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Will medalists make fencing the new baseball?

Teammates Sada Jacobson, Mariel Zagunis and Becca Ward have high hopes for fencing to become a mainstream sport as they prepare for Thursday's team sabre event — which makes its Olympic debut in Beijing.
/ Source: TODAY

Sada Jacobson loves when parents approach her at fencing tournaments to say her bronze-medal performance in Athens inspired their daughter to take up the sport.

And her performance here in Beijing might just inspire another generation of young athletes. She has already won a silver medal in the women's individual sabre, and competes again Thursday in the women's team sabre — an event that is making its debut at these games.

“It makes me really happy because I think about all the amazing things that fencing has given to me — the opportunity to travel all over the world, to make friends that I never would have met, not only all over the country but all over the world, to go to the Olympics,” said Jacobson, who took silver here in Beijing after losing the final match to teammate Mariel Zagunis.

“If other people can have that because they see fencing on TV and they decided they can try it and just learn about it a little bit, I’d be satisfied.”

Jacobson won the first medal in women’s sabre when the sport debuted on the Olympic stage four years ago. Later that same evening, teammate Zagunis won America’s first gold medal in Olympic fencing since 1984. Since Athens, both say they have seen a rise in interest in fencing in the United States, and they are hoping their sweep of 2008 women’s sabre — which teammate Becca Ward, 18, completed by winning bronze on the opening day of competition at the Beijing Games — will only continue to fan the flames.

“I hope it boosts the popularity in America even more,” Zagunis said. “In 10 years in fencing I’d like to see well-established clubs throughout the nation, maybe some high school programs or even some grade school programs, getting kids started young.”

Zagunis’ gold was one of the big surprises in Athens, where Jacobson was favored to win. Zagunis was a last-minute addition to the team, only earning a spot when another athlete declined her invitation. Despite proving herself with her gold-medal performance, Zagunis, 23, still entered Beijing as an underdog with a sixth-place seed. This time around, Ward, whom Zagunis defeated in the semifinals, was considered the favorite.

“The second time is even sweeter,” Zagunis said. “I had to prove that I really am the type of fencer that I want to be, and hopefully the next generation can aspire to do the same.”

Ward may be left to inspire the next wave of American fencers on her own. Jacobson, 25, is planning to retire after the games to focus on law school and starting a life with her fiancé, Brendan Baby; Zagunis, who left Notre Dame halfway through her junior year to focus on training, is still undecided about her future. No matter what happens, Ward’s teammates know the future of the sport is in safe in her hands.

“She’s just a phenomenal athlete,” Jacobson said. “She has a feeling for fencing and the strategy behind it. I don’t see anyone else in the game who has that. She has something very unique and I think she can take this as far as she wants to go with it.”

Ward’s passion for the game is obvious.

“I love being on the strip and knowing exactly what I’m going to do and being able to do it perfectly no matter what my opponent does,” said Ward, who leaves Beijing this week to start her freshman year at Duke. “I love that ability to confuse my opponent. I love the game aspect of it.”

Ward’s analytical mind was churning on the TODAY set in the Olympic Green on Sunday as she considered the problem of framing her newly acquired hardware. Should she display the front of the medal with the traditional Greek goddess, or the back with the signature jade of the Beijing Games?

Jacobson offered a solution — win gold during the team event and frame them side by side.

“Excellent idea!” Ward exclaimed. “That’s why you went to Yale.”

The trio will combine forces for the team competition on Thursday, the first time the event has been part of the Olympic program.

“It’s really my favorite event because it’s something that we do together. We’re representing the U.S. together,” she said. “The team even feels more right. It’s more satisfying in the sense of I don’t have to beat my teammates to win.”

All three also look forward to having one more chance to sell fencing to the American public.

“[I want to] motivate all the people at home and America in general,” Ward said. “We’re real, we’re here. We have such potential to be such a mainstream sport.”