On top of the prestige of an individual national title, Becca Ward had a bit extra on the line in Sunday's NCAA saber final: bragging rights.
And after the freshman's 15-4 win against Harvard's Caroline Vloka, one of her closest friends, Ward had both bragging rights and a national championship, the second fencing crown in Duke history.
A 22-1 record in the pool round secured Ward a spot in the semifinals at Penn State, where she defeated Columbia's Daria Schneider 15-9. From there, a matchup with Vloka was inevitable-but for Ward, Vloka wasn't necessarily a new opponent.
"We fenced Y-10, Y-12, Y-14, Cadet, Junior and Senior, and I have literally fenced her in a final from Y-10 to Senior," Ward said. "We're really good friends. We talk a lot.... It was great to win for Duke and everything, but it's hard to fence that close of a friend."
Ward and Vloka warmed up together on the first day, faced off during the pool round and fired jokes back and forth throughout the entire tournament.
But when the two stepped onto the strip with a championship on the line, the pressure was on.
"Collegiate fencing is a little bit different, because you're fencing individually, but you have that whole team pressure," said Ward, who led Duke to an 11th-place finish. "But once it gets to the semifinals, for me, it becomes more of an individual tournament.... You still win for Duke, but [at that point] the teams had already been settled."
Fortunately for Ward, she had notable experience in competition entering the NCAA final. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Ward won two bronze medals-one for her individual efforts and one as a member of the national team.
"On paper, the Olympics is obviously a harder competition," Ward said. "But I think there was actually more stress here than there was at the Olympics. It was really strange."
People were screaming at the referees, arguing their every call. With so many of the coaches native Polish and Russian speakers, the NCAA was even forced to release a reminder that all conversations on the competition floor must be conducted in English-the official language-so as to not confuse and distract the opponents.
But despite the great tension the tournament provided, Ward was ultimately able to rise above it all, just as Jeremy Khan, the school's other championship fencer, did in 1996.
"It was really great to fence for Duke," Ward said. "My coach Alex Beguinet has done so much for me, and I was so happy to be able to fence well and make him happy."
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