BEIJING – Mariel Zagunis stood proudly atop the podium, the first American to do so at these Olympics.
A former president was in the front row — and three red, white and blue flags were rising to the rafters.
"It was a dream come true," Zagunis said.
Zagunis won the first U.S. gold medal of the Beijing Games, leading an American sweep Saturday in women's saber fencing. Zagunis took the gold with a 15-8 victory over Sada Jacobson, who won the silver. Becca Ward took the bronze.
Before the fencing medals were awarded, the Americans had been shut out of Olympic medals, trailing the likes of Cuba, North Korea, Taiwan and Uzbekistan in the overall standings. Then the saber trio went to work, moving the U.S. to the top of the table with three medals.
And to make the night even more memorable, former President George H.W. Bush was in the front row for the medal ceremony, just to the side of where the three flags were lifted.
"It was amazing. It was emotional. It was such a dramatic moment," Bush said. "To win all three was simply magnificent."
Zagunis was also saber champion in 2004, when she became the first American in a century to win a fencing gold. Now, the U.S. is a legitimate powerhouse — in women's saber at least. These same three women are seeded No. 1 for the team competition on Thursday.
"We hope that any success we have goes to making our sport more popular," Jacobson said. "If we can get even one girl to take up fencing, then we've done well."
The sport endured some growing pains even after Zagunis' big win in 2004. The U.S. Olympic Committee took over USA Fencing's high performance program for this year's Olympics, citing financial problems for the sport's national governing body.
"We're just here trying to do our jobs," Jacobson said. "It hasn't been an issue that has impeded our performance at all."
Zagunis and Ward, members of the same Oregon fencing club, met in the semifinals. Zagunis prevailed 15-11, and Ward left in tears.
Ward still looked red-faced and shaken when she came out for the bronze medal match, and she fell behind 6-1 to Russia's Sofiya Velikaya. But the 18-year-old from Portland, Ore., rallied for a dramatic 15-14 victory that ensured a U.S. sweep.
"I kind of got my head back in the bout that I was in, because I was really hung up on my last bout," Ward said. "It was a quick turnaround."
Once that victory was out of the way, Zagunis and Jacobson took center stage. Jacobson, of Dunwoody, Ga., won the bronze in 2004. She was the top seed in this year's competition but couldn't overcome Zagunis in the final.
Zagunis, of Beaverton, Ore., never trailed in the gold medal bout — her most lopsided win of the tournament. When it was over, Zagunis ripped off her mask and let out a yell, then shook hands with Jacobson and shared a hug with her teammate. Zagunis returned to the strip with an American flag, which she held in her hands while bowing in two directions.
She then dropped down and kissed the floor.
Jacobson missed out on a similar celebration — but the joy eventually hit her.
"I don't think I anticipated the emotion I would feel up there," Jacobson said of sharing the podium. "It was such a feeling of pride."
At least one famous American felt it too.
"Fencing may not be a big sport in America," Bush said. "But today at the Olympics, it certainly is."