While training for Olympic qualifiers this season, most days began for two-time U.S. Olympic fencer Nzingha Prescod with a scooter and a crutch.
The hip pain has been that intense for the most decorated African American woman in U.S. fencing history.
Prescod often uses a scooter to get to her train stop in New York City. When she’s not on the scooter, she either uses a crutch to get around or deals with a limp. Hip replacement surgery is upcoming. She’s just 27 years old.
And until December, Prescod was still competing on the world cup circuit as she and the rest of the U.S. women’s foil team focused on its run toward the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I literally have a disability and was trying to fence,” she told TeamUSA.org.
Prescod’s dreams of competing at her third Olympic Games this summer in Tokyo have fallen apart with her hip problems. Earlier this week, Prescod took to her Instagram account to inform her followers of the seriousness of the injury.
She told TeamUSA.org on Wednesday that she has retired from competition, ending a decorated fencing career that began at the age of 9 at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a nonprofit fencing club in New York City founded by Olympic bronze medalist Peter Westbrook. Ten years after starting the sport she became an Olympian, and three years after that, she became the first African American woman to win a fencing medal at the world championships, claiming bronze. In total she competed at two Olympic Games and 10 world championships, earning four world medals.
Prescod has become a magnet for African American children trying out the sport of fencing and volunteers every Saturday at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, which she still called her home club while rising into international fame with U.S. women’s foil partners and close friends Lee Kiefer and Nicole Ross, both fellow Olympians.
“I’m grateful that I had a lot of good results and recognition, that I could represent for the young black children who might be interested in fencing, being a face they could recognize and encourage them to do the sport,” Prescod said.
But for at least the last year, Prescod has endured considerable physical pain because of avascular necrosis of the hip.
Avascular necrosis, also known as osteonecrosis, is a painful condition that happens when blood to the head of the femur is disrupted. The condition kills bone tissue and can lead to tiny breaks in the bone, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“There was no moment where I wasn’t fencing with pain,” Prescod said. “It’s just like, what level of pain was I willing to endure?”
And that was after Prescod even made it to the competition venue, which in most cases came after an international plane trip.
“Just getting to the tournament was a battle,” she said. “I honestly don’t understand. Looking back, what was I doing? I think my threshold of pain is really high and that’s how I even got here.”
Prescod, who is ranked 34th in the world, has not competed on the world cup tour since November, then finishing 69th in Cairo, Egypt. It was her worst individual finish since April 2018. The fact she got there was triumph enough.
“I have this struggle to walk, just to walk,” she said. “I haven’t been able to walk well for over a year. I’ve been uncomfortable walking, and it just progressively got worse and worse.”
The final decision to retire did not come easily. She consulted with friends. She thought deeply.
“I definitely don’t feel like I gave up,” Prescod said, her voice cracking during a phone interview. “I feel like the circumstances are so unfortunate.”
Prescod’s sudden retirement is a blow to a women’s foil team that has hopes of reaching the podium in Tokyo. The team, ranked fourth in the world right now, has medaled at the past three world championships.
Indeed, Prescod has close relationships with fencers on the Team USA. She, Kiefer and Ross, a 2012 Olympian, have known each other for 15 years and counting. They competed together when they were kids. They won a historic world title in 2018, their eighth worlds together, becoming the first U.S. foil team, male or female, to win a world title.
“We’re a family,” Prescod said. “They feel for me, I feel for them.”
“We truly know each other’s struggles and hopes and dreams,” Kiefer told TeamUSA.org last year.
For now, it’s a struggle, physically and emotionally, for Prescod, who is a 2015 graduate of Columbia University in New York and a sports ambassador for the Fencing in the Schools program. She works in data analytics for London-based EY in its New York office. It is one day at a time, often one step at a time. One day, she even got cited for riding a scooter in a train station just to get around.
“It’s been terrible,” Prescod said of her hip. “It’s been so hard and no one knows. I keep everything by my bed. … Every step hurts. It’s terrible. Oh, my God, I feel for all these people with disabilities, it’s so hard to go through life like that.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.