On this episode of Shapers of Possibility - a Taylor Podcast, Marketing Coordinator Ebony Baker is joined by 2012 and 2016 US Olympic Team fencer and entrepreneur, Nzingha Prescod. Listen as they discuss the Olympics, mental health amongst athletes, life after the Olympics, and the Prescod Institute for Sports, Teamwork, and Education.
Intro (00:00): Hey you, welcome to Shapers of Possibility - a Taylor Podcast, where we discuss and dissect the integrated worlds of marketing, innovation, pop culture, sports, and all of the possibilities in between.
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Ebony Baker (00:24): Hello! My name is Ebony Baker, and I am the marketing coordinator for Taylor. Today I am joined by two-time Olympian fencer, world champion four-time senior world medalist who became the first Black woman to win an individual medal at the Senior World Championships winning bronze in 2015. And founder of the Prescod Institute for Sports Teamwork and Education. Nzingha Prescod.
Nzingha Prescod (00:55): Thank you for having me. Nice intro.
Ebony Baker (00:58): Thank you. It's not every day that you can interview an Olympian, so I am taking in this experience for sure. And so, our listeners know Nzingha is here to discuss her athletic career and life as an entrepreneur and Olympic fencing academy and learning center for Black and brown youth in Brooklyn. Without further ado, we are going to get started.
Nzingha Prescod (01:27): Cool.
Ebony Baker (01:27): Now, when it comes to fencing, that is a sport that I am not privy to a lot of us in the Black community. So, since it's not normally something that you hear about, how did you get started in fencing?
Nzingha Prescod (01:40): How did I get started? The same way. A lot of Black fencers, if you see any in this world, got started through the Peter Westbrook Foundation, which is a nonprofit based in Manhattan in New York City, founded by Peter Westbrook, who's a legend in fencing, not just black fencing in American fencing. All our godfathers, very much the gift of a lot of great life experience for all of us. So, I started there when I was nine and Peter's a six-time Olympian Olympic bronze medalist, really amazing person. My mom sent me there when I was nine. She put me in a lot of sports. My mom's very ambitious. If you could not tell by my name Audacity and name Nzingha, which I pronounced as Nzingha, but, so yeah, we started there at nine and then Peter transitioned, my sister and I started with my best friend epiphany.
(02:39): He transitioned us to the afterschool program. So, then we were coming into the city four, five times a week, starting at nine years old. From the outskirts of Flatbush, flatlands close to Canarsie, I was commuting to Manhattan four times, four or five times a week through my young adult and very much youth life. So yeah, that's how I started. I was really lucky. I was paired with the Olympic coach when I was 10 years old. So, I was training with Bucky Leach very amazingly. It was hard and that life is tough, but I'm very appreciative of the experience and it's shaped my character a lot. It's shaped my endurance a lot. It's shaped my tenacity, my resilience, my confidence, my can-do attitude because everything in my life has been really framed around my lessons of fencing, the actual training part, the actual sport of fencing. You learn mental acuity, its martial arts, so the sharpness of your mind has to be on point. Your decision making has to be on point. You're problem-solving skills on point, how you organize your mind on point, how you decide you do this, then you don't do this. Now you have, there's so much self-control required of the sport. And all of that is very much transferrable to real life. I'm very grateful for growing up in fencing, not only for the sport, the access to opportunity like college, traveling world. You can tell I talk about this a little bit.
Ebony Baker (04:17): Yes,
Nzingha Prescod (04:18): But also, the community. Yo, my best friends are in fencing. I grew up with these people and still revolve around this world. It's the core of my community. It's just really beautiful to have a space where everyone is pursuing high performance in this thing. It's a beautiful experience to have that Black community doing this unusual sport that's very much a developer of excellence. So, year-round, black excellence, constantly growing up and it's amazing to see and be part of and be part of the legacy of it. It's very special.
Ebony Baker (04:56): Your journey in fencing really is remarkable. It's not every day that you are able to listen to someone express how fencing out of all sports has really shaped their life and you as a person. So, thank you for sharing that. I know a lot of our listeners are wanting to know more about the Olympics, so may you speak to what it was like competing at the Olympics.
Nzingha Prescod (05:23): I read this question and my first thought was terrifying. I feel like every competition is a bit terrifying because you put so much of your life into it. You put so much effort into training and it's a sacrifice. And honestly when you're doing it, you don't realize how much of a sacrifice it is, but you're not living in real world, you're missing out on parties, you're missing out on this event, you're missing out with hanging with your friends, you're missing out on doing nothing like you don't get a lot of, nothing time when you're training for the Olympics and when you get there it's like, oh man, I put a lot of work into this to be here. And so, this is the moment, and it comes, and it goes. So, competing in the Olympics is terrifying, but it's fun. It's grand.
(06:06): It's like a very massive stage where everyone's watching, everyone's paying attention to your sport and honestly, you're competing every other weekend anyway when it's not the Olympic year. It's another competition. It's just the grandness of the stage is different and the eyeballs and the attention on it and what's at stake the title of it. It really takes a lot of composure and maturity to compete at the Olympics and be successful. But it's amazing. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to define her in my life. It's a lot of fun and it's really memorable. No one can take it away from me. It's nice to have an achievement in my life. Yeah.
Ebony Baker (06:45): Yes. And to your point, I think about the connections that you must have made while being there. You are seeing so many people, other athletes from all over the world, that's a great way to get to know other athletes and really see the craft that everyone is perfecting and has been working on for years. So yeah, that's awesome. What are some of the challenges that you faced being a Black Olympic fencer?
Nzingha Prescod (07:16): Yeah, a lot of people ask me this question and I didn't know how to answer it for a long time. I think some of the obvious things are that you stick out like a sore thumb, but that's a lot of. When I was really young, the landscape of fencing changed a lot on the high-performance level. It's like gymnastics, it's like a lot of sports. You see where the highest performers, you see a heavy contribution of Black people or heavier, but that's not representative of the broader population in the sport. So, fencing's a bit like that. But like I said, I grew up in a bubble of Black fencers, which was a godsend in my life. When you leave the club, it's another story and it's an adjustment. I would say the biggest challenge as a Black Olympic fencer from Brooklyn, from the outskirts of black Bush is I'm the only one that's the biggest challenge. I'm alone in this experience and now I don't fence anymore. It's like, okay, I've returned to my home and to another community and I'm the only one who's had this crazy intensive military experience.
(08:25): It's just weird. I still feel like finding belonging is tough in the outside world because I had this unusual path through my life. And so that is one of the most challenging things of having this, even though it was very amazing, is I didn't have a normative life experience just finding people and connection. And there's so many parts of me, I have so many identities and it can be challenging to understand myself as a whole because I see myself and I have connections with people in one lane of my life, but not necessarily multiple lanes. It can be hard to connect with people sometimes because I'm just like, hmm, I wouldn't have done it that way.
Ebony Baker (09:15): Yeah, and not everyone has your experience, you've said, I can only imagine what it's like to be isolated in that sense. You are surrounded by people that share that same craft and ambition and conditioning outside of that and not everyone is going to be able to connect because as we are all being conditioned in different ways, so I can understand how something like that would make you feel lonely, but knowing that you had that support amongst your fencing community is huge. When you think about fencing, you always are looking at it, oh, fencing is a white sport, but to know that Black people like yourself have really dominated in this realm is amazing. To know that there's a whole community of people that are doing it together, it's
Nzingha Prescod (10:15): Cool.
Ebony Baker (10:16): Yeah, it sounds really cool. Honestly, it makes me kind of like, dang, do I need to get into a sport?
Ebony Baker (10:25): Amazing.
Nzingha Prescod (10:26): Sports are
Nzingha Prescod (10:27): Amazing. I miss playing a sport. I work out, you see my Peloton, like
Ebony Baker (10:33): Love me a Peloton.
Nzingha Prescod (10:34): Yeah, I love Peloton, but it's not the same as sports. You don't interact with people on the Peloton. You're not exchanging emotion. Fencing is an expression of self. It's your personality in this weird combat with a sword, you get to exchange with someone and have a competition in a fun way. You don't get that spinning. Even swimming, it's one of my coaches called it a relationship sport,
(11:07): Not an individual sport, a relationship sport because there's someone in front of you who you respond to, who you provoke, who you trap, attack this person, you defend against this person. You have to adjust; you must accommodate this person in front of you. It's not just you who are having a social movement in fencing. I miss that exchange. I was playing tennis and I was like, yo, this is nice. You get to bring it back. I'm like, it's tricking you. I'm like, if I missed this, I missed. It's a very particular experience and it's cool.
Ebony Baker (11:46): Yes. The first word that came to my mind is poetic.
(11:51): Every time I look at fencing, there's just something about this that is very poetic and in the way that both sides are, as you said, responding from each other, trying to best each other. It's an intriguing sport for sure. But I want to double back on this conversation of you feeling that sense of loneliness outside of the sport While you were at the Olympics, did you ever struggle with your mental health? Mental health is something that is so prevalent now within the Black community and specifically sports. So, is that something that you ever struggled with throughout your journey?
Nzingha Prescod (12:34): Yeah, that's a good question. I feel like I never really recognized it as a struggle with mental health. I think everyone has some challenges with mental health at some points here and there. It's impossible to be happy every day, and so at some moments it's a longer strike of happiness than others. And sometimes you have a more extended period of happiness than other times, but it's always fleeting to me and in the moments of the lull of happiness where it's kind of avoidant. Sometimes it's longer than others, like I said. But I think as an athlete you learn to pick up well. I think the attitude of I can do and not giving up is relevant to mental health in general when going through depressive episodes. You have some tools and experience of feeling down and getting back up. I think being an athlete and having those experiences of loss of defeat, you're always losing in fencing training.
(13:36): If you're not losing, you're not growing. It doesn't make sense to be practicing and not losing. This is something you have to teach the kids. They are learning how to lose. A lot of 'em have a hard time learning how to lose, and so it's a similar muscle in yourself to, all right, I lost something disappointed in me. Something is making me feel off balance. How can I pick myself up? But I would say to look, looking at your next question, what would I say to athletes struggling with mental health? Take a break. Say your butt down. That's how I feel. Sit down, you need rest. When my mental health is struggling, and honestly, it's been tough being an entrepreneur's own thing of mental health struggles, that's a whole other thing. But what helps me is to just relax. My sister is always saying relax and give yourself time to relax and do things for yourself, things you enjoy, have dedicated time for. That's what I would say.
Ebony Baker (14:36): Yes, I appreciate your words. Even someone like me that has not had the same experience as your words resonate with me. Being a young, ambitious Black woman, even in corporate space, I believe that it is a part of our conditioning, always needing to do our best and having that idea that we are expected to outperform. So
Nzingha Prescod (15:03): Yeah,
Ebony Baker (15:04): When it comes to mental health, like you said, it is something that we do have to realize you're not going to be happy every day if you're striving for that. You are ignoring all of your other emotions that you probably should be feeling in certain situations, and that doesn't mean you have to overreact, but standing up for yourself and the emotions that come with that may not feel happy in the moment, but it helps you to feel that in the long run. Learning how to understand your emotion and why it is that you're feeling how you feel. So, your sister is right. Sit your butt down, take a breath.
Nzingha Prescod (15:48): Sit down.
Ebony Baker (15:50): Yeah, sit down and relax. The amount of times my family is like, okay, you got to relax. I think it's just something that we carry as a people to just feel, feel, but never ask. Why are you feeling this way?
