In reference to sport, the black community is often looked at to only be athletic to the general public — as if strategic and well trained is a component that is not accessible. There are expectations to be strong and useful, but skilled is something that is surprising. This narrative contributes to the many hard-working black athletes being overlooked throughout history.
That is what 2x Olympian, World Champion, and 4x Senior World Medalist fencer Nzingha Prescod aims to change. Following within the daring footsteps of her namesake, Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba — the Brooklyn native is committed to expanding access to sport, advocating for inclusive and high-quality sport education through community programming, policy and governance.
Prescod became the first African-American fencer to win an individual medal at the Senior World Championships with a bronze in 2015, and helped lead the U.S. Women’s Foil Team to three straight medals at Senior World Championships, including the first gold in 2018.
After retiring as one of the most decorated athletes in USA fencing history, Nzinga is now the founder of The Usa Fencing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Resource Team, the Fencing in the Park program, and endorser of the Intro 1959 Bill in New York.
Here, Nzinga chats with BAUCE to discuss her advocacy for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in United States fencing.
So, your fencing journey began when you were younger from an idea that your mother had. What was the defining moment where you it became a passion that was apart of you?
Nzingha: I grew up playing a lot of sports, fencing was probably like my sixth or seventh sport. I grew up as a person that was always an academic achiever like academic, yet as I got older sports was where that kind of materialized.
I feel like it became a part of me when I started losing to my sister and my best friend. I started fencing when I was nine with my sister, best friend and another girl from our ballet class. I just wasn’t good at it and I didn’t like to lose. So I feel like that part of me, the competitive part, was always part of me. I like the fencing as a strategy and it’s a skill. There’s the strategy, technique, and the athletic part of it. So there’s three main buckets you want to be good at.
The strategy part of it, I feel I was really good at. I think how my mind works is very targeted. So, I was able to pinpoint like moments in the match where I needed to change or what I needed to do differently to beat someone. I think I had a good temperament for it — it takes a lot of patience to get there. It was a well-rounded sport that was just for me.
Do you see tactics and skills of the fencing intersect with how you navigate through black womanhood — and if so, do you think that heightens the importance of it being more accessible to young black girls everywhere?
Nzingha: So like in business and entrepreneurship, there’s always so many moving parts in whatever you’re doing and something you have to be particular about is focusing on each one and knowing like how to coordinate them at the same time while knowing how to adapt and change.
So definitely as a black woman in this world, when you have to be, two times better than everyone else just to be like recognized — I think it’s important to be on it. I feel like fencing has helped me become, like, a super – person. My mind has to operate in the moment of doubts. You have to have your tactic you’re choosing to employ and you have to practice to have the confidence to execute it. There’s so many pieces of it that really apply to life.
It encompasses leadership, entrepreneurship and just being the executive director of your life. Being able to make decisions on a dime and having it be the best option. I think that for anyone participating in this sport intensively can take those skills and apply it everywhere else in their lives. I believe it especially applies to black women, because I think in terms of men and women, a lot of times women are the innovators, the creators, the decision makers, and the leaders. And so, I definitely feel like getting more black women, young black women, involved in fencing can help build their minds to lead their communities and give back to the next generation.
How has identity played a role in your journey as a professional athlete?
Nzingha: For the last 20 years I’ve been a fencer and it’s been my thing. I woke up every day and had the same purpose: go to practice and learn more fencing, be a student of the game with the goal of being the best fencer I can be. Now I wake up, and I don’t have that clarity of “this is the end goal.” It’s interesting because I never really thought of myself like my identity being so wrapped up in fencing. But, since I’ve retired, I’m like, “wow, what else?” For the last 20 years I knew I was trying to go to the Olympics in five years, make this team in three years, and obtain a medal here in two years. Those things weren’t changing — they were written in stone.
I’m in this world now where I’m designing like what my future can look like versus trying to get somewhere where that’s already designed. I’m kind of reclaiming my purpose because I had such a shift since I retired. So now I’m like, who was I before I was a fencer? It’s become a lot of self exploration and like a lot of time hanging with my family and asking questions because I really feel like an infant in this life.
