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Original Issue

Sabre Sisters

Her confidence re-honed after a recent slump, defending champion Mariel Zagunis slowed her tempo and outdueled teammate Sada Jacobson to lead a U.S. medal sweep in the women's sabre event

UNITED STATES fencer Sada Jacobson instantly became the center of attention as she walked through the lobby of the National Convention Center in Beijing last Saturday night holding up the silver medal that she had won in the sabre competition just an hour earlier. Cathy Zagunis, the mother of sabre gold medalist Mariel Zagunis, inspected Jacobson's silver and proclaimed its design of concentric circles "very amazing." Bill Ward, a film producer and the father of sabre bronze medalist Becca Ward, said he wished he'd been allowed to bring his camera into the fencing venue, to capture the American sweep. The first U.S. celebration of the Beijing Games was clearly an extended family affair for the lady fencers, who accounted for all three U.S. medals on the first day of competition. Zagunis, 23, a junior at Notre Dame, defended her Olympic title by beating Jacobson, 25, a Yale graduate, in the final 15--8. Minutes earlier the Duke-bound Ward, 18, had rallied from a 6--1 deficit to edge Russia's Sofiya Velikaya 15--14 for the bronze.

The victory was a stunning turnaround for Zagunis, whose self-doubt over recent poor results had only deepened after a first-round ouster at the World Cup, in Las Vegas in June. An aggressive fencer, Zagunis said she had trouble adapting to new judging criteria that punished faulty attacks by awarding right-of-way to more patient fencers who parried those attacks. "I couldn't convince myself to slow down," she says. "Ten days ago it just kicked in. I started to find a rhythm during practice, and I went from wondering if I could beat anybody to believing I could beat everybody."

That included Jacobson, who entered the Games with the No. 2 world ranking (behind Ward) and left the podium in tears, accepting a handkerchief from a fellow Eli leaning in from the stands. "Here, Sada," offered former president George H.W. Bush. "You might need this."

Jacobson was crying for both the result and the sisterhood she will miss once she retires following the team event on Aug. 14 to attend law school at Michigan. "In a way it's been fun being in a low-key sport," she says. "We've been going around the village people-watching, saying, 'Look, he's seven feet tall. She's three feet tall.' Really, you'd be hard-pressed to know we're Olympians."

The medals, of course, made it a little more obvious. As the postcompetition party found its way to a hotel lobby Saturday night, separate hug lines formed in front of each of the teammates, with siblings, boyfriends, coaches and parents moving from one to the next. Zagunis's coach, Ed Korfanty, embraced his pupil. "I only dreamed about you fencing like this," he told her. Zagunis smiled. So had she.


Photograph by John W. McDonough

ALL FOR 1-2-3 Zagunis (opposite, left), was flanked on the podium by Jacobson (left) and Ward.


Photograph by John W. McDonough

[See caption above]