BEIJING — Mariel Zagunis stood proudly atop the podium, the first American to do so at these Olympics.

A former president was in the front row — and three red, white and blue flags were rising to the rafters.

“It was a dream come true,” Zagunis said.

The Notre Dame fencer won the first U.S. gold medal of the Beijing Games, leading an American sweep Saturday in women’s saber fencing. Zagunis took the gold with a 15-8 victory over Sada Jacobson, who won the silver. Becca Ward took the bronze.

Before the fencing medals were awarded, the Americans had been shut out of Olympic medals, trailing the likes of Cuba, North Korea, Taiwan and Uzbekistan in the overall standings. Then the saber trio went to work, moving the U.S. to the top of the table with three medals.

And to make the night even more memorable, former President George H.W. Bush was in the front row for the medal ceremony, just to the side of where the three flags were lifted.

“It was amazing. It was emotional. It was such a dramatic moment,” Bush said. “To win all three was simply magnificent.”

Zagunis was also saber champion in 2004, when she became the first American in a century to win a fencing gold. Now, the U.S. is a legitimate powerhouse — in women’s saber at least. These same three women are seeded No. 1 for the team competition on Thursday.

“We hope that any success we have goes to making our sport more popular,” Jacobson said. “If we can get even one girl to take up fencing, then we’ve done well.”

The sport endured some growing pains even after Zagunis’ big win in 2004. The U.S. Olympic Committee took over USA Fencing’s high performance program for this year’s Olympics, citing financial problems for the sport’s national governing body.