Most Duke sports fans have probably forgotten about Becca Ward by now, if they even knew about her in the fist place. The Olympics ended a full semester ago, a sign congratulating her on her considerable achievements no longer hangs outside of Wilson Gymnasium and the Duke Fencing team has a pretty low profile in Durham anyway.
And that's a shame, because Becca Ward is better at what she does--fencing in the saber competition--than anyone else on campus is at what they do. She's better at fencing than professors are at teaching, better at fencing than the Pitchforks are at singing and--dare I say it--better at fencing than Mike Krzyzewsi is at coaching. For that reason, Ward, a freshman, is my nominee for Duke Sportsman of the Year.
Ward arrived on campus in time for orientation week in August, just like every other member of her class. Though she's from Oregon, Ward had come to Duke via Beijing, which is admittedly not that unusual these days. Her circumstances were a bit unique, though, as Ward has just won two Olympic bronze medals, one in the individual saber competition and the second in the team saber event.
In a memorable interview with NBC anchor Bob Costas the night after the individual competition, Ward, gold medalist Mariel Zagunis and silver medalist Sada Jacobson spoke about how proud they were to lead the United States to a medal sweep. In the interview, Ward mentioned she had to jet off to the States as soon as the team competition came to an end. And yet, the premature end to her 2008 Olympic experience contrasts mightily with her bright future in the sport, both internationally and at Duke.
Ward's biggest rivals on the international scene, Zagunis and Jacobson, are both four years older than Ward and no longer participate in college athletics (last spring, Zagunis graduated from Notre Dame, Jacobson from Yale). While Ward dropped a tight match to 2004 gold medalist Zagunis in the Beijing semifinals, she recovered to pull out a close third-place contest and earn her own bronze, a level of recognition every other Duke athlete can only dream of. Ward looks set to be the gold-medal favorite for the 2012 London Olympics, and she's only 18.
Zagunis' and Jacobson's departure from the college scene also bodes well for Duke, which will boast the best female saber fencer in the country at every event it enters this year and in the future. The fencing team has competed just once so far this season, the Temple Open Nov. 15-16, and not surprisingly, Ward won her event convincingly. Fencing season begins in earnest in the spring, and by the end of the 2008-2009 academic year, Becca Ward might be a double Olympic medalist and a national champion in her sport, all within 10 months. That resume is almost impossible to top, even for Coach K, and that is why Becca Ward is my choice for Duke Sportsman of the Year.