Born: April 13, 1979
Birthplace: Baltimore, Maryland
Residence: New York, New York
Weight: 180 lbs.
With a name fit for a king, it’s no surprise that Akhnaten Spencer-El, who goes by the nickname “Akhi”, is reaching royal heights in the world of fencing. Akhi’s mother named him after Egyptian King Akhenaton.
While Akhi’s neighborhood in Harlem is worlds away from Egypt’s pyramids, this 21 year-old has, in many ways, already reached his personal pyramid of success. Besides making his Olympic debut at the Sydney games as one of two members of the U.S. men’s sabre team, he’s also the first American to be ranked on the junior level as best in the world.
Who helped Akhi claim these titles of fencing fame? The man who’s been there every step and every sword clash along the way: Peter Westbrook. Akhi is just one of hundreds of inner city youth who have learned the sport of fencing through The Peter Westbrook Foundation. Akhi says fencing taught him how to pay attention and concentrate. “It taught me how to strive and complete something. I never thought I’d make the Olympic team.”
Akhi’s fencing weapon, the sabre, was introduced into Europe in the late 18th century and used by the Hungarian cavalry. Originally, it was a very heavy curved sword. Then in the late 19th century, a lighter, more easily wielded weapon, with only a slight bend, was developed in Italy for the purpose of dueling and fencing. Today’s modern fencing weapon is straight, but still has a cutting edge that can be used to make scoring hits on an opponent. A hit may be made from the waist, upwards to the head, with either the tip or with the upper third of the sabre’s back edge.
Growing up in Harlem, Akhi had a hard edge too. He had run-ins with the law and failing grades in school. That all changed when Akhi turned 14. He started to harness and transform his inner city angst, into learning the technical and etiquette know-how of the sword, at his new hangout: The Peter Westbrook Foundation. Westbrook/s rule of requiring fencers to do well in school helped guide Akhi back to his schoolbooks, and eventually out of trouble. Akhi says the Foundation also taught him how to express himself. “In my neighborhood”, Akhi says, “I had to watch out what I would say. I couldn’t talk about my real feelings or I’d be considered soft and get preyed upon. But, when I came to the Peter Westbrook Foundation, Peter and the rest of the guys made everything so comfortable.
In a recent interview, Peter Westbrook likened Akhi’s transformation from a quiet kid to a confident adult as that of a cocoons’ metamorphosis into a butterfly. Those who know Westbrook credit him for placing the wind under Akhi’s wings. Peter says, “When Akhi first walked through the door of the Foundation I saw someone just like me.” Peter knew that, in time, Akhi would take flight.