Athletics definitely were a huge part of my identity growing up and I intend for it to be part of it. I definitely have always known that my community is really important. My mom was always really intent on rooting me in my community and knowing who I am. Supporting black people, blackness has really protected my psyche and my space. Growing up, we had options to go to private school on the Upper West Side while I grew up in Canarsie. Her real concern was she didn’t want me to grow up not knowing where I came from and not being surrounded by people that look like me. I’m so grateful that she kept me in public school and in my community, because now I have some connection. I have some association — some point so I can connect with people from where I’m from because I’ve lived a different life from my peers. So, I’m trying to find that person again because I’ve been so immersed in the fencing world.
You started in the game with a type of support system stemming from both your mother and your sister. How essential is it to have a team supporting you at all times as a young, black athlete?
Nzingha: It takes a team to have this kind of success, or even just participate in sports, but besides and sacrificing their time and energy to support my fencing career, they really grounded me. That’s where my roots are, I am an extension of who they are. So, having them really draws me back to where I come from.
For example, Fencing the Park is having their last session this Sunday and we’re having a party. I’m not sure if my sister actually cooks, but she offered to cater the event. So we’re having wings and fries — and that’s a lot of time out of her day. I’m teaching fencing among all of the other things that I am responsible for, so my schedule is really packed. They help me pick up things when they have time and stuff like that is like is a huge sacrifice of their time. I feel a responsibility to make them proud. I want to return the favor because they do sacrifice so much. I want to make sure I’m filling the cup and returning that in a big way for them because it’s really it’s really a team effort.
It’s very essential not only as a black athlete, but as a leader, to have a family that supports you and is able to give you the time and space that you can live your mission and play out your dreams. Right now, you know, I feel guilty because sometimes it does take up their time, but I hope that I can return it to them so they are comfortable, can sustain themselves, and be fulfilled too.
In an interview with ESPN, you mentioned that “Hesitating in fencing is not going to work.” That quote made me think of the work you do when fighting for racial equality and socio-economic access in non-traditional sport. How urgent do you find yourself having to be when discussing these issues, and how much does hesitation cost society in regards to acting on them?
Nzingha:In general, sports have always been so underfunded. If you want to access quality sports education, your options are in New York City and across the country. Basically, this varies, but the most important part is that you have to pay a significant amount of your family’s income to participate in a sport and to compete in a sport. Other countries don’t operate like that. In France, for example, they have state sponsored sports programs. If you want to play a sport, it’s heavily subsidized so that everyone has a chance to play it. Here, that’s not the case. When we talk about it being urgent, we talk about how sports have always been under funded by the government, cities, local, state, federal, at every level.
Sports are a way to develop character and capacity in yourself to achieve greatness not only in sport, but outside of sport, too. Being able to master something like that takes a lot of time and energy. If you’re able to do that with sports, you can solve anything. Using it as like a baseline to develop how to be productive, effective, to use your time wisely, to do your best effort is valuable. So when I think of enrichment programs and enrichment services for kids, sports is the number one option. I know not every kid will gravitate to sporta, but it should be universally accessible.
With all of the conversations about racial equity and leveling the playing field — there are dollars out there right now to support different initiatives to empower black people and people of color. So this is especially urgent right now because the conversation is ramping up. There is urgency when when we’re talking about this moment, because there are opportunities to make more universal access to sports.
Speaking of Olympics, you mentioned in an interview that often, at the olympics — you get asked if you are participating in track rather than fencing. Do you think that question is rooted in the representation that isn’t as apparent for minorities in non-traditional sports?
Nzingha:No one ever thinks I grew up in the Peterson Foundation. It’s basically a nonprofit based in this private elite fencing club. I grew up with other black fences, which was a crazy blessing. I don’t know if I would have done this otherwise, but I had a community of black fencers who look like me, who were from around or had a similar background to me, and they were all pursuing excellence in fencing. So I had this buffer to experiencing the fencing world at large.
When I left, I really saw the world for what it is like. I’ve been in the bubble all these years and now that I’m out in the world and experiencing different people who are not in fencing, I’m like, wow, not only do black people not fence — black women don’t in particular pursue fencing.
