The first important factor leading to her championship fencing career at Yale came before she was born. It was in the early 1970s, when Sada Jacobson's father, David, took a peek through a door on campus.
At the 2004 Summer Olympic sabre competition Sada Jacobson made history. She and teammate Mariel Zagunis became the first American women to medal in fencing when she took the bronze medal and Zagunis (daughter of Penn rower and 1976 Olympian Cathy Menges Zagunis) the gold. Yet for Jacobson, the first step towards this achievement may have happened at Yale some 34 years before.
David Jacobson, Sada's father and then a freshman at Yale, "peered through the door of the fencing room," according to an account in Yale's 2000-2001 Fencing Media Guide. Yale's new fencing coach, Henry Harutunian, "grabbed Jacobson and invited him into his salle (fencing room)." Jacobson became Harutunian's first All-American in 1974, and led Yale's sabre team, with Steve Blum and Edgar House, to a bronze medal in the 1974 U.S. National Championships.
Jacobson graduated, and set aside fencing as he went to medical school and settled in Atlanta, Ga., where he is an endocrinologist. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Harutunian, who came for the Olympics, visited and revived Jacobson's interest in fencing. Two years later Sada Jacobson tried fencing. "I'm sure I never would have become involved in the sport if he had not introduced it to me -- I just never would have thought of it," she says.
Her ascent was rapid. In 1999 she was a member of the U.S. team at the first Women's Sabre Cadet/Junior World Championship. When it came time to choose a college, the choice was pretty obvious. "I knew the Yale fight songs even as a little kid," remembers Jacobson. "I also had a relationship with Coach Harutunian and knew that I would be happy fencing for him."
She continued her success at Yale, winning the NCAA sabre championship her first two years and garnering first team All-Ivy and All-American honors. But it wasn't easy. "My freshman year I remember competing 10 weekends in a row" she recalls. "Eventually I found a balance, but I was pretty sleep-deprived for the first couple of years."
The 2004 Olympics loomed. In order to make the team, Jacobson would need to compete in World Cup competitions, and would need to train. "Once I had decided I wanted to go for the Olympics, it was kind of a no-brainer," she says. "I knew there was no way I could do school and fencing at the same time. Also, the training situation I wanted required that I move back to Atlanta to fence at the club there and work with my coach, Arkady Burdan."
This path was risky. "I had to withdraw from school and reapply because I was out for three semesters (the limit on leave of absence is two)," says Jacobson. But in doing so she was able to train with her sister Emily, which provided unique advantages.
"It's a sister thing," says Emily. "We pushed each other. Sada pushes me to a different level - the level you need when training for the Olympics." And as Sada points out, each is a uniquely difficult opponent for the other because "we know each other so well that we can often anticipate what the other is about to do."
The training regimen worked, as both made the 2004 Olympic sabre team. Ranked first in the world, Sada was a favorite to win gold, but came in third to Zagunis. "She wasn't disappointed," says Emily. "we knew both of them had a shot."
What was unexpected was her return to Yale after the Olympics. "It was a big dislocation," says Jacobson. "Returning to school after almost two years away was difficult because I no longer felt the same connection to the campus and "Yale life" as I had before." Once she settled in, though, "I got a chance to focus on my studies in a way I hadn't before. Classes were much more enjoyable."
She's now aiming for the 2008 Games, training and competing in Europe. After 2008 "I would like to go to law school," she says, but "I'm not sure what I want to do with the degree." One thing she is sure of, though, is "I expect my athletic experiences to play a role in every part of my life from here out. They're just such an integral part of who I am now."
Winning the first Olympic medal in a sport is a singular achievement, but it's perhaps not her most enduring one. With Sada's medal the Jacobsons are established as a force in American fencing. Emily is a junior at Columbia, matching Sada's NCAA sabre championships with her own in 2005. Another sister, Jackie, "just took a bronze medal at Cadet (under 17) World Championships and a gold in the Junior Team event" according to Sada. Jackie will be joining Emily on Columbia's sabre team next year.
— Stephen Eschenbach