Red ponytail flying, senior Katherine Stephan lunges at her opponent with a glistening sabre. Slashing her way down a 6-foot-wide electrical strip on the gym floor, she thrusts, parries and flicks with her weapon.

Stephan is upholstered in a vest of bulletproof Kevlar and wears a steel mask. Her lightning-fast strokes are measured electronically, with a body cord wired to her uniform and another wire embedded in her blade. When she touches her opponent with the spring-loaded tip of her sabre, a buzzer sounds and a green light flashes on an overhead scoreboard.

For decades, women could only fence competitively with light-weight foils, and it wasn't until 1989 that they were allowed to compete in collegiate tournaments with the épée, a heavier blade that resembles 19th-century dueling weapons. Last year the ncaa finally added the slashing cavalry sabre to the women's arsenal, and the four fencers on Stanford's new sabre squad--Stephan, Diane Boudalis, '01, Colleen O'Kelly, '02, and Meghan Everett, '04--are looking to make their mark when official bouts begin this month.

"Fencing with foil is a lot like ballet, and épée footwork is long and loping," Stephan says about the other weapons she has tried. "But I love the short, powerful sabre."

The sabre squad gathers at 6 a.m. three days a week for practice sessions in Roble's fencing center, where they alternately bash and psych each other out.

"It's amazing fun and a total departure from anything I've done before," says Boudalis, who is captain of the squad. "You can't be a timid sabre fencer, and whatever one might lack in pure athleticism, one can make up for by playing the mental game."

Devotees of fencing describe it as an elegant martial art that dates from the Renaissance and teaches strategy, style and good manners. But sabre rattlers will tell you there's another quality all fencers pride themselves on.

"Sneakiness," says coach Lisa Milgram. "The player I want is the one who can play a really good joke on someone. So when we're recruiting from our phys ed classes, we look for the tricky little ones who are built low to the ground. We put sabres in their hands and say, Go hit 'em!"

In her second year as head coach of the Stanford coed varsity team, Milgram is one of a handful of women who coach male fencers in the United States. She predicts that Stanford will be the powerhouse to beat in the western region this year, given its consistent showing in the ncaa Final Four for the past five years. Milgram has hired two Ukranian fencers as assistant coaches--George Pogosov and Alex Kuznetsov--and together they have recruited many of the 26 members of this year's team from secondary schools on the East Coast, where fencing has a long tradition. Sisters Iris, '03, and Felicia Zimmerman, '01, showcased Stanford's emerging program when they competed in the Sydney Olympics, and the Reichling brothers -- team captain Felix, '02, and younger sibling Florian, '04 -- bring the discipline of European training from their native Germany.

Discipline is fine by Colleen O'Kelly, who credits her agility and speed to 15 years of training in ballet. "But sabre is pretty aggressive," she adds. "So we basically try to intimidate each other by stomping down the strip and yelling guttural stuff."