“In London, I was a child. In Rio, I matured. In Tokyo, I will manifest.”—I’ve recently created this mantra to make sense of my journey as an athlete. I started fencing at 11 years old, while living in the Bronx, New York. My mother, sister, and I moved there from St. Thomas, USVI when I was 5 years old. People often ask how a kid from the Bronx could dream to fence, find an access point, work hard at it, and then excel. The answer is simple – a book. In my youth, I had a habit of reading Children’s Dictionaries (I took pride in growing my vocabulary). I came across the word fencing accompanied by a picture of an athlete. I fell in love. Growing up, I tried my hands at baseball and cross country. Once I found fencing, I dropped everything else and devoted myself completely. People ask what it was like growing up in a ‘white sport’. The answer is that my first fencing experiences were actually predominantly black. My mother sent me to The Peter Westbrook Foundation, which was actually started as a means to recruit inner city youth into the sport, and pair them with the top coaches in the country and the world. By 16 years old, I began having my first international experiences. My first competition was held in a small factory town in southern Poland, not glamorous by any means. I left the tournament with my first international medal, but more importantly, having met individuals from all over Europe, and realizing that this offered me a completely new perspective in life. From the age of 16 ‘til present day, I’ve traveled on 8-10 foreign trips a year. My favorite cities are Dakar, Paris, Amsterdam, Seoul and Madrid, while some unique destinations have included Azerbaijan, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, and Venezuela.
Throughout all of these voyages I’ve formed life experiences, but gained a more global perspective of what it’s like to be a black male in an ever changing world. As Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin mention in their respective works, being black and abroad is a different experience from being black in America, especially when you factor in athletics. I’ve been privileged to occupy a special place amongst most of my international friends. Many times they saw value in things that I didn’t – for example: my life story. Many of my friends sat me down and explained to me that for them, I was living the American Dream. A kid from the Bronx, traveling the world, making a life for himself, and winning on an elite level in a sport that wasn’t meant for him. That touched me royally.
The powerful thing about a sport like fencing is that I get to lead the change. I am not the only black fencer. There are a number of us on the French, British, U.S., and even one fencer on the Ukrainian team. There are also several African nations that compete on the World Cup circuit. However, when I and a select few succeed, it puts diversity and inclusion center stage in a non-political and non-combative way. Simple pictures like one taken on the podium allow us to stand out and show that this sport is for everyone.
In 2015, I became the first Men’s Sabre fencer in history to medal at a World Championship. It was a huge occasion, my biggest athletic accomplishment at the time. I was overwhelmed by the love and support I got from my teammates, but shocked by the amount of love I got from countries that don’t traditionally do well at fencing (our sport is dominated by Europeans). Members of the Senegalese and Congolese teams were literally pushing my coach out of the way to get pictures of me, saying this is a win for us. Friends from Venezuela, Hong Kong, and China stopped by to pay their respects. Friends from the French and British teams partied with me all night. It showed me that representation is key not only in our diaspora community, but that we can lead GLOBAL change.
Every time I look at results and see younger fencers of African descent, no matter what country they represent, I am proud. Proud that they are continuing to push doors open, proud because just competing is a sign of success and access for us, proud because as we win medals our stories begin to be told more and more. It’s really a privilege – one I’ve learned to embrace.
Travel has always been a huge part of my life. It’s made me the man I am today. In my youth, I traveled solely for sport. I didn’t have the resources to do much else, but as I’ve gotten older, travel has become a part of my rest and recovery program. Each summer, I go to Guadeloupe with good friends from the French National team, and spend time island hopping. I go home to St. Thomas at least two times a year to spend time with family and to rediscover my roots. Recently, I’ve become fascinated with the idea of home, and how relative it can be. I feel at home in so many places: The Virgin Islands, NYC, and of course Africa.
My last story is about a trip I took this past fall to Senegal. It was my first trip to the homeland, and surely won’t be my last! I touched down in Dakar and was overwhelmed at the beautiful black faces. I was in a continent where the majority of people looked like me for the first time in my life. I found that powerful and overwhelming. I was told before my trip that visiting Senegal is a good way to ease into the experience of traveling through Africa. While there I connected with a local influencer and tastemaker collective known as DakarLives, and
was able to experience the real Dakar. I toured the Goree, where West African slaves departed for the Americas and the Caribbean. I swam in Lake Retba (Le Lac Ros) and ate meals in private homes, but more importantly was able to give back through my sport with a non profit called OSIWA. My trip home showed me how much beauty there is in the world if you just step out and look for it. It showed me that Africa is love and simplicity even through all of the hardship. Overall, it gave me a renewed perspective and inspiration.
And now to today. I’ve won a medal at the Olympic Games (the first one in 112 years in my discipline), I’ve traveled the world, what’s next? To manifest and bring my vision to the world. To win more medals, to share more deeply, and to make my small impact on the world. How that looks I don’t know, but the future is bright. I’ll embrace that.