LONDON - With their bronze medal fencing match down to its final minute, Susie Scanlan and her teammates sized up the situation. They were tied 30-30 with Russia, a team they had beaten only once. The crowd at the ExCel London arena was trading chants, as every call of "USA!'' was met with a reply of "Rossiya!"
One touch would win the U.S. its first-ever Olympic medal in women's team epee. Earlier Saturday afternoon, Scanlan, Maya Lawrence and Courtney and Kelley Hurley had invoked that most Minnesotan of Olympic slogans: Do you believe in miracles?
They got one courtesy of Courtney Hurley's quick blade. In the extra time added to break the tie, she flicked it across the torso of Anna Sivkova to earn the bronze and set off a wild celebration. The 31-30 victory gave the U.S. its first fencing medal of these Olympics, in only the second time it has competed in women's team epee.
Scanlan, of St. Paul, played a key role as the U.S. beat Italy in the quarterfinals and lost to Korea in the semifinals. She then sat out the bronze medal match to allow Kelley Hurley, the team's substitute athlete, to fence. That gave the U.S. a better matchup against the Russians and ensured Hurley would get a medal if the U.S. made the podium.
The U.S. was ahead 27-25 when Courtney Hurley faced Sivkova in the final bout. Sivkova took a 4-2 lead to tie it at 29, then touched Hurley's foot with 25 seconds remaining to put Russia ahead. Hurley scored with 18 seconds left to send the bout to extra time.
On the floor next to the fencing strip, Scanlan, Lawrence and Kelley Hurley put their hands over their faces. Coach Roberto Sobalvarro, of the Twin Cities Fencing Club, hollered at Hurley to attack. When she did, she gave the U.S. women's epee program its Miracle moment.
"I had to keep telling myself to breathe," said Scanlan, 22, who took two years off from Princeton University to train for the London Games. "We knew if we went in with a fighting attitude, we would be able to compete.
"We were down four touches in the third match, and mentally, we were like, 'We're going to lose to Russia again.' But we fought through it."
The U.S. entered the tournament as the No. 5 seed. It dispatched Italy 45-35, a surprisingly wide margin. But the Koreans fenced extremely well in London and knocked the U.S. out of the running for gold with a 45-36 victory.
Courtney Hurley said the group thought of the Miracle on Ice analogy as soon as they knew they would face Russia. Like that 1980 U.S. hockey team, they were serious underdogs against Russia. Sobalvarro thought that using Kelley Hurley would surprise the Russians, who expected Scanlan in the lineup. Hurley also was fresh after not fencing in the earlier rounds. She lost her first bout as Russia took a 15-11 lead, but in her second, she made up for it.
Her 4-1 victory, combined with her sister Courtney's 4-2 win, put the U.S. ahead 19-18 on the way toward the dramatic finish. Courtney Hurley sensed the Russians were nervous and hesitant, and Sobalvarro said the team often practices the situation she faced: one minute of time, one touch wins. "I've been in that situation so many times," Hurley said. "I lunged into her, and I thought I missed and she didn't. We both did. And that's when I got her.''
All four fencers said the team medal was particularly meaningful to them. They have competed together for several years, and Sobalvarro -- their coach since they were teens -- had long thought they were capable of winning an Olympic medal.
In 2008, just seeing Olympic fencing on TV brought so many kids to his club in St. Paul that he had to turn away new students for lack of space. Before he deals with that happy problem, he plans to savor his miracle.
"We've been together a long time,'' he said. "This is huge for us. And for the [U.S.] program, it's enormous.''