BEIJING - Mike Pederson was walking through the halls of Wayzata High School one day when he heard the clash of metal. Pederson peeked into the auditorium and thought, "What are these funny-looking people doing all dressed in white?'

"It was a fluke, really.''

Pederson played basketball and ran cross-country. He was not likely to make it to the Olympics by continuing with those sports. Stumbling across the Wayzata High fencing team led to this improbable moment:

On Friday, Pederson walked into Beijing's National Stadium near Kobe Bryant, and had his picture taken with one of the world's most recognizable people.

"That was cool,'' Pederson said. "I'm going to send that picture to my nephews in Wisconsin because they are diehard basketball fans. They're going to be very jealous.

"The best moment is walking through that tunnel and going right out on that field. That is a phenomenal feeling. I've never experienced anything like it.''

Fencing isn't the most American of sports, but it was fencing that earned the United States its first three medals of the Beijing Olympics, in a sweep of the women's saber competition, in front of President Bush on Saturday. "It was amazing. It was emotional. It was such a dramatic moment," Bush said. "To win all three was simply magnificent."

Pederson is the women's epee coach. He won the Minnesota state title twice while at Wayzata and was captain of the University of Wisconsin team in '85, when he won the Big Ten foil championship. Wisconsin won three Big Ten team titles while he was at the school.

He worked for the Twin Cities Fencing Club and married a Canadian fencer, which led to him training and earning his coaching certificate -- the Prevot d'Armes -- from Ecole International D'Escrime de Montreal and the National Coaching Association of Canada.

Now he teaches at the Golden Gate Fencing Center in the Bay Area.

That's quite a life, built on a willingness to try a new sport that probably earned him merciless teasing. "We were always 'the Fencing Kids,'" Pederson said, offering the phrase as if it were a euphemism. "It was a unique group, I'll say that. Fencing tends to draw a little bit more of an eclectic group of people, I would say.

"So you get your intellectuals, you get your quote-unquote high school nerd. But fencing is very athletic, and it's also a very intellectual sport. You have to be smart and you have to know what you want to do, so if you have the willpower and the brains to back up a less-than-talented body, you can do quite well in fencing. You can accommodate.''

For any sport lacking a TV contract, recruiting young talent is vital. Pederson has his sales pitch rehearsed.

"We sell it as a lot of fun,'' he said. "Where else in the world can you get to hit somebody with a sword and get rewarded for it? It's great!

"I always ask the kids when we start out, any of you ever pick up a stick and challenge your friend to a duel? I mean, that's it, that's fencing at its most rudimentary level. They all grasp onto that idea, and then it becomes a game, and it's fun.''

Pederson said the sport's old-school, traditional teaching would require children to work for a year on footwork before they ever picked up a sword. "That's just boring,'' he said. "I put that foil in their hand right away and let them have at it.''

There are about 35 fencing clubs in the Bay Area and a handful in the Twin Cities. Pederson said that an influx of Eastern European and Russian coaches to the U.S. has improved the level of instruction and helped the U.S. become a player on the world stage in a traditionally European sport.

"That forced us to work harder and to professionalize things,'' Pederson said. "Now, that's all I do -- I'm a professional coach. That's what I call myself.''

From fencing nerd to professional coach to the other Olympian in the picture with Kobe, all because he stumbled onto the Wayzata High auditorium all those years ago.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP.