ROAD TO RIO | Nzingha Prescod ready to carve out her place in history

History runs in the lineage of Rio-bound fencer Nzingha Prescod and at the point of her sword.

She is believed to be a distant relative of Samuel Jackman Prescod, a 19th century abolitionist and the first black man to serve in the Barbados parliament.

Her mom named her for a 17th century African queen, Nzinga Mbande, known for her military prowess.

When the 2016 Olympic Games open in Brazil Aug. 5, it will mark the second Olympics for the modern-day Nzingha (pronounced nuh-ZING-ah), who placed 22nd in the individual foil event four years ago in London.

She is a different fencer this time around: more confident, skillful, battle-tested. Her 2015 world bronze medal, where she defeated 2012 Olympic champion Elisa Di Francisca of Italy, was a breaththrough. She realized that concentrating on the process, rather than the result, was key. She is currently ranked 10th in the world.

“Right before the Olympics I want to do the same sort of thing,” said the 23-year-old Prescod by phone as she walked her 10-pound Chihuahua, Jackman, named for you-know-who. “If I prepare the right way, I think I can medal again. That’s my goal. Honestly I want to win a gold medal. I honestly really want to just fence well. I feel like if I’m focused on executing things well and the process of doing it, I’ll come away with a medal.”

Prescod has come a long way since London. She earned a political science degree in 2015 from Columbia. She is working with a sports psychologist to boost her confidence, which, she admits, comes and goes. Her bronze was the first individual world medal won by a black American woman. In 2013, she was the first American woman foil fencer to win gold at a Grand Prix, one of a series of elite international competitions.

Prescod’s was one of five world championship medals won by U.S. fencers last year, the most ever by an American team. That bodes well for Rio, where the team will try to improve on just one Olympic medal won in London, a big comedown from the windfall of six in 2008.

Her biggest emotion upon earning her second Olympic berth March 12? Relief. Even by phone, you can practically hear the exhale.

“It was closer this year than it has been other years,” she said. “A lot less room for error.”

That’s because certain events are rotated out from each Olympic calendar, and for 2016, it was team foil’s turn. That meant just two slots instead of the usual four for U.S. women’s foil Olympians. With four women (Prescod, Lee Kiefer, Nicole Ross and Sabrina Massialas) ranked in the top 21 internationally, it was a taut, tension-filled 11 months of qualifying.

Complicating matters was Prescod’s months-long recovery from a torn hip muscle in late 2014. When it was over, Prescod landed the second spot behind world No. 4 Kiefer. The world bronze, said Prescod, “was a blessing.”

Like many U.S. minorities in the predominantly white sport, Prescod is a product of the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York City, which paid for — and still pays for — Prescod’s private lessons, said her mom, Marva.

Marva Prescod, a single mother who raised her two girls while getting a law degree, had them play all kinds of sports — tennis, basketball, swimming. Nzingha also played piano and chess.

Then she read about the foundation that produced Olympians. She enrolled 9-year-old Nzingha and her older sister Tekeya.

“I always thought, from the time I took them to fencing, there’s a possibility,” Marva said. “You never know.”

Marva, now an attorney in family law, rarely had to remind Nzingha to do her schoolwork.

“She has always been disciplined,” said Marva. “She loves to be busy.”
Prescod loved the precision of the foil event, where only the tip of the weapon scores and the target is limited to the torso. But as much discipline as the sport requires, it also rewards improvisation.

“I think other sports would be boring,” said Prescod, saying, for instance, that sprinting is the same motion repeated. Swimming is the same, lap after lap. Fencing, on the other hand, is jazz compared to other sports’ backbeat.

Buckie Leach, Nzingha’s coach since she was 10, said her creativity caught his attention. Many kids, he said, will do what they’re taught. Prescod would also try moves and attacks of her own.

“All of a sudden,” said Leach, “they do something you don’t expect. … You can’t necessarily always teach it.”

For Olympic-bound Prescod, the rest is history.
SIUE’s Polster has U.S. men’s soccer on brink
Matt Polster would be headed to Rio if the U.S. men’s U-23 soccer team manages to qualify for the Games in a do-or-die match against Colombia Tuesday in Dallas.

The winner advances to the 2016 Olympics.

Polster, a midfielder who played for Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and now with the MLS Chicago Fire, played all 90 minutes of the team’s gritty 1-1 game against host Colombia and a hostile crowd Friday. The underdog U.S. scored in the fifth minute, then withstood furious attacks, along with a goal on Colombia’s penalty kick in the 68th minute, to salvage the valuable draw.

Because of that, a win or a scoreless tie in Dallas will be enough to qualify, something the U.S. men failed to do in 2012. Polster joined the team just the week before the Columbia series.
Water polo goalie Johnson is Rio-bound
Princeton’s Ashleigh Johnson and the U.S. women’s water polo team, the world’s most dominant women’s team in the sport right now, made it official Saturday: They are going to the 2016 Olympics.

Johnson, the first African-American woman to make an Olympic water polo team, is from Miami – the only non-Californian on the roster.

Johnson split time in goal with Sami Hill to shut out France, 19-0, on Saturday to clinch the berth. Taking a year off from Princeton paid off for Johnson, member of a team that currently holds Olympic, world championship, World League and World Cup titles.
Fencers Dershwitz and Holmes qualify
Harvard’s Eli Dershwitz, 20, qualified for the men’s U.S. Olympic saber team by beating the world No. 3 fencer, along with the reigning Olympic bronze medalist in a breakthrough tournament in Korea last weekend.

Dershwitz, who will be the youngest U.S. fencer at the 2016 Rio Games, won his career-first Grand Prix event, the first U.S. male to do so since Keeth Smart in 2008.

Dershwitz, now ranked world No. 8, vaulted into Olympic medal contention by beating world No. 3-ranked Bongil Gu of Korea in the quarterfinals and 2014 Senior World champion and 2012 Olympic individual bronze medalist Nikolay Kovalev in the semifinals.

Kat Holmes, who put her Princeton education on hold, had a less-dramatic path to Rio, claiming her Olympic berth with a 6-0 finish in pool competition in Hungary to round out the epee team.
UConn star Stewart a Sullivan finalist
Connecticut can-do-everything basketball star Breanna Stewart, whose UConn Huskies are bound for another Final Four this weekend, is a finalist for the 86th AAU Sullivan Award, given to the nation’s top amateur athlete.

Joining her are Brittany Bowe (speedskating), Derrick Henry (Alabama football), Keenan Reynolds (Navy football), Mikaela Foecke (Nebraska volleyball), Jordan Burroughs (USA Wrestling) and Simone Biles (USA Gymnastics).

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