Nzingha Prescod (16:10): You must give yourself grace. Yes. I don't expect perfection for myself. I give myself grace. I know, and this is my approach with the Olympics. You asked about competing at the Olympics. I don't expect to win the Olympics on my first time going, I want to do my best, but I understand it's a process to get to the top. And in my whole career, it's been a long game career. I know when I get to the next, it's like you go through the age rank, so under 16, under 20, and then you're in senior. I know when I'm in under 16, I probably won't make the Olympics. I will try to, but it's tough. It's not like I have that expectation. I understand it's a long game that I'm playing, and I think sometimes I see this with my kids a lot.
(16:56): They don't want to play the long game. They're just like, they want immediate satisfaction. And it's part of the process to lose and to not achieve your end point that you're reaching for. It's not going to happen right away, but that's resilience and that's something I think you learn a lot in sport. And I also think that a lot of the news around Simone Biles and mental health and the Olympics and athletes and fencing and other Olympic sports are high performance. Anytime you're dabbling in high performance, whether it's corporate, I work at Ernst and Young and they love to talk about high performance, like high performing teams, and so that's consulting. Any kind of corporate where you must deliver to a client. There's some kind of bottom line you're trying to achieve. Performance is really important, and I think when performance is so heavily valued, your mental health has potential to be compromised, but that's where you have to really pay attention to your limitations and take self-care.
(17:56): Another thing, there's so much buzz around this word or these two words, balance. There's balance. There's balance. I probably need to take more balance on the self-care side, but I also think that I wouldn't be caring for myself if I weren’t doing my best to achieve the things I want to achieve in my life because I'm an achiever and those are my goals. That's how I've grown up. That's how I'm conditioned. Those are things I value heavily. So, if I'm not doing those things to get to where I want to be, that's not self-care to me
Ebony Baker (18:28): At all. Yeah, no, that's great. Balance is something that I feel that we all need to work on and exercise in our life and in all these other areas. We have an idea for ourselves and who we want to be and how we want to be perceived. But even to that point, there's an imbalance because who we are may not always match up with the way that we perceive ourselves and that perception can be based off how we want people to see us. If I'm constantly trying to be what everyone else wants me to be or sees me to be, then I'm already taking on that sense of imbalance in my life and that is ultimately affecting my mental health. This is exactly what I think people are going to appreciate. Just knowing that as you speak about your journey as an Olympian, those of us that have never gone to the Olympics or even played a sport still can relate to you and your journey. That's so important because we're constantly looking at people on television, look at their lives. I feel like they never experienced this and this, but to your point, we all feel lonely. We all have days where we're overreacting or just need to sit down. I'm going to switch gears because I must talk about your foundation, Prescod Institute for Sport Teamwork Education. I am so excited to hear all about it. What inspired you to start PISTE for short?
Nzingha Prescod (20:16): PISTE is an evolution of fencing in the park. When I was growing up, you can tell I was fully immersed in fencing. Whenever I wrote papers or anything, it's always this fencing that impacted my life. Oh, I managed my time in fencing, da da da da da. Oh, I learned this lesson in fencing, da da da da da. I've always written about fencing academically, and I've always been very ambitious in fencing, but also academically. When I went to college, I was asked to pick this major. I'm just like, what do I do? What do I study? I went back to what I know, which is fencing and how it's impacted me in my life and how it's given me access and changed my life trajectory in a lot of ways that looking at everyone else around me, they haven't had the same opportunities I've had. I've always wanted to figure out how to increase that access.
(21:16): I'm not the only one, so that I can share it with more people, especially people from where I grew up because I grew up in two worlds. As I was kind of saying, I grew up in a world of privilege in a world that doesn't have that kind of access. I saw kids at fencing going to private school, learning Latin, going to their country home in the Hamptons with their Havana’s and their Sophie shorts and their summer camp, and they're like, oh, I'm doing homework three hours at night. I'm studying for the S a t. I'm in eighth grade type stuff, which is New York City upper class. That's how that life is. And then, which we were very much exposed to too. We were exposed to a lot of fencing. It's not just Black community and fencing, it's the whole world of fencing, you're very much living in.
