Sports | Fencing

One touch at a time: Nzingha Prescod's path to Rio

When foilist Nzingha Prescod, CC ’15, first arrived at the Peter Westbrook Foundation in Manhattan, she was hesitant to forgo the ballet studio and embrace a new sport.

“I was losing a lot of bouts at first,” Prescod said. “I was with my sister and my best friend all the time, and I didn’t like losing.” 

But once the Brooklyn native began receiving private fencing instruction, she quickly became enamored with the sport and its opportunities for self-expression. That passion has only flourished over the past decade, as Prescod has built on two stellar years at Columbia to become an Olympic podium hopeful.

“You’re always creating,” Prescod said. “There’s a lot of room for your personality, and you have a lot of agency on the strip.”

She found the perfect outlet in the Peter Westbrook Foundation, which provides high-level coaching, financial resources, and mentoring programs to underprivileged youth in New York City. Established in 1991 by former Olympian Peter Westbrook, the foundation benefits from a decorated list of alumni who have returned as coaches and mentors. 

“It’s not really an option to be mediocre [at the foundation],” Prescod said. “I’m in this to win things, because that’s what the generation before me has done.” 

Surrounded by current and former collegiate, international, and Olympic fencers, Prescod quickly set her sights on joining their ranks, but it wasn’t a foundation alumnus who set her on the path to Morningside Heights. 

Instead, Prescod gravitated to Buckie Leach, a three-time U.S. Olympic coach who has long been regarded as one of fencing’s best. Under Leach’s tutelage and Westbrook’s mentorship, Prescod shook off her early disinterest and became a force on the piste, flashing the strength and precise footwork that had caught Westbrook’s eye from the get-go. 

Prescod’s true potential first became evident to Leach during one particular bout: her dispatching of Hannah Thompson, who would go on to win a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics. Prescod was in her early teens at the time, while Thompson was nearly 10 years older. But Leach’s star pupil prevailed, and he soon became convinced that Prescod could eventually reach the Olympics. 

“She battled really hard, she was yelling with every touch, [she had] good enthusiasm, good energy,” Leach said. “It was like, ‘Oh my god, she could really do this.’”

Prescod’s verbal aggression against Thompson still resonates with Leach, who is far more used to her often reserved demeanor on the strip, and to her kindness and relatability off of it. 

Current Senior Margaret Lu echoed that sentiment when speaking about Prescod, whom she’s known for over 10 years—first through club training, and later as Columbia teammates. 

“She’s charismatic,” Lu said. “She has a genuine interest in people, being present with them, spending time with them, getting to know them.”

Columbia fencing head coach Michael Aufrichtig, who was hired prior to Prescod’s sophomore season, added that he was struck by her poise.

“She was a lot calmer than I would have expected her to be,” Aufrichtig said. “A lot of fencers are very loud, especially on the strip, but she’s like the silent warrior, if anything.”

Both calmness and a desire to connect with people might seem out of place on the mats, with even Leach left wondering at times whether Prescod may be too nice. But Prescod’s easygoing demeanor has yet to derail a meteoric rise. By age 15, she had attained a top-five ranking in the women’s Senior division. Prescod also participated in six consecutive World Championships, winning back-to-back titles at the Cadet (under-17) level in 2008 and 2009, and a Junior (under-20) title in 2011.

The next stop was Columbia, which combined high-level academics and athletics with proximity to Prescod’s family, Westbrook, and Leach. 

“It was always just in my grand scheme,” Prescod said. “There was no other school I was looking at.”

Once at Columbia, Prescod took on her weightiest set of responsibilities yet. A rigorous academic workload and the demands of a high-level Division I program vied for her attention. All the while, she maintained a full slate of training and international competition, keeping an eye on the 2012 Olympics. 

Despite the vast constraints on her schedule, Prescod still found time for a life outside of the library and the gym, impressing teammates with her energy and willingness to explore new cities even after an exhausting day of competition.

