A jab of joy

Lily Leung

Northwestern freshman sabreist Mai Vu has always been under the guidance of champions.

When she was 12, three-time fencing Olympian and former U.S. National Champion Steve Mormando coached the Manhattan native. Soon after, she was under the tutelage of Mika-il Sankofa, also a former Olympian and national champion. Now the 18-year-old is under the direction of NU fencing coach Laurie Schiller, a recipient of three Midwest Fencing Conference Coach of the Year awards.

But Vu may never even have heard of these elite fencers if not for the Peter Westbrook Foundation.

The PWF is a non-profit organization that teaches fencing pro bono to New York City inner-city youths. Vu became the foundation’s first sabreist when she started there in 1998.

This weekend, Vu will be among five NU women sabreists to compete at the USFA North American Cup in San Jose. Vu will take part in both the senior and junior divisions.

Before her days at the PWF, Vu began fencing at the urging of her mother, Van Dao, who wanted her to improve her self-defense skills. Dao signed Vu up for a fencing program at NYU, and it was there that Mormando discovered the youngster’s talents. He said he was impressed that she could beat older fencers, and boys.

The PWF was started in 1991 by Peter Westbrook, a bronze medalist in the men’s Sabre at the ’84 Olympics. According to the program’s Website, Westbrook used fencing to avoid the ravenous lifestyle that many are subject to in the projects of Newark, N.J.

About 130 students are enrolled in the weekly program, while an average of 15-30 participate in more advanced training. Each session involves conditioning, concentration games, drills, one-on-one lessons with Olympic coaches and bouting. Vu spent a total of six years in the program.

Although she said she was more fortunate than many inner-city kids, Vu, who is of Vietnamese heritage, often witnessed people who entered the program as drug dealers and gang members, but left with changed lives.

“I personally didn’t face those kinds of hardships, but I witnessed a lot of transformations,” she said. “I really enjoyed giving back to the community to inspire those inner-city kids. I saw both potential and hardship in these kids.”

PWF also offers free tutoring. Tutors come from schools like Columbia, NYU and St. Johns. The foundation’s athletic and scholastic preparation has helped fencers get into some of these upper-echelon schools. Schiller said he knows the difference the program can make for minorities.

“Peter (Westbrook) is a fantastic guy who has reinvested his considerable talent in fencing back into fencing,” he said. “We have been very pleased with Mai so far. She has shown herself to be a tough and savvy competitor and has added much to the team.”

Although Vu has learned from several leaders in the fencing field, she said she has not yet reached her full potential.

“PWF is successful in creating champions,” she said. “Am I there yet? Not yet, but one day I will be.”