Junior Michael Mills is a tall sabre fencer with an Ivy family fencing heritage as long as his armspan. His brother fences at Princeton. His father fenced at Columbia.
Sophomore year in high school, Mills decided he wanted to upgrade clubs. He had outgrown the Medeo Fencing Club, so he began traveling 45 minutes into Manhattan in order to practice inside the biggest club in the city — the Fencers Club — with the Peter Westbrook Foundation.
“They had great fencers and the coaching staff was really good,” said Mills.
But, far from the stereotypical Manhattan fencing club — known for both suits of armor and suits of Versace — the Peter Westbrook Foundation is 85 percent African-American or Latino. It is a nonprofit which mostly works with inner city youth.
It is also a fencing powerhouse. Some of the most qualified coaches in the country work there. Two other Penn fencers besides Mills — Elliot Tusk and Ayyub Ibrahim — trained at Peter Westbrook. The foundation boasts six Olympian alumni.
“We know what quality clubs are out there,” Penn assistant fencing coach Randall LeMaster said. “The Peter Westbrook Foundation is one of the elite clubs in the U.S … they’re turning out [fencers] in droves.”
Westbrook, the creator of the foundation, is an intense, wiry and funny man.
He grew up in a poor neighborhood in Newark, and fenced in five Olympics from 1976 to 1996. In 1991, he began the foundation out of the Fencers Club.
One of his first two participants was Erinn Smart, an Olympic silver medalist in the 2008 Olympics and graduate student at Penn’s Wharton School of Business. The other participant was her brother,
Keeth, also a silver medalist in the 2008 Olympics.
“[Westbrook] realized he was one the few African American fencers in the [Fencers Club] … that’s why he started the nonprofit” Smart said. “Within four or five years, it got pretty big.”
Now, she says, the foundation has to cap its Saturday youth classes due to high demand. Smart and her brother regularly return to the foundation to help out on Saturdays.
“The foundation is like a second family for me,” she said.
Mills agrees that the foundation forms a powerful network.
“I still know Peter Westbrook personally … I’m actually about to email Keeth Smart and find out about an internship.”
Smart demonstrates her allegiance whenever someone asks her which club she trained with.
“I tell people I’m from Peter Westbrook.”
Part of the foundation’s strength lies in its youth program. On Saturday mornings, the foundation hosts open practices and academic tutoring for kids aged 9-18 while established fencers such as Mills and Ibrahim act as mentors.
Ibrahim began fencing as a mentee when he was 12 years old.
“I was homeschooled so I did a lot of sports,” Ibrahim said. “But my mom wanted me to try something new, so I began at the Peter Westbrook Foundation.” Seeing his potential, the foundation offered to sponsor him.
“A lot of things opened up.”
Mills remembers the Saturday programs as something far more than athletics.
“It wasn’t only fencing. It was like life skills as well.”