(22:08): And I saw that world. I would go back to Flatbush, and I grew up in public school. In public school it's like the quality of the education is really not comparable in many, many ways. The classrooms are huge. You don't have access to extracurricular enrichment, you don't have access to things where you can explore yourself, explore your likes, your dislikes, have those experiences if I want to go this direction in my life. You don't have those opportunities. You go to school; the teachers don't want to deal with you. You're in herds of classes. You go home. Everyone's kind of a little tough and wants to argue. Everyone wants to wear their nicest Jordan. It's like a fashion show going to school. But you know what was, that was my life. That was part of me. I went to school with my sister for a bit.
(23:00): Some of my best friends were in public school growing up in the neighborhood. So it was like I was in these two worlds and I just knew, this is not fair. This is crazy. And how do you expect to exist in this world? Compete? How do you tend to compete in this world when you don't have the development? So that was always when I went to college, that was the framework I was kind of studying, how do I do more fencing in the world, in the Black community, especially where I grew up, so that they have better access to opportunity. So that was my motivation and that's the background story of PISTE. I've always wanted to have a fencing club in my neighborhood because it's not here. I had a goddaughter who moved to Florida, but I always wanted her at a fence, and she tried, but didn't like it.
(23:50): I always wanted to bring it here for the community here. And so that peace is my fencing club in my home. And honestly, I've realized more and more just touching on the challenges of being a Black Olympic fencer. This is me trying to have a whole person in myself. I feel like I was displaced a bit when I grew up in fencing and now, I don't fence anymore, so I'm back home. And I want to marry for my lives. This is how I've done it. But the mission is heavily around education and youth development, quality, youth development experience. So that's how we're moving. It's very much a reflection of me and my values and things that have treated me well in my life and things I have access to. It's very cool. It's youth focused, but I also want to wrap in adult elements, social elements to make it fun because that's also very much part of me. It's been a challenge. I feel very equipped to do it, but it's still a lot of head down work.
Ebony Baker (25:01): Speaking of lack of resources when it comes to the difference between public and private school is something that needs to be exposed even more so because you'll have so many talented people that are going to public schools, but able to really express themselves and have the resources to get them to a point where they're even feeling comfortable about themselves and their future, while if they either attend college or choose to just continue to learn from life. That's something that as a society, we need to continue to discuss and act on. When it comes to your foundation, you are creating opportunity, let's just call it what it is. This is an opportunity for the Black and brown youth in your community to have an experience that they probably wouldn't have if they didn't attend a private school or didn't have an ambitious mother that wanted them to have a different experience, one that could help develop them as people. I think that that is amazing. And lastly, where do you see PISTE In three years?
Nzingha Prescod (26:28): The vision has always been to expand. I'm a person of growth. I don't like to stand still. I like to expand. So, expansion. I want to loop in more adult elements because I'm building this organization and it's heavily youth focused, but I spend all my time on it. And I want to have social elements too. And there's been so much interest in adults getting involved and being part of it and learning fencing. I think it's great for the kids too to see that it's in their culture. A lot of the motivation in having it in the community in this area is having it be normal, that this is for them. You don't have to leave your community to do this. This is for you. This is something you do here in your home. I want everyone to be fancy. I think there's a lot of value to it for adults, for young people.
