Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
Last month, practice was winding down at the Fencers Club in Manhattan when a group of young students paused to watch a Brooklyn-born Olympian relentlessly attack a padded wall. The athlete, Nzingha Prescod, carried on unfazed, her feet shuffling like a tap dancer’s, her eyes darting behind the mesh of her mask. Ms. Prescod is getting used to the increased scrutiny. This summer, she hopes to become the first African-American fencer to win Olympic gold.
“Obviously I want to medal,” Ms. Prescod said, “but what gets me really excited is the idea of little black girls turning on the TV to see someone like them fencing.”
When Ms. Prescod, 23, first began fencing, historically the province of the white and the aristocratic, she had few models in the sport from similar backgrounds. She and her older sister were raised by a single mother in the upstairs apartment of a two-family home in the Flatlands neighborhood of Brooklyn. Her mother, Marva Prescod, tried to keep the girls out of trouble by packing their schedules from a young age: piano, ballet, gymnastics, karate, swimming.
Her mother dismissed fencing as prohibitively expensive before reading about the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a nonprofit that brings fencing and tutoring to young people from underserved communities. The foundation was established in 1991 byPeter Westbrook, who made history himself in 1984 as the first black fencer to win an Olympic medal.
Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times
When Ms. Prescod was 9, she began taking free lessons through the foundation. A year later, she won a national championship for her age group. “Nzingha is exactly the same today as she was at age 9,” her coach, Buckie Leach, said. “Just a fantastic athlete with a lot of smarts and a high fencing I.Q.”
To watch Ms. Prescod compete is to witness a world-class tactician in full force. On the fencing strip, she is like Bobby Fischer behind a chess set, considering each movement two, three, four steps ahead of the next. Though Ms. Prescod is notorious for straying from fencing orthodoxy, she is reliably at her strongest, Mr. Leach said, when attacking from a defensive position, often baiting her opponents into a strike that she deflects and counters.
Her prowess recalls that of the woman who inspired her name, the 17th-century Angolan warrior Queen Nzinga. When the Portuguese tried to expand the slave trade into Central Africa, Queen Nzinga is said to have led the front lines of the resistance.
“I love that history,” said Ms. Prescod, grinning after a recent training session. “It says I’m black and I’m powerful and I’m fighting for my people.”
Indeed, Ms. Prescod will be fighting for her country when she heads to Rio de Janeiro next month. Her ascension in the ranks of the sport has already proven groundbreaking. She made history in 2013 as the first American woman to earn a gold medal for foil at the 2013 Grand Prix, and again in 2015 as the first African-American woman to win an individual medal at the Senior World Championships.
Ms. Prescod finished in 22nd place at her first Olympic Games in 2012 after falling to the five-time World Championship medalist Aida Mohamed. But she was still green then — a recent Stuyvesant High School graduate who had just had her braces removed. Now she has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University and has been training with unyielding tenacity. Indeed, her greatest problem is overworking, said Mr. Leach, who worries about injuries. “I always tell her to cool it, but later I’ll find out she’s been practicing behind my back.”
Mr. Prescod laughed off the barb, but all that lunging has caused a cartilage defect in her right hip that will require a procedure after Rio. Given the physical demands of the sport, she knows that her days competing may not last long past this summer. But regardless of her career’s longevity, Ms. Prescod has extracted some lessons that inform her life outside of fencing.
“Fencing has given me access to this whole other world,” she said. “It’s sad, but if you’re going into a job interview, they don’t want you talking like a girl from Brooklyn — they want you talking like a girl from a fencing club.”
Having conquered the fencing club, Ms. Prescod is eager to share something else with her eponymous warrior-queen: a regal piece of jewelry — something bronze, silver or maybe even gold.