As students return to their dorms from summer vacation, tales of their summer escapades usually fill the halls. For two talented Columbia athletes, tales of summer include breakfast with Michelle Obama. Even more impressive? It was at the XXX Olympic Games in London, where sophomore Nzingha Prescod and senior Nicole Ross both represented Team USA in the women’s individual foil for fencing.
In the year leading up to the Olympics, both Prescod and Ross chose to take time off from school to train. “I wanted to forgo school until I could give it my full attention,” Ross said. Although both Ross and Prescod were already training at a high level, the time commitment increased as the two trained more rigorously during the year-long qualification leading up to London. “That entire time was practice almost every day, if not twice a day,” Ross said.
Prescod elaborated on the specifics of their workouts: “During the day, I would do Pilates, core strengthening, and we would row for conditioning,” she said. “We would be bouting six days a week, actually sparring with an opponent.” Four days of the week, Prescod would train five hours a day and for another two, she would train for two to three hours.
But clearly, the training paid off this summer as they headed to London. Although both Prescod and Ross had previously attended the World Championships, the Olympic Games were an incomparable experience, they said. “Everyone is just catering to you. You’re treated like a princess all the time,” Prescod said. “Everything is all taken care of for you and all you have to worry about is your event and having fun.”
And although both Prescod and Ross said that competing in the event itself was the high point of the Olympics, both listed receiving free Team USA apparel and “cool gear”—including bedding from the Olympic Village—as among their favorite memories.
Prescod also mentioned the fencing team’s breakfast with Michelle Obama as one of the best parts of the experience. “She special requested the fencing team,” Prescod explained.
“I think for me, it was getting to be on the strip with my teammates and showing what we could do,” Ross said when asked about her most memorable moment.
But getting to the Olympics took a lot of hard work. For both athletes, the path to London started at a young age. Prescod and Ross were very athletic, and after trying various other sports as little girls, they both settled into fencing.
“My mom suggested it because I always loved movies with fencing in it ... like ‘The Princess Bride,’” Ross said. “She called up the Fencers Club and it just sort of stuck.”
The Fencers Club, located in Chelsea, is the oldest continuous fencing club in the United States, the home of the Peter Westbrook Foundation, and the birthplace of both Prescod and Ross’s fencing careers.
The Peter Westbrook Foundation, “basically introduce[s] you to the sport,” Prescod said. “They thought I had a lot of potential so they sponsored me to go to the Fencers Club. They paid for membership, lessons, and traveling.”
The Peter Westbrook Foundation and the Fencers Club not only financially supported a blossoming talent but also provided a network of emotional support and friendship.
“They were my family. They were supporting us all,” Prescod explained. In fact, her links to the Fencers Club were so strong that it was one of the factors in her choosing to attend Columbia in the first place, as she wanted to continue training with them. This was also the start of her longstanding friendship with fellow teammate and Lion, Nicole Ross.
“I’ve known [Nzingha] since she was probably 10 or 11 years old. She’s truly incredible. One of the best American fencers out there,” Ross said. “You know when you travel with someone, you have a bond that is very different. I look at her as a little sister, but I learn a lot from her.”
Michael Aufrichtig, Columbia’s head fencing coach—who also attended the Summer Olympics as a modern pentathlon coach—was able to witness the growth of these two women. “I remember one time, I was reffing at Columbia and I heard this one woman screaming and yelling and going crazy on the strip. And that was Nicole Ross,” Aufrichtig said. “I was like, ‘This girl is going to go someplace.’ I saw her develop from an amazing fencer to an Olympic fencer.”
Aufrichtig was able to see Prescod develop her talent. “I saw her grow from a 10-year-old fencer,” he said. “While she’s on the strip, she’s—I don’t want to say the Terminator, but she’s a very powerful force. Very different than if you would meet her at any other time.”
Through years of training and balancing fencing with schoolwork—as Columbia students, they have a heavy courseload—the two have arrived where they are today
Next, both Ross and Prescod will have a short break from fencing, before they return to the World Championships. In four years, we may see them yet again at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. But for now, they will continue to practice.
“I don’t look at it as training for the Olympics again,” Prescod said, “just training. Always trying to get better.”