Young black people in sports, especially young black girls — fencing is not as prevalent as I’ve seen in other communities. Since leaving and being more immersed in the broader context of the world, I’m like, “oh, I see how when I’m at the Olympics, no one thinks I’m can fence, everyone thinks I run track. But I mean, that’s something we’re working to change. Fencing in particular is incredibly valuable for a strategic problem solving mind and action oriented mind.I’m definitely a proponent of more fencing in the lives of young black kids, young black women. We’re definitely underrepresented in the sport. I think increasing visibility of the sport and other nontraditional sports will do us a lot of good, because I think culturally you have to incentivize young kids to want to participate in nontraditional sports. So, that’s something I see as a challenge in trying to expand access. I think the two issues to this are expanding the access not only recreationally, but at the high performing level while also making it an appealing offering for kids where they don’t see themselves necessarily.
In what ways have you seen structural racism contributing to the lack of black fencers among aspiring athletes today?
Nzingha: Definitely the price and the fact that it’s privatized. You have to pay a lot of money to access the quality offerings of it. We don’t have to be that way other countries function in other ways. What I’ve been working on with the Intro bill is trying to shift to more publicly supported education, because it’s a form of education. When you get into high performance at the Olympic level, when you get into the competition of elite high performing sport — there’s no protection of athletes.
I think most of us probably saw the USA gymnastics, the sexual abuse of the young gymnasts, and how it was handled by USA gymnastics. Now, there’s a safe sport structure, which is the intention of protection from child abuse, sexual assault, and that kind of thing. But there’s no kind of structure like that for racism or discriminatory behavior. That’s something that’s a work in progress. I think after last year, there’s been a lot of movement and reckoning in the rest of the world, but something needs to change. There needs to be more policies and enforcement of those policies.
The lack of protection is because it hasn’t been on their radar for the people who lead and govern, it’s not something that’s relevant to them necessarily because there’s not a lot of representation. It’s been neglected and it’s not only commentary. It’s the people who are in positions of power in sport, like a referee or coach decides a team. Those are discretionary positions where they can impose bias and racism. There’s no system of protection for athletes who might be well deserving of those opportunities. Things like that are big problems to tackle. But, there’s some movement. I would say there is an appetite for change. It will take some time, but I think it’s moving in the right direction.
How do you envision Fencing in the Park, The Usa Fencing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Resource Team, and the Intro 1959 bill you endorsed creating doors for black aspiring fencers among our community?
Nzingha: Well, first is the exposure. In the beginning, I had to retire from sports because I had this crazy hip thing and my hip fell apart. That’s why I retired early, because I was I was training to go to Tokyo and I had to cut my career short. It was a bummer. Then the pandemic hit, it was a crazy time. I was recovering from my surgery and I was in the park with my mom spending a lot of time at home like everyone else. I was also recovering from the surgery and I saw kids in the park and their coach was training them for football. And I was like, “oh, I could do something easy like this, I do this all the time.”
I think the park situation is kind of like a kickback where you’re learning something, it’s casual and fun. There’s a lot of instructors who volunteer, a lot of my friends who are from the city. There’s recreational vendors to come out and there’s students I’ve taught since I was young who are now in college. For the most part, they love it. I think the exposure to it is really important and that’s what we do. We also want to provide access to those competitive pathways, that’s our mission. We want to touch a lot of kids, but we also want to have quality education and opportunities for the kids who are high performers and want to pursue it at a high level.
With the Diversity and Inclusion team at USA fencing, my intention was to increase representation and leadership, but it also touches providing funding because it’s the national governing body for fencing. There’s encouraging them and creating situations for them to provide funding for community programs like fencing the park that service kids who are underrepresented in the sport who don’t have access to that sport at that moment. We suggest these ideas, all that stuff takes time and energy to execute, but we provide the thought because they don’t necessarily have that thought, because it’s not the life they’ve lived. They haven’t lived a life of people being excluded from sport, so we make it clear to them that it’s our priority.
Then with the Bill, that’s more of getting the public support for sport. Me being a subject matter expert to inform is what the system should look like. This is why we need to support sport at an early age for kids who don’t currently have that offering. So, it’s all different angles of advocacy. So it just has an impact at every bucket I can have access to. It’s getting to be a lot to be on there, but I’m exploring. Like I said, I’m I’m done competing. So now I’m like, where do I fit to serve this mission?
Was there any fear/resistance of Fencing in The Park not getting the attention it needed since fencing isn’t a highly encouraged sport within minority communities?
