Her two bronze medals from the Beijing Olympics are tucked away in a drawer back home in Oregon, and her impressive collection of NCAA hardware has been placed in the care of her coach at Duke.
For Becca Ward, the artifacts associated with her fencing achievements are considerable, but what she clearly treasures more are the myriad experiences involved in earning them. It’s the moments more than the mementoes that resonate the deepest for one of Duke’s most distinguished student-athletes.
Ward completed her college career last month by capturing the NCAA women’s saber championship for a third time; she also won as a freshman and a junior, and was the runnerup her sophomore year. She became just the fifth women’s fencer in NCAA history to win three national titles, and the first to win the saber crown three times.
Collectively, those accomplishments represent a body of work unmatched in the 40-year history of Duke women’s athletics, as Ward is the only Blue Devil to earn three individual NCAA titles in any sport (golfers Anna Grzebien and Jennifer Pandolfi were on three NCAA championship teams, and Grzebien additionally claimed one individual crown).
But Ward doesn’t think about her championships collectively because she views each one as a unique series of bouts distinct from the others — with its own set of experiences to cherish.
“All the championships have been different,” she said after returning from the 2012 NCAAs hosted by Ohio State. “They’ve meant more to me as it’s progressed, mainly because I get more and more attached to my team and to Duke every year, and it’s less about me fencing.
“This year I also knew it was my last competition. Honestly, this entire year, whenever I thought about the NCAAs I started crying, like I can’t deal with this, the last time. I didn’t cry during the competition, which I considered a win. But afterward, it was very emotional, having that realization. This one definitely meant a lot. I won the last bout, I got the last touch, I turned around and my coach was teary-eyed, I started crying, my team rushed in — it was a very nice final note to end on.”
As much as she was the magnet recruit who elevated the quality of Duke’s entire program to three straight top-10 national finishes with her 272-7 regular season record and near-perfect execution every March, the team component of Ward’s college experience cannot be overstated. Before Duke she was immersed in the international fencing scene to such a degree that high school for her was a series of correspondence courses that occupied her spare time between training and traveling from one World Cup or Grand Prix event to another. She was one of the best on the planet in her weapon — but she reached yet another level of satisfaction when she traded in that life for a collegiate career.
“Something that I really value from Duke is having that team atmosphere, because fencing is innately an individual sport,” she said. “It’s always been very cutthroat (internationally) because the U.S. was very, very good at women’s saber. So my teammates, I would always end up fencing in the finals, and there was always that underlying tension — whereas at Duke it is such a wholly supportive team. Everyone is very happy to see anyone do well, and I really valued that. It was a different experience fencing in the (NCAA) finals and fencing for Duke, and I’m very, very glad to have had that experience.”
That team experience was so important to Ward that it was a key factor in her decision not to pursue a second trip to the Olympics this summer. The time and travel involved in the qualification process would have necessitated her missing the second half of her junior year and all of her senior year, a tradeoff she was not willing to make to follow a path she had already traveled.
Nor was it very appealing to think of returning to Duke after so much time away, to a campus that all of her classmates had already vacated. “I had been doing international competitions since I was 13,” she noted. “It was a pretty one-dimensional focus, and when I came to Duke I made a very conscious decision that I wanted to fence NCAAs, I wanted to have that team experience, I wanted to have that college experience.”
Ward’s college experience extended well beyond the fencing strip. She was on the First-year Advisory Council and the Undergraduate Conduct Board, wrote features and columns for Rival magazine and enjoyed being part of the Brownstone selective living group. “I find a lot of fulfillment in having different interests and different realms of my life. You have academics, you have athletics, and then you have this whole other sphere. And no matter what happens, if I’m having trouble in one, there’s always those other forms of validation that I really, really value. And I’m so happy to graduate with my class.”
Ward majored in Public Policy with a certificate in Energy and the Environment, while minoring in Psychology. She was named one of Duke’s three recipients of a postgraduate scholarship from the ACC, a $5,000 award she will put toward pursuit of a master’s degree — after she spends a couple of years working, she hopes, in the environmental policy arena in Washington, D.C. On her immediate horizon this summer is a month in Vietnam to participate in the Coach for College program, counseling middle school students there about academics and athletics.
The day after returning from the NCAA Championships, Ward got out of class at 4:05 on a spring afternoon and realized she didn’t have to sprint off to fencing practice. So she headed out to the quad for one of those classic collegiate activities, playing Frisbee. But that held her attention for barely 20 minutes, before she was off to the golf course trail for a run.
“I am not one who does well with idle time,” she explained later. Given the manner in which she filled up her Duke days with one golden experience after another, it’s difficult to foresee idle in her future.