97,000 budget, enough to pay for tutors, equipment,
coaching help and travel to World Cup events. Even so,
Westbrook, whose wife, Susann, is an accountant, has at times
had to dip into his savings to keep the operation going.
"At first Peter had a nice dream: keep kids from drugs, give
weekly structure--it was fantasy, really," says Aladar Kogler,
who has coached seven Czech or U.S. Olympic teams. "Then came
the results and the grades and the champions."
When Westbrook introduced Harvey Miller to the sport a year ago,
the high school junior had nothing but D's and F's on his report
card. Last week in Pittsburgh he placed 28th in his first
national tournament, then hurried home to New York for the night
classes and SAT courses that Westbrook is paying for. "Tell
people what we do here and they think it's an exaggeration,"
says Miller, whose worst grade last semester was an A-minus. "I
just think fencing does something to your brain. Or maybe it's
Old man still doing good. Uh-huh.
Bela Karolyi Returns
A GOOD FIX FOR THE U.S.
Even though he retired three years ago as the most celebrated
gymnastics coach ever, Bela Karolyi hasn't stopped collecting
trophies. He has caught wild boar in his native Romania and
collared moose, caribou and grizzlies in Alaska. This summer in
Hungary he bagged his first elk. "The head was about 10 kilos and
a half, but that was only good for a silver medal," says Karolyi,
who would have preferred a bigger kill. "First place is the best
It sure beats sixth, which was the spot the U.S. women's team
sank to at the world championships in Tianjin, China, two months
ago. What's more, the defending Olympic champions also failed to
take any individual medals. When Bob Colarossi, the no-nonsense
president of USA Gymnastics, returned from China, he called
Karolyi and asked him to assume the newly created position of
national team coordinator. Karolyi enthusiastically accepted. "I
gave a lot of years seeing this country become a gymnastics
power," says Karolyi. "I'm not happy when I see 18 years of
coaching here going down the drain."
Karolyi, 57, guided Romania's Nadia Comaneci to the all-around
title at the 1976 Olympics, and after emigrating to the U.S. in
1981, he coached Mary Lou Retton to the same crown in '84. He
was a member of the U.S. coaching staff at the last four Summer
Olympics. In his new role he will organize mandatory monthly
training camps for Sydney hopefuls, help select the team's head
coach after the Olympic trials in Boston next August and travel
to any elite gym that requests his counsel.
The decision to bring back such a headstrong personality as
Karolyi so late in the Olympic quadrennium is risky. Getting the
current U.S. coaches to mesh with him and buy into his
philosophies will be a challenge. In practice, Karolyi preached
repetition and stamina over aesthetics, infusing youngsters with
the optimism that they could do in competition what they'd
successfully done countless times in the gym. Other gymnasts may
have pointed their toes better, but Karolyi's charges nailed
their dismounts when it counted. His emotion on the sidelines
also pushed judges into forking over extra tenths when scoring
his athletes, something he won't be able to accomplish as an
Karolyi believes that the U.S. team should get a medal in
Sydney, and he singles out Vanessa Atler, Kristin Maloney, Elise
Ray and Jennie Thompson as capable of winning individual medals.
"Holy moley, do we have a talent pool in this country," he says,
"but we must have the fight in us. Mary Lou, she knew she was a
winner. On this team, I believe we have some tigers like that."
Leon Stukelj, 1898-1999
SLOVENIAN LORD OF THE RINGS
When Leon Stukelj was introduced at the New York Athletic Club
last year as the oldest living Olympic champion, the 99-year-old
former gymnast was using the furniture as an apparatus. "You
welcome me," he said as he lifted himself on a chair's arms and
pulled his legs up until they were perpendicular to his chest,
"and I perform for you." Stukelj (pronounced SHTOO-kel) died on
Nov. 8, four days before his 101st birthday.
The self-trained Slovenian represented Yugoslavia at the first
world championships, in 1922, when gymnastic competitions
included the rope climb, high jump, shot put and 50-meter swim.
By the time he ended his Olympic career at the 1936 Berlin
Games, Stukelj had won six medals, including three golds.
After a brief imprisonment for opposing the Communist regime
that assumed power in Yugoslavia following World War II, Stukelj
became a lawyer and judge in the Slovenian city of Maribor. When
Slovenia gained independence in 1991, his image appeared on
phone cards, coins and the nation's first postage stamp.
"The Olympics must be in good health," Stukelj said last year.
"They have survived as long as me."
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Westbrook (center) has helped Spencer-El (far left) and Smart excel in class and on the piste.
COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN SHAVER/AFP Despite a poor U.S. performance in China, Atler (above) could get a medal next year, says Karolyi.