“I don’t know if she sleeps,” Lu said. “We went out a bunch after tournaments––we’re going-out buddies. She’s a very balanced person, and that’s pretty rare that somebody is at such a high level.”

On the strip, Prescod did not miss a beat, finding success in both collegiate and international competition. At the conclusion of her first season in 2011, she was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Year and earned first-team All-Ivy honors. Later that year, she won a silver medal at the Pan American Games, and earned a spot on the 2012 United States Olympic team at just 19. 

Prescod opted not to fence for Columbia during the 2011-12 season. Instead, the then-junior prepared for the London Games, where she lost to five-time Olympian Aida Mohamed in the round of 32. 

According to Aufrichtig, that loss only further motivated Prescod once she returned to New York. “Something clicked in her head,” he said. “After the Olympics, going forward, I felt this drive.”

Prescod picked up where she left off on the strip for the Lions. She was named First-Team All-Ivy for the second time after the 2012-2013 season, and began a streak of four consecutive trips to the Senior World Championships. 

Prescod also settled into a leadership role with the Lions, acting as sparring partner, calming influence, and point of reference for her teammates—among them Jackie Dubrovich, CC ’16. 

“It was really good to have that positive person sitting there to congratulate me, or be there for me to vent my frustrations,” Dubrovich said.

Despite her stints away from the Lions, Prescod balanced her international obligations in order to remain an integral member of the team until she suffered a torn labrum in her right hip during her senior year. The surgery and subsequent rehab spelled the end of Prescod’s college career, and threatened to disrupt her bid for a second consecutive Olympics.

“I had taken five months off of fencing,” Prescod said of her injury and rehab timetable. “And then I had no choice [but] to get back in there and perform really well to make the team.”

During those five months, Prescod missed three of the eight qualifying events for the Olympics. After rushed rehabilitation, she was faced with the daunting task of earning the requisite number of points to qualify over just five events, as she battled the nagging aftereffects of her injury.

Prescod rose to the challenge, making history in the process. 

In 2015, she became the first African-American woman ever to medal at the Senior World Championships, earning a bronze medal. That victory helped propel her up the United States and world rankings, where she currently sits at No. 2 and No. 10, respectively, ensuring her spot on the 2016 Olympic team. 

As Prescod entered the ranks of the elite, her fame grew, and she became a recognizable figure across America. She attended the ESPYs, has been featured in numerous write-ups, and recently met President Barack Obama. 

That visibility presented Prescod with a platform for teaching, outreach, and more. While rehab and training have occupied much of her time, she has consistently found time to join the ranks of those who originally inspired her to strive toward fencing’s highest levels. 

As a coach at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, Prescod acts as a role model for fencers in the very position she once occupied.

“It’s really taught me that it’s so important to give back what you were gifted,” Prescod said.

Westbrook pointed to Prescod’s willingness to give up her rare off days as an example of the structure that has helped the foundation produce a long line of internationally acclaimed fencers. 

“When people come back to teach other kids, that’s Olympian to me,” Westbrook said.

More recently, Prescod’s success beyond the strip has also helped her appreciate the foundation’s less obvious benefits.

“I feel like sport is really a form of education,” Prescod said. “If you’re doing a job interview, you’re not expected to talk like a girl from Brooklyn. You want to reference experiences that are relatable, and a lot of the time you’re missing that if you miss out on those experiences.”

But for now, Prescod’s primary focus is on the task at hand. During high-stakes moments, she prefers to take a focused approach and break down her situation. It is a strategy that has led to some of her biggest victories, including those at the World Championships.

“It wasn’t like, ‘I need to get a medal today,’” Prescod said. “It was a ‘I can do this, let me get this one touch, let me focus on one action, and let me get one point,’ and again, until you get to fifteen… Small progresses and small goals.”

That methodical approach sets Prescod apart, but the passion that initially caught Leach’s eye remains. While she may not yell after every touch, Prescod has a decade of history to suggest that she won’t go quietly in Rio.

dylan.russian@columbiaspectator.com | @CUSpecSports

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