Una Jackson has accomplished many things in her 74 years. She has walked on the Great Wall of China, skied the Olympic Course in Sapporo, Japan, and taken a hot balloon ride over the savannahs of Africa.
But her most recent achievement may have trumped them all.
Jackson, a former Haverhill resident, is the top-ranked women's fencer in the nation for the 70-and-over saber division.
Jackson, who now lives in Hilton Head, S.C., has taken up fencing in her post-retirement life. One day, she was sitting and watching a sports show when a certain sport piqued her interest
"A commercial came on which flashed a series of different sports," said Jackson. "Fencing just kind of stuck out at me."
Jackson decided that this was something she wanted to learn more about. She was already in peak physical condition from working out three days a week, running and playing tennis. She explored where the nearest opportunities would be and found the Savannah Fencing Club in Savannah, Ga. in 2008. At the club, she is the elder statesman of the fencers, and she often practices and trains with fencers in their early-20s who attend the Savannah College of Art and Design.
"For someone to come in at this age and have all this success is remarkable," said her coach Charles Williams, who teaches her at the club.
Williams said while others her age may have the edge in experience, Jackson "is much faster than her opponents because she is in great physical condition."
At first, she dabbled in the foil form of the sport. Foil is more of a stabbing motion and is generally taught to beginners. In foil, fencers can only hit their opponents in the vest. Jackson struggled in her first foil tournament in November 2008 in Bluffton, S.C. She then decided add saber to her repertoire, a faster-paced type of fencing which allows the fencers to score with hits to the arms and mask. Jackson immediately found success in February 2009, although she doesn't take much credit for it.
"Out of the five people I went down with, I was the only person to get a medal. I finished in eighth place which was the lowest possible place I could get and still win a medal," Jackson said of her first saber tournament.
Jackson was born and raised in Haverhill, attending St. James Central Catholic School on Winter Street. She moved out of Haverhill after she graduated high school, but still returns at least once a year to visit family and friends who remain in the city. Her uncle Joseph Ross still lives in the city and another uncle, Bill Ross, was the former chief of police.
She lived in Asia for 13 years, working as a dental assistant while her husband Fred worked for Nike's international department. They used their time overseas to travel and see many places most people never see in their lifetimes. When Fred passed away, Jackson sought a new hobby to fill the void of her husband's death.
"I think I got into it because it was just always one of the things I wanted to do," said Jackson. "I wanted to skydive but it was too expensive. I thought fencing would end up being cheaper."
Little did she know was how much she would invest into the sport of fencing. After she became successful in the sport, she purchased new gear and clothes. She then proceeded to compete in national and eventually international tournaments. Overall, Jackson has won 16 medals in competitions in just a two-year span.
This past year has been a busy one for Jackson. She fenced in Curacao in April, winning a silver medal in both foil and saber. In July, she won a silver medal in Reno. In October, she traveled to Croatia to compete in the world championships, finishing eighth in saber and 10th in foil in the 70-and-over division, improving over a 10th place saber and 13th place foil finish in 2010. In 2012, she will be traveling to Krems, Austria, for worlds and hopes to earn a medal in the competition.
After she competes in Austria, Jackson plans to settle down and is thinking about retiring from competition. She has contemplated hanging up her mask after the last couple of world competitions, but the passion for the sport keeps her going.
"I just love the sport so much," said Jackson. "It's just a great way to release a lot of stress that I've built up during the day."