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Fencing gives a new thrust to kids' lives

Former Olympian teaches inner-city children - and sends three to Sydney

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The notion that inner-city kids would be drawn to the sport of fencing hardly seems an obvious one - except, perhaps, to Peter Westbrook.

This six-time former Olympian fought his way out of a tough childhood with a saber in his hand. Now he's dedicated to seeing that as many other kids as possible follow his example.

That's why nine years ago he established the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers fencing lessons to New York City kids at a cost of $20 a year - a fee sometimes even further reduced for those families that can't manage the nominal payment.

In its short life, the foundation has already produced a number of internationally recognized young fencers and has helped, through fencing scholarships, to place some of its students in elite high schools and colleges like St. John's University and Columbia University, both in New York. And this year, the group is in the spotlight because three of the nine fencers the United States will send to the Olympics in Australia are Westbrook students.

Yet as much as Mr. Westbrook, a self-described natural competitor, dreams of seeing his young protgs excel at the sport he loves, he makes a point of insisting that that's not what his work is really about. "The fencing part leaves tomorrow," he says of what he teaches his students. "The other part will never leave." Discipline, energy, enthusiasm, and a new sense of themselves and their possibilities in life are the gifts Westbrook believes his students most need.

Fencing has seen a recent revival of interest among youths. Since 1996, the number of fencers under 20 registered with the US Fencing Association has tripled. More than one-third are girls. Many parents are eager to see their children fence because they believe it is a sport of both skill and intellect, helping to hone thinking skills and concentration along with coordination.

But there are few who know better than Westbrook - who grew up in a housing project in Newark, N.J. - about the positive effects fencing can have on a young life.

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