In Fencing, U.S. Women Pull Off Historic Sweep

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 9 -- The group hug finally broke up just in front of the stands at the Olympic Fencing Hall, three young women in Team USA warmups fresh off the medal stand, six eyes in varying states of watery irritation. The gentleman in the front row, moved by the show of emotion, merely did what any gentleman would do in that situation, which was to reach into his pocket and produce a neatly folded white handkerchief, handing it down to the one most in need of it.

Sada Jacobson, her silver medal still hanging around her neck by a bright red ribbon, laughed, dabbed her eyes and handed it back. And the man in the front row laughed with her and dabbed his own eyes. Only moments later did Jacobson think, "Maybe I should have kept it."

But by then the hankie, full of the tears of an Olympic medalist, was back in the pocket of former president George H.W. Bush, who caught wind of history being made Saturday -- the first American sweep of an Olympic fencing event since 1904 -- and rushed over to witness it, coming away with a unique souvenir. For the fencers, their medals in women's individual sabre -- the first for American athletes at these Games -- would have to suffice.

"It was amazing," the former president said into a pack of microphones and cameras when it was over. "To win all three was simply magnificent."

Only a few minutes earlier, the trio stepped onto the medal stand -- gold medalist Mariel Zagunis in the center, Jacobson to her right and bronze medalist Becca Ward to her left -- to punctuate a moment that, only a decade ago, would have seemed impossible.

"We couldn't ask for better results -- three American flags being raised," said Zagunis, of Beaverton, Ore., who also won gold in the event at the 2004 Athens Games and owns the only two American gold medals in fencing in the past century. "It was awesome standing up there and listening to our national anthem."

In a sport long dominated by Europeans, and in which the referee's instructions ("en garde," "pret," "allez") still are given in French, the United States once went more than 50 years (from 1932 to 1984) winning only one medal, a bronze by Albert Axelrod in 1960, without a single Olympic medal, and 100 years without a gold. But suddenly -- including Saturday's sweep, plus Zagunis's gold and Jacobson's bronze in 2004 -- the United States has become a power, at least in the discipline of women's sabre.

"It would have been like landing on the moon [was perceived] in the 1920s," David Jacobson, Sada's father and a former member of the U.S. national fencing team in the 1970s, said when asked to place Saturday's sweep in the context of his own era. "Before 2000, the idea that Americans would take three Olympic medals of any kind, let alone in a sweep of one event, was laughable."

The Americans' big breakthrough, according to David Jacobson, came in 2000, when the women's sabre team, including Sada Jacobson and Zagunis, won the world championship in Budapest, a feat the U.S. women have repeated three times. The Zagunis-Jacobson gold-and-bronze double in Athens, when women's sabre was first added to the Olympics, carried the U.S. program one step further, and Saturday's sweep a step further still.

On Saturday, Ward, at 18 the youngest member of the team, ensured a U.S. sweep, beating Russia's Sofiya Velikaya, 15-14, in the dramatic bronze medal bout. After trailing 6-1, Ward ran off five straight points in one late stretch. Then, at 14-14, she touched her opponent for the apparent final point, only to have to wait as the referee, Kang Zhao Zheng of Hong Kong, consulted a video replay monitor, a new twist this year in a sport plagued by scoring scandals in the past.

"I was completely nerve-racked," Ward, also of Beaverton, Ore., said of the dramatic ending.

In the gold medal match, it was teammate-vs.-teammate: Jacobson, of Dunwoody, Ga., against Zagunis. They had fenced against each other so many times, neither could even venture a guess as to the number, and they had reached the final Saturday by winning four bouts apiece in a marathon day divided into morning and evening sessions.

Zagunis scored the first two points and never trailed, ultimately winning, 15-8. After the final point, she ripped off her mask and dropped it to the floor, celebrating for a moment before remembering to shake hands with her vanquished teammate. Moments later, Zagunis returned to the floodlit stage with an American flag, kneeling and kissing the floor.

The historic American team, which will be favored to win the women's team sabre on Thursday, won't be together for long. Jacobson, a Yale graduate, is starting law school at the University of Michigan, getting married and, she said, dropping competitive fencing. Ward will leave Beijing the day after the team sabre to start her freshman year at Duke and said she may "gain 15 pounds and be a normal college kid."

But partly because of their success, there are other, younger fencers in the pipeline, and even medal chances this week for U.S. fencers in women's foil, men's epee and men's sabre.

And if nothing else, there always will be Saturday, when three American fencers won together, stood on the stand together, watched the raising of their flag together and ultimately cried together, some of those tears finding their way to the former president's hankie and the rest just falling to the floor.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company