In a 2009 interview with The Spectator, fencer and alumnus Nzingha Prescod (’10) said, “I definitely plan on going to the Olympics in 2012, 2016, and maybe 2020.” In fact, the Olympics have been Prescod’s dream since she was a little girl, and now, at 20, she has returned from London as a member of the United States Olympic Fencing Team.
Fencers are chosen for the team based on their positions in the National Rolling Points Standings (NRPS). Fencers accumulate points by finishing well at national and international competitions. After the last points-awarding event of the season, the top three fencers on the NRPS in each of the three weapons—foil, epee, and saber—become the starting members of the Olympic team, and the fourth-ranked fencers become the substitutes. By the end of July 2012, Prescod was the third-ranked foilist in the country with 6767 points. She is currently ranked second in the country and 21st in the world.
Prescod began fencing at the age of nine because her mom “made sure I was really active so I did a ton of sports,” she said in an e-mail interview. “She heard about the Peter Westbrook Foundation when I was nine and enrolled my sister and [me] in the program.”
The Peter Westbrook Foundation (PWF) is an organization founded by Olympic bronze medalist Peter Westbrook (1984 Games, in saber) that, according to the foundation’s website, uses fencing “as a vehicle for developing life skills in inner-city youth.” PWF offers fencing classes, tutoring, and test preparation to its members. Through the program, Prescod was connected with Anthony “Buckie” Leach, her coach of 11 years.
Leach gained widespread acclaim for his coaching achievements at Rochester Fencing Center, before moving to the Fencers Club in New York City, where he still coaches today. “Buckie is an amazing coach, and I couldn’t have gotten to this point without him,” Prescod said. “I’m so blessed that he moved to [New York] just as I started fencing.”
A few months after she started fencing, Prescod fenced her first competition—a 10-and-under event (Y10) in Harlem. She finished 13th out of 16 fencers, but a year later, she came in first at another Y10. As she rapidly improved, she widened her competitive radius to regional, super-regional, and national events, with Leach coaching her from strip-side, often making cross-country trips on his motorcycle to be there. She won her first national event at age 10 in Austin, Texas. When she was 13, Prescod fenced at her first international competition in Germany. She finished in the round of 64, outside of the top 32 who gain NRPS points. However, the following year, she won the tournament. And since then, she has won gold in multiple Cadet World Championships (for under-17 fencers), the Junior World Championship (for under-20 fencers), and the team event at the Pan American Championships. For a stretch in the 2008-2009 season, she was ranked second in the world.
On top of all of her international competing and traveling, Prescod still managed to participate on the girl’s fencing team, the Untouchables, during her first three years at Stuyvesant. Even though her practice time with the team was limited by her busy schedule, “she was a great inspiration,” said Joel Winston, who coaches both the boys’ and girls’ fencing teams. “I was really happy that she made the Olympics. And [that’s] the best of the best of the best.”
At the last national competition in April before the Olympic team was determined, Prescod had such a lead on the NRPS that she did not even have to fence to secure a spot. In early July, Prescod attended an Olympic training camp in Anaheim, California, along with teammates Doris Willette, Lee Kiefer, and Nicole Ross. Also a member of the Fencers Club, Ross has fenced with Prescod since childhood. At the camp, the squad reviewed drills, bouted, and strategized for its draw against South Korea in the team competition in London.
This whole year, however, has been one of intense training and preparation for Prescod. She took the year off from Columbia University so that she could practice at least five days a week. “She does a footwork program [and] a physical training program,” Leach said. “She’s physically pretty strong so we don’t have to spend a huge amount of time with that. Mostly this year, especially during the competitive season, the focus is more on [fencing] quality work.”
Prescod also had private lessons with Leach during the day, in which they practiced technique, strategies, particular situations, and different fencing actions. Later in the afternoon, she would fence practice bouts against other people at the club, often working on individual skills from the day’s lesson. But the strenuous training is not an issue for Prescod. “I was around other Olympians at my fencing club and knew I had all the resources to make it happen—it just depended on me,” she said. “I enjoyed fencing so much it was never a hassle for me to train really hard.”
After the Anaheim camp, Prescod and the rest of Team USA jetted off to London for a few weeks in the Olympic Village and some more practice at the US training facilities. Then came the Opening Ceremony on Friday, July 27, in which she marched with Ross, Willette, and Kiefer, and the following day, the individual women’s foil competition.
Like most of the 38 fencers, Prescod entered the round of 64 with a bye and automatically advanced to the round of 32. Her first bout was to be with Aida Mohamed of Hungary, “a really strong fencer and her ranking poorly represented it,” Prescod said. “I’ve also lost to her in the past, but I tried to be as positive as possible.”
Mohamed took an early lead in the bout, and held on to it while Prescod tried to regain her focus. “During the bout, I made a lot of errors in the [beginning], possibly because I wasn’t as confident as I should have been,” Prescod said. “But once I felt like I had nothing to lose, I got more in the rhythm of things.” Yet by the time Prescod picked up her pace, she was already fighting a five or six point lead, and ended up losing the bout 15-10.
After the bout, “I was also disappointed,” Prescod said. “But I was only really sad about it a couple days later when it really hit me.” Ross also lost in the round of 32, but Kiefer came in fifth place after winning her first two bouts, and losing to the event’s silver medalist, Arianna Errigo of Italy.
The women’s team competition took place on Thursday, August 2, five days after the individual event. “In team there so much less pressure,” Prescod said. “I have so much faith in my teammates so I know if I’m not able to make a scoring run on my opponent, someone else will be able to.”
The American squad first went up against the South Koreans in the round of eight, in a competition that held a total of nine teams. In team fencing matches, each member of one team fences each member of the other to a maximum total score of 45. The Americans lost to Korea 45-31, but then beat Japan 44-22 to finish in sixth place.
Though female American foil fencers have only medaled once at the Olympics (silver, in the 2008 team event), the genre is on the rise at the international level. Prescod and Kiefer’s high rankings throughout the last four years, in addition to Prescod’s multiple World Championship titles, are a testament to this statement. As for this year’s Olympics, Prescod said, “The loss only made me more pumped for 2016 and training to get there.”
The next Olympics are certainly in reach for Prescod, who turned 20 on August 14, considering the fact that most fencers reach their peak around the age of 25. “Nzingha’s still young. You have to realize that she’s still a baby,” Winston said. “Next Olympics, she’ll get a medal. That, I’m sure of.”