Black History Month: Professional athletes on overcoming obstacles

Published: Feb. 12, 2020 at 2:23 PM EST
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In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating trailblazers who have excelled in their fields and helped to change the course of history.

Willie O'Ree broke the NHL's color barrier in 1958 as a winger for the Boston Bruins.

Nzingha Prescod, 27, is an American foil fencer. In 2015, she became the first African American woman to win an individual medal at the world championships.

They met for the first time recently in Washington, D.C., where they talked about their historic journeys and the work that's left to be done.

"When I stepped on the ice, I didn't realize that I was breaking the color barrier or... opening doors," O'Ree said. "I read it in the paper the next day."

"For me in my sport, in fencing, I've been one of few. But I can't imagine what it's like to be... the only person that looks like you," Prescod said. "How did it make you feel?"

"I was thrilled, you know, to be on the team at that time," O'Ree said. "I was faced with... some racism. But I just kept it in my mind that I'm here to be the best hockey player I can be and to represent the hockey club to the best of my ability."

"Right. I feel like it's kind of an extra feat that you have to overcome... I started fencing through the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York. Peter is a six-time Olympian. He's African American and he wanted to bring fencing to... more minority youth in New York. And so he started this program... He sponsored my training because fencing is super-expensive, so it excludes a lot of the population... I think we sent, like, seven or eight fencers to the Olympics," Prescod said. "And so I have this community of black fencers that made it really fun and exciting... But I, I don't know what it woulda been like to not have that buffer."

Willie O'Ree: The name-calling and the racial remarks were-- there... I've had cotton balls thrown on the ice.

Nzingha Prescod: Oh, no.

Willie O'Ree: I've had black cats thrown on the ice, you know, in different cities... But I always kept it on the ice. I have... one thought in mind, to play hockey and be the best hockey player I can be.

"To this day, systematically, even if it's not by saying, 'You're black. You're not allowed.' I think there's other constructs that have been developed to exclude black people," Prescod said. "It's wrong that you can only access certain sports if you have a certain amount of money."

"It's true," O'Ree agreed.

Willie O'Ree: I don't feel like-- a trailblazer. I just feel like--

Nzingha Prescod: But you are.

Willie O'Ree: ...An individual... that excelled in the, in the game that he loved... And then to be the first, to be the first in anything... is great.

Willie O'Ree: After I had finished playing my career I wanted to give back to the sport... And when I... came with the NHL... and worked with the diversity program, helping kids, you know, play hockey and learning them how to skate... I've been doing it now for, for 20, going on 23 years.

Nzingha Prescod: That's awesome!

Willie O'Ree: It's just a second love.

Nzingha Prescod: I'm with you. I wanna... share my sport... I don't wanna be one of few. I wanna be one of many.