(27:20): In three years, having way more people. Fencing, we have school programs, so that's a recreational route to fencing. We have our academy, which is more intensive, high-performance fencing. And then we have our park program, which is just very introductory and playful. So, we have tiered levels of involvement for everyone to get into. But in three years I want to have our own space. I don't want to do that this year. Cause right now we're at the Flatbush YMCA, so hopefully we get our space, have really sustainable funding coming in. There's no cost to the program. There are no required costs for families. The schools, we charge and events that help fund the program for three years, have more kids involved, have the kids be performing more nationally, internationally, potentially having the skills and the commitment to the sport, retaining all our kids, really keeping them to develop as people until they reach college and even beyond. Then get them into specialized high schools and other great schools. Have them go into college. Go to college with these schools, with fencing or without fencing, but having great educational experiences. Hope to expand sports in three years, I'm not sure. Depends on facilities and stuff like that. And having a lot of events
(28:45): As activation, being part of the culture, everyone fencing to be in the culture. Forget about basketball, it's about fencing.
Ebony Baker (28:55): I love that and I am here for it. That also speaks to the community response to know that adults I'm sure have walked past seeing you guys at the park, what's going on? That's wonderful. You already have that in your mind. Expansion is key and I'm willing to do that as soon as possible. So that ambition is going to take you as far as you want to go, and I really appreciate you sharing your experience with me being a fencer and your passion for wanting to give black and brown youth and communities the opportunity to step outside of the social norm and experience a new sport. Yeah,
Nzingha Prescod (29:45): To me it's a gift, but really, it's something everyone should have access to. It is a gift because I work with my time and energy, so I'm giving that, but really, I see it as, you should already have this, and you don't. Yeah. I have a Finsta and on my Finsta, there's this picture of this shirt that's like, no one wants to do it. Give it to a Black woman and she'll do it. You know what I mean? So, I'm like, no one's doing this. And it's a huge miss in the world. So, find a solutioning for it. Cause I know it's, it's life changing.
Ebony Baker (30:20): Yes, it is. Wow. This conversation has been so inspiring and for all that are listening, I hope you leave feeling inspired and wanting to learn more about fencing. With that being said, Nzingha, let everybody know where they can find you, where they can keep up with you, where they can donate and really support you on your journey.
Nzingha Prescod (30:47): Yeah. We're going to be having a few events. I'm working. I was working on the website, right before I logged onto this, but our new website's going to be www.pisteacademy.org, pisteacademy.org. Please join our newsletter so we can reach out to you. And we're having events. We want to invite you guys so we can build community, adult community, youth, community support, each other community. We're looking to collaborate with brands and orgs and partners, and there's a lot of room to build together. And if you're interested in learning more, please reach out.
Ebony Baker (31:25): Yes, I love that. And donate. I'm just going to say it.
Nzingha Prescod (31:29): Donate. Yes. Thank you. Thank you. Yes. Like I said, this is a free program. We need dollars coming in consistently from every direction. Grassroot dollars, corporate dollars, individual private dollars, foundation dollars. If you have contacts through your work partners at your organization or your company have dedicated dollars to nonprofits or a billionaire Brooklyn Fencing Club. Any of that. If you have access to a foundation that gives out youth development grants and something like that, you only get these grants if you know somebody. So please connect with us.
Nzingha Prescod (32:09): Yes. Yeah.
Ebony Baker (32:11): Yes.
Ebony Baker (32:12): Well, again, I want to thank you so much for having this conversation with me today. I'm so excited to see you where your endeavors take you, and I look forward to following you on your journey.
Nzingha Prescod (32:22): I appreciate it. This is fun. Thanks for having me.
Ebony Baker (32:24): This is the Shapers of Influence podcast. I am Ebony Baker, and I look forward to you tuning in to the next
Ebony Baker (32:31): Bye
Nzingha Prescod (32:31): Bye guys.
Outro (32:34): Well, that wraps up this episode of Shapers of Possibility—a Taylor Podcast. To learn more about what we do at Taylor, you can find us at TaylorStrategy.com.
Looking for more episodes of the podcast? Find us wherever you stream stuff—we’re on iTunes and other major streaming platforms. And be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter: at Taylor Strategy. Thanks for stopping by and tuning in. Peace.
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