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Perhaps it was a novelty to some the small, 82-year-old figure of Julia Jones-Pugliese striking a defensive stance in Saturday's opening day of the United States Fencing Association national championship tournament at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

But those acquainted with her background - and her contributions to the sport - know that Jones-Pugliese is more of an institution than a novelty. The fact that she was competing in Saturday's senior women's epee made the circle complete, considering that it was her first national tournament in 58 years.And she ended her return to competition after nearly six decades in style - with a post-event kiss on the cheek for each of her opponents and the "president," the referee of the matches. "She still has a good, strong arm," said opponent Mary Brown of Alexandria, Va., who at 41 was half of Jones-Pugliese's age.

Jones-Pugliese ended up with a gold and a silver medal - the gold for being the sole fencer in her age division and the silver for finishing second to 70-year-old Mary Huddleson in the round-robin tournament of the half-dozen senior women (ages 40 or older) competing in the senior epee.

Still en route to the tournament, the medals weren't available for the senior women at the end of Saturday's event. But if you're Jones-Pugliese and you've been out of action for almost 60 years, what's another day of waiting?

Jones-Pugliese easily recalls the decision that cut short her competitive career. Ranked among the nation's top five fencers in 1931 and a member of the 1932 U.S. Olympic squad, she knew her chances of making it to the Games in Los Angeles that year were slim.

There was no formal women's fencing at the time (it wouldn't become an Olympic sport until 1960), and the few women who did participate in the makeshift competition were usually the wives of male fencers representing the various countries.

About the same time, she received a wire from New York University offering her the newly created position of women's fencing coach and instructor of both fencing and archery. Knowing that teaching positions were limited at the time, she took the job offer.

What she didn't know was that national and international fencing associations then considered a fencing coach to be a professional athlete. She lost her amateur status - no matter that she was being paid to teach others about the sport, not compete in it.

However, Jones-Pugliese harbors no regets about

missing competitive fencing until now. Instead, she became a pioneer of sorts for the sport in ways other than competiting.

Her coaching profession allowed her to first attend collegiate, national, international and Olympic fencing competition - and then later be appointed to help direct some of the same such events. She was named assistant coach to the U.S. team (both men and women) in 1977 and head coach four years later.

"I think I've had some input in helping women's fencing grow," said Jones-Pugliese, who still coaches fencing at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York system.

With the children grown and gone and her husband deceased, she now has the time to resume her competitive fencing. Her personal workouts include walking, exercising, practicing her fencing lunges and stretching - the latter achieved by hanging from the balcony of her summer home.

The best summary of Jones-Pugliese and her passion for the sport comes from her late husband, in the last letter he wrote to his son before his death: "And mother loves fencing."

Even after her 58-year absence from competition.