America's first medals: a sweep of fencing steel

Olympian Sada Jacobson was so overwhelmed at what she and her teammates accomplished tonight that former President George Bush offered her his own handkerchief.

“I guess I should have kept it,” she smiles.

As consolation for the returned keepsake, she will have something rather more impressive: the middle medal from a historic night.

American medal sweeps are supposed to be the stuff of snowboarders and track sprinters. But on the first day of the Beijing Games, fencers hold all America’s three medals – one in each color.

For a day, at least, Jacobson (silver), Mariel Zagunis (gold), and Becca Ward (bronze) have made remises and ripostes as hip as split times or riding fakie.

There was always the chance of it: Zagunis and Jacobson won gold and bronze in Athens in the women’s saber event. But on a day that expanded like an advertisement for the glory of real-time sports – unedited, undelayed – only the Americans held their nerve as top seeds tumbled to their left and right.

Of all the Americans, it was Zagunis who gave the impression of a freight train, gaining speed to what increasingly looked like inevitable gold. Yet among those steamrollered were Ward, a friend whom she fences every day in their Portland, Ore., gym, in the semifinal, and Olympic flatmate Jacobson in the final.

The bout against Ward “was the hardest bout ever in my career,” says Zagunis.

Not tactically. By fencing standards, the 15-11 win was comfortable. But emotionally.

In fencing, after all, medal sweeps come not with solitary successes on a frozen hill or races against the clock, seconds long, eyes blinkered. They come from two ends of the same piste, face-to-face like gunslingers at high noon – and always with the final indignity of a steel slap over the head.

“It’s devastating,” says Ward, who won bronze in a 15-14 bout against Russian Sofiya Velikaya, which included a referee’s video review of the last point. “It’s always very difficult for me to put that on a teammate.”

In the end, she could not. After the bout against Zagunis, she passed by reporters almost at a sprint, holding back tears. Twenty minutes later only her body and saber emerged for the bronze-medal bout. Her mind was still in the semifinal.

She lost six of the first seven points.

Ten points later, she was down only 9-8.

“I had to realize … what I was fencing for,” she says.

The answer, she says, was America’s medal sweep. In 30 tumultuous minutes, what before had been almost unbearable – the bonds of friendship and teamwork – had become the inspiration for a bronze fightback.

It was a day for the surreal.

Jacobson was in doping control, trying to do her part for a clean Olympics – put bluntly, peeing in a cup – when there came a knock on the door: Could she please hurry up, former President Bush was here to greet her.

But she was used to pressure by that point.

Twice, she had gone down 5-1 in bouts only to hold her cool and win.

Meanwhile, Ward faced the event’s Cinderella – a relatively unknown Tunisian who had become the first African ever to make an Olympic fencing quarterfinal.

All day, Azza Besbes had buzzed across the piste, holding her saber aloft like a wand, summoning strange strategies to befuddle the best fencers in the world. Even when common sense suggested she should defend, she attacked. And all day, confused fencers had literally impaled themselves on her saber.

“It’s like the team that just keeps shooting 3s,” says Brendan Baby, Jacobson’s fiancé and also an Olympic fencer, drawing a parallel with underdog teams in NCAA basketball’s March Madness. “It’s great if you can do it, but if not,” you’re in trouble.

The bout was part of an extraordinary scene for American fencing: Ward, Jacobson, and Zagunis all fencing – and winning – simultaneously within feet of each other on the venue’s four pistes. It was “Braveheart” minus the vats of boiling oil and Scottish war paint. Americans were laying siege to the sport.

Ward beat Besbes, 15-14. Naturally, with a referee’s video review of the final point.

For the three, the team event remains on Aug. 14, where they have the comfort of knowing they will not fence against one another. After that, Jacobson will retire, pursuing a law degree, and Ward will go to Duke University.

Emotionally spent, she considers 2012: “We’ll see whether I go for London or whether I gain 15 pounds and become a normal college student.”

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