It’s hard for Nzingha Prescod to find the time to sit down for an interview. Even during the Winter Recess, she travels from her home in Brooklyn to the Fencer’s Club on West 25th Street in Manhattan, training for about 25 hours a week, six days a week.
Prescod is currently ranked first in the national women’s cadet group (for fencers 17 years or younger), the junior category (20 years or younger) and the senior group (all ages). Last year she narrowly missed qualifying for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, partly, she said, because some key competitions interfered with school.
During the first semester of the 2008-2009 school year she has already traveled to national and international fencing tournaments in Slovakia, France, Montreal, St. Louis and Colorado Springs, all of which she won. When I finally had a chance to sit down with her (after she emerged from a practice at the Fencer’s Club), I asked her about balancing schoolwork, training, and competition.
The Spectator: Can you tell us how you first got interested in fencing?
Nzingha Prescod: One day mom saw an article in the Daily News about the Peter Westbrook Foundation (the club I represent, although I train at the Fencer’s Club), which met every Saturday morning to expose city youth to fencing. She brought me and my sister there in 2001, when I was nine. A couple months after that we were put in the after-school program at the Fencer’s Club, and ever since then I’ve been fencing.
TS: Tell us about your first competition.
NP: My first competition was a disaster! I came in 13th out of only 16 fencers. It was a 10-and-under (Y10) Regional event at the Armory in Harlem on 168th Street. I was nine at the time, and I remember being so confident, then losing so badly. I also remember not knowing how to put on my equipment because I had only started fencing a few months before. A year later I fenced another Y10 and won.
TS: When did you start competing internationally?
NP: When I was 13, in 2006. My first tournament was in Jena, Germany, and I came like 44th. The year after, at the same tournament, I won and it seemed crazy because no one expected me to win. Since no one expected it though, there wasn’t any pressure, but I was still nervous. I was so nervous that I threw up on the first day.
TS: What was it like competing for a spot in the Olympics?
NP: It was so stressful. The international senior level is much more intense than the junior level, especially because it was Olympic year last year. The girls were a lot bigger than me, and most of them were more experienced and really intimidating. It was definitely a nerve-wracking experience, but I’m glad I did it so that I know what competing at a senior international level is like for this year.
TS: Now that you’re competing internationally, has your training regimen changed?
NP: Not significantly. I always trained a lot so it’s not too much different. Maybe to other people it seems like a lot though. For senior world cups, which I have to do more of this year, I have to take longer and harder lessons with my coach, and do more footwork to be able to keep up with the older, more experienced seniors.
TS: With all that training and globetrotting, how do you manage to find time for schoolwork?
NP: Well, a lot of times I don’t do work at tournaments because I make myself believe I’ll finish it on the plane, which never ends up happening. Recently my coach has been forcing me to do at least an hour every day, because I don’t have enough discipline to make myself do it. When I’m not away I try to do some during practice and on the train and stuff. I try to finish as much as possible before I get home.
TS: Tell us more about your recent competition in France.
NP: It was a cadet world cup, so there were a lot of kids my age and a little younger. Going into the tournament, people expected me to win. It gets rather annoying because it just adds pressure. […] The gold medal bout was against another American, Luona Wang. I’ve fenced her a lot, and in the beginning it was pretty close. I’d get one; she’d get one. We got to nine. I was exhausted by then, but I got an adrenaline rush, thank god, and I jumped ahead. The end score was 15-10.
TS: So where did you stay during all of this?
NP: During this tournament I stayed in a Hotel Ibis, which is a hotel chain in Europe. I hate European rooms. They’re so tiny and their beds are so short. It was like a box, and the food in the hotel sucked.
TS: What is the most exciting place you have gone for a competition?
NP: Usually we don’t get to see much of the city unless we stay for an extra couple of days to train, or if we have back to back competitions in Europe. So far my favorite city is probably Budapest, in Hungary. I lived there for three weeks in February during the senior season because the tournaments were one after the other. After every tournament we’d fly back to Budapest and train there. My mom was with me, so we’d go sightseeing and shopping together. One of my friends lives there, so she showed us around too.
TS: What made Budapest so exciting?
NP: Well, my mom and I were able to see a lot of the city because we were there for so long. We got to go to the famous opera and the Turkish baths. Also we saw a Hungarian movie and ate really traditional Hungarian food. Their pastries are fantastic!
TS: So have you made friends all over the world through fencing? NP: Yes. Most of the fencers are really sociable and want to be friends with the Americans. In the past few years I’ve gotten close with a few German, Hungarian and French kids. This summer my German friend came to New York for 16 days just to visit.
TS: Sounds like you’re doing a great job of balancing your burgeoning fencing career with high school life.
NP: Yeah, it can get a bit overwhelming and frustrating at times, but it’s all worth it because fencing is what I love doing. It has truly been a rewarding experience.
TS: Looking ahead, what are your goals for the future?
NP: I definitely plan on going to the Olympics in 2012, 2016 and maybe 2020. Hopefully a medal will be in my prospects. This year the senior team got a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics, so anything is possible. American fencing has come a long way since Europeans dominated in the 20th century.