London Isn't Calling

Becca Ward is having too much fun to regret passing up the Olympics.
June 3, 2012

Deep in the digital detritus of Becca Ward’s computer are some peculiar mementos of her days as a teenage fencing phenom. Sometime around age thirteen, when she began traveling the globe to compete in international matches, she started taking pictures of pigeons. It began as a joke—because how is a pigeon in Poland any different from one in Portland, really?—but the birds soon became a metaphor for her itinerant life. 

“You would fly into some where, go to a competition venue, fence for two days, and then fly home, ” says Ward, whose other souvenirs include a gold medal from the 2006 World Fencing Championships and two bronze medals from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “It’s not really that exotic. It’s just pigeons.”

Now twenty-two and about to graduate with a major in public policy , Ward

doesn’t think much about jet-setting. Although she would be a favorite to win a medal at this summer ’s Olympic Games in London, she decided not to try out for the U.S. team, preferring to enjoy the sunset of her Duke career. Training with the national team would have required her to miss much, if not all, of her final year at Duke, she says. “And I just couldn’t imagine leaving my friends, my class…leaving everything behind to chase a life I’ve already had.”

The life she chose instead has had no shortage of athletic glory. In her four years wielding a saber for the Duke fencing team, Ward won NCAA championships in 2009, 2011, and 2012, becoming the first Duke student-athlete ever to win three individual national titles. In a sport often referred to as “physical chess,” she dominated with a rare combination of lightning reflexes and mental agility. It didn’t hurt that she has the fiery heart of a born competitor, one who often let loose a spontaneous shout of joy after winning a key point.

“Honestly, I didn’t want to be a fencer, to just be a fencer. I came to Duke to not be defined by it.”

But it’s the quieter moments that underscore Ward’s devotion to Duke. She has served on the First-Year Advisory Council and the Undergraduate Conduct Board and writes for  Rival, a magazine produced jointly by Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In March, she did her first stint tenting in K-ville. Still on her “Duke bucket list” are a trip to the Duke Lemur Center and tea at the Washington Duke Inn. “Duke is an amazing place, and there are so many things I want to be involved in. I just wanted to make the most of my time here and not sit idly,” she says.

In that respect, Ward got what she hoped for when she chose Duke: “a real college experience.” As a teenager, she trained with the elite Oregon Fencing Alliance in Portland, completing high school through correspondence courses. By sixteen, she was the top-ranked women’s saber fencer in the world, but she says she often felt isolated and confined. 

“Honestly, I didn’t want to be a fencer, to just be a fencer,” she says. “I came to Duke to not be defined by it.” That was not so easy at first. Ward arrived for Duke freshman orientation less than a week after winning the second of her medals at the Beijing Olympics. Bob Costas had interviewed her in prime time after the U.S. swept the saber fencing medals, and in Durham, she found it difficult to escape her fame. How many freshmen have a sign posted over the door of the Wilson Recreation Center, welcoming them to campus?

Ward: After three NCAA titles, she's ready to move on. [Jon Gardiner]

When President Richard H. Brodhead mentioned her by name in his opening convocation speech, “I don’t think my face has ever been redder,” Ward says. Though she always introduced herself to classmates as “Becca from Portland,” something inevitably would spark recognition and out her as “the fencer girl.” 

 

Ward would smile and answer patiently her classmates’ questions about the Olympics: Was it amazing? Was it glamorous? But the truth was her Olympic experience was neither amazing nor glamorous. She wasn’t permitted to participate in opening ceremonies because she was scheduled to compete the next day. There were tensions with her coach, who had wanted her to attend a college near Portland so she could continue to train there. “It was just a very taxing experience,” she says. 

At Duke, Ward has turned that international experience into an asset for her teammates. “Becca is a wonderful leader,” fencing coach Alex Beguinet says. “She has learned that a good leader won ’t ask others to do something she wouldn’t do.” This past season, with Ward as team captain, the women’s squad won a team record twenty-two matches and placed eleventh at the NCAA championships.

But Ward’s senior year also brought tantalizing reminders of her international fame. In January, competing in her first U.S. national event since 2010, she sliced through a field of the country’s best fencers—including Olympic contender Ibtihaj Muhammad ’07—erasing any doubts that she is still among the world’s elite. 

So who walks away from that, from knowing you can be the best in the world? From a chance for Olympic gold? Someone who knows the cost of gold. “Objectively, I know I will never be as good at something as I am at fencing,” she says. “But I can do other good things. I can have other accomplishments, and I can be happy knowing I had that experience. I had that life, and I chose to do something better. I’ll just direct that competitive spirit elsewhere.” 

She hopes elsewhere will be an environmental policy job in Washington, ideally with a small fencing club nearby. But don’t expect to see her jetting off to tournaments anytime soon. There may be lots of pigeons in London, but Becca Ward doesn’t need them anymore. She found her place to roost.