Nzingha: Yeah, this is like the business side of fencing in the park, because it’s a lot like — coaching, fencing and watching, and getting the kids engaged is one thing. Then the business side of it, the marketing, getting the funding, getting the business structure,and all that stuff down the line is the challenge. It’s a challenge that I can tackle, because I am from this community, I am everybody else. So, I can connect with people. I also think that with the success I’ve had in the sport and the opportunities it provides is the major appeal of it. Like I went to an Ivy League college through fencing, and getting through fencing to my job and consulting. I’ve traveled the world and met amazing people. I’ve been the best at something for a long time. That’s priceless, and I think people recognize that.
They want that for their kids or kids want that for themselves. So I think me being me from here is really powerful to extend that kind of experience to other people and make it appealing to other kids. Then hopefully, the support comes from that. I mean, we have people who want to support, which is great, and I think it will grow. It’s literally the time to dedicate to it because I’m balancing all these things and also because I don’t get paid to do this. This is all volunteer work. It takes intention and focus.
We have a lot of kids turning up, which is great and it’s also free. It’s an opportunity to come out and learn this new skill, explore something new, and be curious. It inspires curiosity and committing to something, and I think kids and parents like that. So it’s been well received and I’m really happy about that.
We are sometimes inspired to do what we do because of the heroes who have come before us have paved the way for us to walk. You’re even named after a 17th-century queen. Yet, as you make your mark in your career — as well as in history with the bill you’ve endorsed, you have become the pioneer. Does that role come with any underlying pressure — is it something you knew you’d acquire once you began your journey?
Nzingha: I think I have definitely been inspired by my name. I mean, it’s a powerful name. The Queen was a political strategist who fought in war against colonizers who were trying to take over her space. The strategy of fencing is kind of like politics, it’s like chess. You know, you move this piece for this, you do this when you want to get this done, and you team up with this person to get this thing done. So it’s funny that I did something because I feel like fencing prepared me for this life of.
I’m trying to find my footing in the world post competition. I did this thing like I saw people around the world with fencing and I thought I represented a black woman doing it, and that I was recognized for being an amazing athlete and being a black woman. I’m one of very few who do this. So that inspired me to continue this path of being a pioneer. I see Queen as good to me. She raised an army, she led an army, and I kind of I feel like with fencing the park, like I’m trying to build an army of capable and productive people in society who can build who can build their communities sustainably.
I think to be able to be in those leadership positions and those governance positions, it requires a skill set. I think my North Star is like black empowerment. If I have to work in this life, I want to do it for black people.
I think I see the connection quite a lot with Queen Nzingha, and I just think it’s really hilarious because she does inspire me. When I think of a queen, I think I’m supposed to represent a queen queen as a giver, like she she supports your communications of people. I’m inspired by it, but it’s also how I was raised, and I think it just goes back to like my mom giving me this name. I think she was anticipating me to take on a lot of responsibility.
If I look back before my mom, generations ago, advocacy and black empowerment is part of my genes from my parents in the Caribbean. My Great-great-great grandfather, Samuel Jackson Prescott, was the first black man in the parliament in Barbados. A lot of my uncles were involved in the Trinidad Revolution. This is how I grew up, you know, empowering black people. So t’s cool that I’m understanding more of my purpose every day.
To the public eye, there’s a theory that is often tossed around about black athletes being expected to offer their physical and athletic talents while holding back on opinions on topics regarding race, discirmation, and human rights. As a political science major with a concentration with race and ethnicity from Colombia University — How did that preparation aid you in proving this ideology wrong?
Nzingha: Yeah, that ideology is is because they like to maintain status quo. The International Olympic Committee said No Black Lives Matter shirts in protest at the Olympic, and all of that is part of their apolitical stance. They want sports to remain neutral, they want it to only be a sports conversation on the stage of the Olympics for that kind of thing. That’s just to maintain a status quo that that works for them and that’s why that exists. I mean, they could allow protesting and the the board is going to look the same as it always does. The people making decisions going to be the same. So I’’m more concerned about, how are you going to empower black people in your in your policies and in your day to day leadership?
That’s the conversation that you can move incrementally, you know, like it’s a slow process and I probably will not be there the whole time, because I also want to focus more on my community, but it’s a slow process.
At just 28 years old — you’ve accomplished and advocated for what most dream about for decades. Do you ever run into individuals who don’t take you seriously because of your age, and if so, how can experiencing instances like this help you advise younger activist and athletes who are currently shooting for the stars?
