Olympic fencer inspires Elis

Sada Jacobson ’06 was the first U.S. saberist, the first American woman and second American fencer to rank No. 1 in the world.
Sada Jacobson ’06 was the first U.S. saberist, the first American woman and second American fencer to rank No. 1 in the world. Photo by Eugena Jung.

“As one of Yale’s best athletes and best fencer, she is a true inspiration to the team,” fencing team captain Shiv Kachru ’12 said of Sada Jacobson ’06, who took home the silver medal in saber from the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

Jacobson, the first U.S. woman, the first U.S. saberist and the second U.S. fencer to rank number one in the world, has won two world championships and an additional Olympic bronze medal.

At Yale, the history major is remembered for her dedication to the sport and her ability to balance academics and athletics.

“She had a very positive influence on me because she was the truly classy fencer, and I learned how to act on strip by following her example,” saberist Maddie Oliver ’13 said.

Oliver, who has fenced with Jacobson in her hometown of Atlanta, said Jacobson was a strong technical fencer who worked hard and never gave up. She added that by watching Jacobson, she wanted to be able to execute effective combination of technique and drive just like her.

During her time at Yale, Jacobson’s daily schedule moved like clockwork: she went to the seventh floor of Payne Whitney at 7:30 a.m. for morning practice and returned to the very same spot in the afternoon at 3:30 p.m. for regular workout.

Every weekend, she made pilgrimages to New York to keep herself in the game by practicing at the Fencers Club, a bigger club with national-level male fencers.

“It was definitely a challenge to balance with academics, but everybody in the team enjoyed fencing and was very dedicated,” Jacobson said.

Becoming an accomplished saberist was in the works for Jacobson from birth. Her father, David Jacobson ’78, was a member of the U.S. national saber team back in 1974. In 1996, foilist Peter Devine ’99 and Yale head coach Henry Harutunian stayed at Jacobson’s house for the Atlanta Olympics to be held that year. That fateful experience ultimately motivated her to step into the world of fencing, she said.

At the age of 14, accompanied by her sister Emily, Jacobson went to Atlanta to join Nellya Fencers and, before the sisters knew it, they were already immersed in serious training.

After a long period of training at Nellya, Jacobson went on to continue her fencing career at Yale.

“She is a symbol to us of the type of person that a Yale fencer can be — smart, hardworking, successful and independent, but also a good teammate,” Oliver said.

Although Jacobson said Yale may not have had the largest recruiting class or financial support, she considers herself lucky to have been a Bulldog for her family ties, Yale’s coach Henry Harutunian and the University’s academic opportunities.

Jacobson stressed that her experience at Yale had been simply unforgettable. She said that she was able to fence freely and hone her skills with all the support she needed from her teammates. She said she cannot forget Harutunian’s inexhaustible devotion and dedication and recalls eating pizza with him after practice.

It was during her time at Yale that Jacobson truly shined. She received numerous individual honors and was instrumental in winning the NCAA Championships in women’s saber for Yale in 2001 and 2002.

“She was already a top fencer when she came to Yale, so I just gave her small suggestions,” Harutunian said.

Yale had a weak saber squad back then, Harutunian said, so Jacobson had to practice at a lower level and had difficulties showing her full potential.

Harutunian added that Jacobson, who was a leader with dignity, was so busy with international, domestic and collegiate matches that she was considered “untouchable” among the team.

“I said if there is to be the first female U.S. president, it will be her in her law school recommendation letter,” Harutunian said.

In 2000, Jacobson won the Budapest World Championships. Soon after the 2002 NCAA Championships, she took a leave of absence from college to prepare for her first Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, also the first time women’s individual saber fencing was represented.

Because her sister Emily also qualified for the Olympics, people often called them the “Serena and Venus Williams of fencing.” Sada Jacobson had to concede defeat in a close 15–12 loss to Tan Xue of China in the semi-finals, but she succeeded in taking the bronze by overwhelming Romania’s Catalina Gheorhitoaia 15–7.

Not long after the Games, Jacobson became the first U.S. woman saberist and second U.S. fencer to rank number one in the world. Only a year after her first Olympics, she again displayed her prowess by notching another gold medal at the Leipzig World Championships.

Fencing in two different major international contests gave her diverse perspectives on the sport, Jacobson said.

“In championships, you tend to meet strong field of fencers,” she said. “Olympics is more high-pressured. Since it is only once in four years and is more selective and competitive than the championships, it means so much.”

Despite the immense pressure, Jacobson said she felt no particular anxiety once the games got rolling and fenced as she had always fenced.

After graduating from Yale, Jacobson returned to Nellya Fencers and continued training full time to prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She started off as the top seed and defeated Russia’s Sofiya Velikaya 15–11 in the semifinals to secure the silver. In the finals, Jacobson lost 15–8 to fellow American and defending gold medalist Mariel Zagunis.

But Jacobson she did not stop there. She competed with rival Zagunis in the team saber round to bring home the bronze medal for the United States.

Living in the Olympics village was another memorable experience, Jacobson said, because she was surrounded by athletes and had the opportunity to learn about other sports.

“I still remember I could not go to the opening ceremony since we had a match the next day, and what was amazing to me was that I could see the famous athletes that I saw on television right next to me,” Jacobson said.

Back in Jacobson’s time at Yale, the Elis had been an especially formidable team with about seven recruits, roughly the same number the team has now. She said Columbia, a team which continues to best Yale at meets, was always a looming threat. Jacobson’s sister Emily fenced for Columbia.

When asked to give some advice to the current Eli fencers, Jacobson emphasized hard work. She encouraged the players to push themselves past their preconceived capabilities.

“Do not put any limits on yourself. Then you will be very surprised at yourself,” Jacobson said.

Two years ago, she competed with fellow Yalies at a fencing alumni event, although she retired from fencing at age 25.

Looking back on her career, Jacobson said fencing gave her many opportunities to meet people from around the world and to forge friendships she has kept.

“Everything I do, I relate to [my] fencing experience, since it is such an important part of my life,” she said.

Jacobson even married a fencer, épéeist Brendan Brunelle Baby, a member of three NCAA championship teams. And like her father before her, she hopes to continue the family legacy.

“I hope that my children will fence one day, too,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 2011 and passed her bar exam in July that year.

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