Why This Olympian Is Talking About Race Before Rio

Photo: Yemi Adewumni/Jopwell.
Nzingha Prescod is a world-class fencer — literally. The 23-year-old foil fencer is going to Rio de Janeiro, where she’ll compete in her second Olympic Games. But Prescod’s passion for fencing goes beyond just competing — she's calling attention to perceptions of race and class that accompany the sport. Prescod began her career through the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a nonprofit that introduces fencing to underserved and minority communities. Westbrook, the founder and leader of the organization, was the first Black fencer to medal at the Olympics, taking home the bronze medal for sabre in 1984. Now, Prescod is following in his footsteps. In 2013, she was the first American women’s foilist to win a Grand Prix title, and last year, she was the first Black woman to win an individual medal at the Senior World Championships. Refinery29 talked to Prescod about her fencing career, her hopes for Rio, and what it means to her to be a Black woman representing America in 2016.
Let's start at the beginning. How did you get involved in fencing?
"My mom wanted us to be in a lot of extracurriculars, just so we would be well-rounded. Before I started fencing, I also did tennis, gymnastics, swimming, karate, stuff like that. So, when I was 9, she found this program through a colleague, and she also read about it in magazines. She heard they were sending these Black kids from Harlem and Brooklyn to the Olympics. She was intrigued and she thought, 'Why not put my kids in the program?' It was like another activity at first for us. But they really had all the resources; they had really good coaches. Everything worked out. "We had a lot of role models at that point. People were going to the Olympics and winning medals and World Cups. We saw these people that looked like us who were doing big things. It just gave us a realm of possibilities."

I think I have a chance to enlighten younger kids that this is a different avenue, that is not conventional, and it can be done.

This will be your second Olympics. How did you feel when you qualified the first time, in 2012?
"It was always a dream, going to the Olympics. I always thought I was good enough to go, and I was training towards that, and all of my results were towards that goal. It was just a huge relief to make the team. Competing on the senior circuit was really new to me at that point because I was only 19, and at 19, you’re still in the junior category. The Olympics [were] a step up from what I was comfortable with, but [it was] definitely exciting. And since then, I’ve gotten more comfortable, showed more confidence — I have more experience now." What are you hoping for in Rio this year?
"Obviously I want a medal, but medaling is such a huge task that there’s still many things before medaling that I need to focus on. Like getting [a] one-touch. Really focusing on taking it touch-by-touch, thinking of it like that instead of looking at the huge picture. I need 75 “one-touches” to get to the gold medal. So, taking that one step at a time." The fencing events are just a couple of days before your 24th birthday, on August 14! Would it be a nice gift to come home with a gold medal? Do you think that’s like a sign of fate or anything like that?
"Yeah! [laughs] I hope so. I wouldn’t even need anything else." You wrote a powerful essay for Jopwell about being one of the few Black fencers in the sport. Was there any time when you really felt that distinction?
"I’ve had the comfort layer of being in the Peter family, which has a lot of minorities and a lot of other Black people like me, and from a similar background. A lot of people [are] from single-parent homes. [They] aren’t struggling, are comfortable, but very much still on the other end of the fencing club. The other end [from those] whose parents are making a ton of money, who have vacation homes, who travel, like, every summer, and go to summer camp, and it’s all this extravagant thing. "If anything, it was very interesting, highlighting the differences — if someone were talking about a really nice restaurant that is very popular and I’ve never [been there, for instance, because] we don’t eat out that much. But some people eat out every night. Or talking about going to the Hamptons, and I had never been to the Hamptons. Other times, I’ll get extensions or like twists, and it will be like, 'Did you get a haircut?' or, 'How did your hair get so long?' I’m just like, 'Why are you asking me these questions?' It was never mean, malicious — it was never like that. It was just highlighting the differences."
Photo: Yemi Adewumni/Jopwell.

Fencing is so heavily associated in the public perception with class privilege. Why was it important to you to challenge that perception?

"It’s accurate to say that people involved in this sport are very privileged. It’s been eye-opening to come from Brooklyn, where they don’t have anything to do after school. You're in trouble with your parents all the time, or your parents are working all the time. They don’t have these resources or these opportunities after school for themselves. I think it’s privileged to have another form of education, where you learn skills and how to interact with people, how to discuss things you’re doing, have hobbies and all those things. And when you don’t have that, you’re not on the path other privileged people are, to be able to do things like that. "Being part of my Brooklyn community and seeing these kids not having any resources, any tools, or any opportunities to get involved in things like this. Then my other friends, in fencing, have a million opportunities in the world, like doing fencing, doing whatever else they want to do — after-school programs, doing theater, doing everything. And it’s such a contrast." You’re going to the Olympics at a time in which America is discussing these heavy issues of race, inequality, and the need to face a lot of the tragedies we’ve been seeing — particularly very recently in Louisiana, Texas, and Minnesota. What does it mean to you to be a Black woman representing your country at the Olympics, particularly in a sport like fencing that's very often white?
"[It’s] very important to be visible. And I feel like a lot of the Black women who are represented in the media aren’t represented so positively, or are kind of one-dimensional — like Desperate Housewives or Real Housewives-type or Basketball Wives-type. Something that’s not productive, and kind of a little bleak, too. We should have a wider range and more diversity of how Black women are represented and how they are popularized. "I think it’s very important for younger Black women to see that you can be prestigious, cool, or perceived as cool, and there are other successful Black women that you could potentially be like, or look up to, or aspire to be. To be visible to young kids is really important. I think I have a chance to enlighten younger kids that this is a different avenue, that is not conventional, and it can be done. "Also, [to] be an image for the general public that Black women are out here doing really ambitious things and being successful in something you don’t expect. And kind of reverse this idea of, 'Why should I even expect that?' [To see] they are very much equal to everyone else and [we] are out here getting these things and being good at it and taking it up to this Olympic level. Being able to go to the Olympics and be an image of that is important. And it’s also a beacon of hope for people. There are positive things happening in the Black community that we can celebrate. So I hope I can be that — a pillar of hope." Do you feel any kind of responsibility to represent yourself a certain way?
"Sometimes. I honestly — I feel responsible for encouraging the Black girls around me in fencing to make the most of opportunities. I really want them to have an experience like I had. [Fencing] bolstered me to do things I never thought I would do without it. I just really want to encourage them to do their best at it, to take it seriously. I feel responsible to give them whatever I can. "Peter taught us to give back. That was the whole goal — you were given this gift, I was given this gift by Peter. Honestly, such a huge gift he gave me when I was 9. To support my dreaming and give me that emotional support, mental support. And you’re given a lot and you’re expected to give back a lot. And that’s a huge theme of PWF." You talk about wanting to set an example for other little girls who are like you. Do you have any advice for them?
"Do what you love. With fencing, I love this so much I never really see it as work. It’s something I enjoy doing; I like being there over anything else. And it’s kind of the same, 'If you love something, you’ll never work a day in your life.' Technically, fencing is my job, but I never feel like I’m working. It’s very hard and it’s very demanding, but I love it so much that I don’t mind. It’s never a chore."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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