Peter Westbrook is determined to make fencing available to more people of color.
The son of a Japanese mother and Black father, Westbrook, who won a bronze medal in fencing in the 1984 Summer Olympics and competed in four other Games, started the Peter Westbrook Foundation in 1991 to help introduce inner-city kids in the New York City area to the sport.
The foundation currently helps 150 people, including some fencers competing in the Tokyo Olympics.
Westbrook says bringing inclusion to a sport that doesn’t traditionally appeal to people of color is especially gratifying.
“I feel like a proud father, oh, my God” he told TODAY. “And then I'm sending Black kids. And this is a lily white sport. I let the kids know: You have to see the brilliance of your Blackness. You got to see your light first, in order to make it shine.”
Westbrook, who served as flag bearer at the 1984 Games, took to fencing after growing up in the housing projects of Newark, New Jersey, where he came face to face with discrimination.
“I had to turn into a fighting machine, literally, to keep people off me," he said. "So when I had to translate or transfer in fencing, it was a natural transition, because I had to fight for a living. Now I have to fight for fun.”
His students say he has definitely made a difference in their lives.
“Peter’s like a father figure, a mentor, another competitor,” said 2016 silver medalist Daryl Homer, who's also competing in Tokyo. “His spirit and his energy is something that really holds us all together.”
“A lot of people say, ‘I didn't even know Black people fence.’ That's kind of pretty cool to say that, ‘No, I do fence and there are Black people that fence and more Black people are fencing and it's growing,’” 2020 Olympic fencer Khalil Thompson said.
Minority fencers have captured the spotlight in Tokyo so far. Lee Kiefer, who is Filipina American, became the first Asian American woman to win fencing gold in individual foil. She is also the second woman in American history to win a gold medal in fencing, following Mariel Zagunis in 1904.
Westbrook believes fencing teaches people the ability to learn from failure.
“In fencing, you lose more than you win,” he said. “So, by losing, you learn how to get up and fight and try harder.”
He also said he relishes the chance to turn lives around.
“I see myself in many of the kids — single parents’ home, not a lot of opportunities in their life,” he said.
“This sport saved my life, transformed my life, everything,” he said. “No matter how much I give back, it's never enough because I've been given so much. That's what motivates me.”