Nzingha: I think everyone has a long list of things they need to do in terms of prioritizing the things I’m saying that need to be done. I think my age does contribute to others prioritizing if the things I say are important or not thinking of them as credible. I believe it can be an issue, but I try to be as professional as I can and also keep my spirit of being a young person. I grapple with this issue all the time because, I’m 28, I think I’m cute and I like to look good on Instagram. So you have balancing that part of me and also like the politicking, policy, and the serious decision making conversations. It can be a challenge for me.
I also feel guilty sometimes or feel inappropriate that I’m on the board, but I’m showing my cleavage on Instagram. Stuff like that is what I have to think about. I want to honor the things that I want to do, but sometimes it’s not worth it. So I have to figure out that balance for me personally. I think people know the Olympics credentials, and my world championship medals as being one of the most decorated fencers in American history. That gives me a lot of credentials, too. So I think when I say things about sports, people are listening. I also come from this place I advocate for so I’ve lived this experience and can talk to it like no one else can. I think all those things kind of counter my age and make it possible for me to be in these important conversations.
Being an advocate for social justice issues within our society while highlighting socio-economic access in non-traditional sports, and being an olympic athlete can become exhaustive. How do you make sure to take care of yourself and your body?
Nzingha: I like to work, I like to do — I’m a doer, I like to be busy. So, I kind of have built up this endurance, I think. Now, this is not all the time, sometimes I do want to do nothing. But I generally have pretty good endurance and I attribute that to sport, a lot of it. So that’s something I have to balance. Working out is like a perch for me, I’m an intense person. So I need to get my intensity out, and the best way for me to do that is physically. I think for most people, it’s such a benefit to be active with your body, because when your body’s active and stimulated, then your mind and spirit are active and stimulated. Just keeping active, I think, is how I take care of my body at some point.
And, you know, it’s cyclical. I kind of just take it as I’m feeling, and hopefully the deadlines will align. When I’m usually in a funk, my mom is like, “did you work out?” So working out is my number one thing. I think, also, finding time to spend with people helps because a lot of this work I’m doing on my own. I’m behind the computer sending emails, writing notes, preparing presentations, preparing letters, and writing books. Spending time with my family, with my friends, and meeting new people essential because I haven’t lost my sense of community, but I’m also not a competitive athlete anymore, so I don’t see them every day. I have to make the time and space to see people I care about and like meet new people. That’s also a priority I try to put into my schedule.
Are there any other exciting plans or projects that you have in-store for the future?
Nzingha: Fencing in The park is, I think where my heart is. I like to interact with the kids and to be a positive influence in their life as a mentor and coach. I haven’t developed athletes to be excellent fencers. I was an athlete first, so I can share my athletic mind with them and I like that part of it. I want to grow fencing in the park. I want to have our own like a Flatbush based fencing club where kids do not have to pay to to get fencing lessons, and it can be a community thing. I want it to be cultural, like in Flatbush you do fencing and it’s fun — and not only for kids. I want it to be sustainable, to own property and rent out space so that it can fund the program because it takes money and we can’t depend on investors, too. Then from there, I want to move it to other cities and around the world– to the Caribbean, and to Africa.
I do also want to explore other things besides fencing and sport, so I’m really figuring it out right now, but I can see that happening regardless what I do in my lifetime. With the bill, I’m hoping the mayor appoints the director position — It’d be cool if I were appointing the director and I’m trying to position myself for that. The bill is largely my vision, I kind of designed the bill’s intention with help from the community partners. I’m figuring out how to balance those two is what’s truly next for me.
As you continue to rise within the different roles of your career and personal endeavors — what legacy do you plan to leave behind?
Nzingha: I want to have built up the community and inspired excellence. I feel like that’s who I am and that I have always pursued excellence. I’ve manifested everything I have in my life since I started fencing in fourth grade or fifth grade. We had a 5 year plan, a 10 year plan, and a 15 year plan. I wanted to go to the Olympics and I wanted to go to Columbia, and I did everything I wanted to do. I realized that I can make the things I want happen. I want to to use that skill that I have to get things done for the black community. I want to empower to be this capable and productive with our time and effort. I want to give back to the next generation and make sure that they are living their best lives and providing the best life for the people around them as best as they can. I also want to be cute in the process.
I think I’m really trying to understand this mission and really internalize it, because it’s a deep mission. It’s a shift from being a fencer and trying to be the best. So I’m really trying to embody it more and more every day.