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U.S. fencer Daryl Homer follows mentor’s trail to medal stand

Little Daryl Homer saw a cool picture of a fencer in a book and wanted to try it. His mom was flummoxed. They lived on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. Where could she find a place that taught such an upper-crust sport? Several years later, she saw a television commercial with a man fencing for the right to enter a taxi. The man with a sabre in his hand was Peter Westbrook.

That moment came full circle Wednesday night in the Olympics, when Homer won silver in individual sabre. It’s the first men’s individual sabre medal for the United States since Westbrook won bronze in 1984.

“This has been a journey for 15 years,” said Homer, who finished sixth in the 2012 Olympics. “I’m happy to be on the podium, happy to have competed, happy to have left it all out there. And happy that I had faith in my ability.”

Homer’s journey began at age 11, at the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York City, which is dedicated to enriching the lives of youths from underserved communities. More than 4,000 participants have passed through the program since it was founded in 1991, 85 percent of them African-American or Latino.

Homer and Westbrook are both African-American, and Westbrook’s foundation has become a pipeline for black Olympic fencing talent. Westbrook himself competed in five Olympics. His program sent four black fencers to the 2004 Olympics. This year in Rio, black Westbrook alumni include Homer, Nzingha Prescod and Ibtihaj Muhammad, who competed for the U.S. wearing the hijab of her Muslim faith.

“I’m always really happy to represent my community wherever I go,” said Homer, 26. “But I always tell people there are more black fencers than you think there are. There are more black fencers on the team [five of the 17 U.S. fencers are black] than people think there are, currently. So it is great to be able to represent my community, but this is a win for us; it’s a win for America.”

Homer is only the fourth American man to win an individual sabre Olympic medal, joining Westbrook, William Grebe (silver, 1904) and Albertson Van Zo Post (bronze, 1904).

At a muscular 5-foot-8, Homer is small for a fencer but thrives on big stages. He has won several Pan American Games titles, and in 2015 he became the first American sabre fencer to medal at the world championships with a silver in Moscow.

“I love the pressure of it, I love being free, and I love putting all the marbles on the table and seeing who’s gonna get ’em,” said Homer, who is not lacking in confidence. “I’m an all-or-nothing dude.”

His profile has grown leading up to Rio, with appearances ranging from Vogue magazine to A$AP Ferg’s “New Level” video. But Homer struggled in competition after trying to tweak his technique after his silver at the 2015 worlds. “I had to quiet my mind, stop thinking so much, trust the people around me,” he said.

One of those people was Westbrook. They spoke a half-dozen times per week as he trained for the Games.

“Take the pressure off, fence every touch and go for everything,” Homer recalls Westbrook saying. “Really enjoy yourself and have fun fencing. Sometimes the fun can get sucked out.”

“I wouldn’t have found an access point to fencing without Peter,” Homer said, medal gleaming on his chest. “So [without him], I probably wouldn’t be here.”

This story is featured on ESPN.com

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.