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Archivist's Angle: Formidable Fencers at NYU

NYU students fencing on a rooftop.

By Claire Ashley Wolford (GSAS '13)

The New York University Fencing team began as an informal club sport with little funding in 1923. Within a year, however, the team had expanded its membership enough to create the varsity fencing team and joined the Intercollegiate Fencing Association (IFA) in 1924. In 1927, fencer Julia Jones joined the men’s team, encouraging other female fencers to join. Two years later, they formed the Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association and found a separate coach for the women’s team. Since then, the NYU fencers have garnered national recognition and have been frequently represented in the Olympics.

The first season in 1923 was a bit rocky, however, according to the NYU yearbook, The Violet: “despite the early handicaps of lack of equipment and proper coaching, the team finally came around.” That year, the fencing team lost two games and won one. In 1927, Miguel de Capriles, the captain of the team, found Julio Martinez Castello to coach the NYU Men’s fencing team. Castello had previously been the coach of the American Olympic fencing team and he lead NYU to a long series of individual and team victories in IFA and NCAA competitions. He remained the team’s coach from 1927 to 1947, when his son, Hugo Castello took over. Hugo Castello coached the team until 1979, leaving behind a 50-year legacy of Coach Castellos.

Neil Diamond fencing at NYU.

The NYU fencers have always distinguished themselves as talented and driven athletes, but during the 1950s to the late 1970s, the team was recognized as one of the best in the nation. From 1966 to 1974 they lost only four matches, going undefeated for a number of years. They were also NCAA Champions on a number of different occasions, including 1947, 1954, 1957, 1960, 1961, and 1970. The NYU men’s and women’s fencing teams have also cheered for dozens of alumni competing in the Olympics, including the de Capriles brothers, Jose and Miguel; Sally Pechinsky Ballinger; Michael Lofton; and Peter Westbrook. The Jose and Miguel de Capriles brothers were both team captains and talented fencers in the 1920s and 1930s; they went on to compete in the Olympics numerous times, and Miguel won bronze medals in 1932 and 1948. Sally Pechinsky Ballinger was the first female fencer from NYU to compete in the Olympics in 1968. And Lofton was at the time the youngest fencer in U.S. Olympic history when he competed in the 1984 Olympics and finished 17th among the world’s best fencers.

1984 Olympic bronze medal winner Peter Westbrook.

Peter Westbrook won a scholarship to NYU for his skills with the saber in 1971. Son of a Japanese mother and an African-American father, Westbrook took fencing lessons as a child to keep off the streets of the Newark projects. After graduating NYU, Westbrook qualified for six Olympic teams and won a bronze medal in 1984. One of the first prominent biracial fencers, Westbrook began the Peter Westbrook Foundation to provide inner city kids access to fencing. During the 2000 Olympics, three fencers of the American team –Keeth and Erinn Smart and Akhi Spencer-El –learned fencing from Westbrook free of charge through his foundation. Keeth Smart went on to win a silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games.

Another notable alumnus of the NYU fencing team is singer Neil Diamond. In 1959, Diamond came to NYU on a fencing scholarship. Before finishing his degree, however, the singer left the University to pursue his music career. In 2003, NYU awarded the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer an honorary degree.

The NYU fencing teams remain some of the most competitive in the nation. Both the men’s and women’s teams compete in Divisions I, II, and III and are ranked within the top 10 in all three divisions. Throughout its existence, the men’s fencing team has won 26 All-Time Individual Championships and 12 All-Time Team Championships in the NCAA. Most recently, senior co-captain Ricky Woodward and sophomore Jess Sherman competed in the North American Cup. The fencing team is a testament to NYU’s athletic talent and competitive spirit.

For more information about NYU Fencing, visit the NYU Athletics site.


For more information about NYU Fencing, visit the NYU Athletics site.

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