(L-R) Akhi Spencer-El, Daryl Homer and Peter Westbrook pose for a photo together.
When Daryl Homer was 10 years old he saw an image in a children’s dictionary of a fencer wearing a mask, a white outfit and standing in the “en garde” position.
He was fascinated.
“I ran to my mom and said, ‘I want to try it out,’ and she kind of laughed at me,” Homer said. “She was interested, but she kind of laughed.”
Over the next year he kept seeing the sport in everything from movies to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to finally a commercial featuring two Black men fencing for a New York City cab. After seeing that commercial, Homer’s mom pulled out the Yellow Pages and found the Peter Westbrook Foundation, the namesake organization of the Olympic bronze medalist. The program’s stated objective was to push diversity, inclusion and representation to the forefront of fencing. Not long after, the 11-year-old Homer had a sword in his hand.
Westbrook’s unique program provided an environment through which Olympians and national team members (many of whom had come through the program) contributed as teachers and mentors to inner city youth. Many of these teachers and youth have created firsts for US Fencing, with names such as Keeth Smart, Erinn Smart, Ivan Lee, Akhi Spencer El, Nzingha Prescod, Ben Bratton, Kamara James and more having gone through the program
Now 29, Homer is a two-time Olympian whose 2016 silver medal made him the first American man to medal in sabre since Westbrook in 1984. TeamUSA.org caught up with the Team Toyota athlete to discuss his Olympic journey, the postponement of the Tokyo Games and his involvement giving back to both his sport and his community in honor of Olympic & Paralympic Day presented by Toyota.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So the men in the commercial turned out to be Westbrook, who’s a longtime mentor, and Akhi Spencer-El, a 2000 Olympian who’s currently your coach.
Did you understand back when you started what it meant to be around all these great athletes?
I was a kid, so it seemed normal. Even now, it sounds funny to say I was around so many Olympians as a child, but it all felt normal to me. We had all these people of African American descent who were Olympic athletes in fencing, so it wasn’t a reach for me to walk into the room and think one day that could be me.
It sounds like fencing was something you both immediately enjoyed and were really good at?
I definitely wasn’t good at it right away. There were a number of people within the program who were much better than I was. I was seen as talented, but it wasn’t the best person in my age category. I used to have crying fits and get really upset because I kept losing, but the foundation is a really loving place and everyone feels supported. One of the biggest things I’ve taken from Peter is that you can compete and still have kinship.
What stands out now, four years later, from that journey to the medal stand, going through the competition and winning a silver medal?
Standing on the podium, all my training and all the struggles ran through my mind — I had reached a goal that I’d set for myself as a child. You work, but you never know if you'll reach it. I grew into a man on that journey. I became more comfortable with who I was, channeled my focus and energy towards a goal, formed strong relationships with family and friends, and most importantly learned the importance of paying it forward. After an experience like that, you sit back and reflect on what’s next — how to continue to build and what does success looks like moving forward?
Did it feel like a full circle moment, winning the first men’s individual sabre medal since Peter when he was such an early influence?
Yeah, I mean, it’s huge. Peter and I have a close personal relationship, but to also have our names etched in history next to each other is really humbling. I’ve probably read his book “Harnessing Anger” hundreds of times throughout my life. The six Olympic teams and 13 national championships were always in the back of my mind. I may not beat those, but it’s nice to know that there’s something iconic and transcendental that bonds us together.
The men’s sabre team qualified for Tokyo in March right around the time when everything was starting to shut down. What was that like going from qualifying to all the uncertainty to finally the postponement of the Games until 2021?
We were still traveling and competing when the first wave hit. We were in Warsaw and suddenly we couldn't go to Italy the next weekend, because they were beginning to lock it down. It was an unsettling experience. We kept training as things were changing day to day, because as an athlete, you always want to be prepared. I think the conversation around the Games being delayed came a couple of weeks after the borders started to close around the world. It was a relief to hear the Games were delayed. It meant we no longer had the pressure of training day to day during a pandemic, but that quickly shifted to more logistical concerns. What does that mean for me financially? How do I shift my future? What does the next year and a half look like? My main takeaway from this entire experience is that you have to present where you are. I also thoroughly miss fencing. Just the physical experience of being able to go to the club with my friends and get some matches in. There’s nothing like being without something to show how valuable it really is to you.
You live in Harlem and have recently posted on social media about racism in the fencing world, being part of protest following the murder of George Floyd and other current events. What’s it been like being part of that and having the Black Lives Matter movement coming back to the forefront?
Black Lives Matter has been at the forefront of our community for quite some time. I'm happy it’s getting the national spotlight and allies are starting to take part in it. I’ve been on calls where something along the lines of “we understand how difficult this time period is” is said, but none of this is new. This “current circumstance” is an everyday reality for many of the black athletes in the sporting world. Many of us hold our communities in our hearts alongside our accomplishments. COVID-19 has wreaked tremendous havoc on the world. It’s also given each of us time to pause and reflect. How do we want to leave this world to our children? How can we be more empathetic and supportive to those around us? How can we lift up and empower those who are disadvantaged? Black Lives Matter continues to elevate our national conversation around systemic racism. It’s important specifically in a sporting context to think about the role we can play, both symbolically and with action, in supporting this national dialogue.
Does it seem different this time? Like maybe people are listening more and the message is getting out there in a way it hasn’t in the past?
COVID-19 stopped the world and that’s made it possible for us all to tune in. Individuals are pushing for increased representation and change across the entire nation. Organizations, spurred by those individuals, are starting to contribute to communities that have supported and enriched them. This is a time of grand reckoning and for massive change.
How have you dealt with racism you’ve experienced in the fencing world?
I think there are a variety of experiences that I’ve had, none I’m willing to elaborate on. But personally, I try to drown them out by cultivating a strong community around myself, speaking out and supporting those who do, and committing myself to my craft. My goal is to make the sport a better place for the next generation of athletes of color. They need to know they’re supported and that we are all part of each other’s journey.