When recent Gilman graduate Amir Whitehead tells someone what sport he competes in, the reactions are a mixed bag.
Most of his classmates, friends and anybody among the younger crowd often do a double take. Some even laugh.
Adults, though, show curiosity and interest.
That’s when the 18-year-old Parkville resident’s eyes light up. For Whitehead, it’s a chance to share his endless passion for fencing.
“When somebody says, ‘I play basketball’, everybody knows about basketball. But as soon as I tell somebody that I fence, their face is — I don’t want to say — but lost,” said Whitehead, who adds that it’s rare for him to see fellow Black fencers. “So, at that moment, I realize, ‘Wow, I have an opportunity to sell somebody else about fencing.’ It’s just a joy for me to be able to talk about this great sport that a lot of people don’t know that much about.”
Once a stage actor, Amir’s father, Johnnie Whitehead, learned how to fence for performances and introduced his son to the sport when he was 8 years old.
Amir went back and forth between fencing and baseball until eighth grade, when his father encouraged him to pick one sport to fully invest in. A quick peek from the kitchen window told Johnnie where his son’s allegiance belonged.
“We have a batting cage in our backyard and he wasn’t in it — I saw him with a stick in his hand fencing,” Johnnie said. “I said, ‘All right Amir, I’ve got a question for you.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘I know what you’re going to ask me … what sport do I really want to do?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to ask you that question and I already know what you’re going to pick — you’re going to pick fencing.’”
Since then, Amir has been all-in when it comes to the sport, competing in foil competitions. When he started, he fenced out of the Chesapeake Fencing Club in Parkville and now works with coach Charles Greene, who runs Academies of Fencing in Baltimore in Catonsville. Whitehead regularly competes in tournaments during the weekends — sometimes more than one on a given day — and has traveled the East Coast and elsewhere to enjoy his passion.
Before his recent high school graduation, Amir’s typical weekday looked like this: Wake up at 4:15 a.m. to work out from 5 to 6; head home to get ready for school; leave school for fencing practice from 6 p.m. to 9:30; shower, eat dinner and do homework before heading for bed around midnight.
Then he does it all over again.
“I really learned that if there’s something I really love, then I’ll go after it and it doesn’t matter what stands in my way. I will make sure I can overcome any obstacles and I will always go after these things that I love,” he said. “In fencing, a big thing is being fully committed to the sport because I see those that are really good are the ones who are really, really committed — that’s what I’m striving to be.
“It doesn’t matter if I have to be up every morning at 4. I just know that soon I want to be someone who everyone is like, ‘Wow, he is really good at the sport and he’s making a difference in the fencing.’ So I’m really pushing toward that and I always keep that in my mind.”
When Greene started working with Whitehead five years ago, he saw potential. Whitehead was fast and smart. It was just a matter of honing his skills. Whitehead’s inquisitive nature is a huge benefit.
“If you just look in his eyes, they’re always big and wide open,” Greene said. “He’s like a dry three-pack of sponges — you put the water on them and they soak up everything. That’s Amir. He’s always looking and he’s trying to figure things out. So that’s what I saw and I still see that. He has a passion and now he’s hanging with the big boys and learning how to deal with that — making that jump to the next level and he’s not backing away from the challenge.”
Whitehead, who has committed to fence at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, is No. 200 in the USA Fencing national under-20 junior rankings. Foil is one of three styles of fencing competition, along with epee and sabre. In foil, one point is scored with a successful poke to the opponent’s chest or back, with the first fencer to 15 winning the match.
On Sunday, Whitehead won the fourth championship of his career at the Fairfax Challenge, going undefeated in the Division-2 men’s foil competition to earn the gold medal. His first title came in March 2019 when he captured the Maryland Division-2 men’s foil title, and another win came in the same event in May.
A more modest tournament and finish — his very first competition at Chesapeake Fencing Club when he was 8 — is the one that stands out. He finished in third place among eight competitors to earn a bronze medal that remains a keepsake.
“I was just really, really happy that I even finished in the top three because it was my first tournament ever,” he said. “Prior to that, like in baseball, I was never happy with coming anywhere except first. I would be angry if I had not come in first and, of course, I would always strive for coming in first. But at this event, I came in third place and I was really happy because it was my first event. So looking back on that moment, I could probably say it was the time I realized fencing was my true passion.”
Whitehead says when he competes in smaller local tournaments, he typically doesn’t see any other Black competitors. At medium-size regional tournaments, he might see one or two. And for the bigger national tournaments — like the USA Fencing Junior Olympics and Summer Nationals he has qualified for taking place in early July in Philadelphia — he might see a few.
He enjoys advocating for the sport he loves. When parents come up to him and say their child is interested in fencing after watching a video of him competing, he is inspired.
“It always brings a lot of joy to my heart because, at the end of the day, I’m not only doing this for myself,” he said. “I’m doing this for other people because I want them to find their passion — not just in fencing, but in general.”