Emilia Rossatti and Gaia Traditi have stood en garde, facing their opponents in fencing competitions throughout Italy, for a decade.

So, when they met in April at the Under 23 Italian Championships, they had a good idea what to expect. But they surprised even themselves. When presented with an opportunity to take advantage of a rival, Emilia decided to prove that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. Instead, her actions allowed respect, character and class to take center stage. Or, in this case, center strip.

Gaia and Emilia faced each other in the championship final, a close match throughout. With just 17 seconds left, though, Gaia held a 12-9 lead that seemed secure – until she took an errant step backward, turned her ankle and fell to the ground. A medical attendant rushed to her, and the clock was stopped. Gaia had just five minutes to receive medical treatment, which did little to ease the pain. At that point, she could have retired and conceded the match to Emilia. Or she could continue, taking the risk that the remaining 17 seconds could be enough for Emilia to earn the points for a victory.

While Gaia received treatment, Emilia huddled with her coach, Riccardo Schiavina. “In those five minutes, both he and I decided not to attack,” she says. “It seemed the right thing to do.”

So, when Gaia decided to carry on, the two took their positions at the center of the competition mat, known as the strip. Instead of moving forward to attack, though, Emilia retreated slowly. Again, the two met center strip. Again, Emilia retreated, allowing the clock to wind down and assuring victory and a national title for Gaia. Once more, the two met center strip, this time for a warm embrace.

“This girl gave me something more,” Gaia said following the match. “She made me realize that in spite of everything, it’s not victory that counts but friendship. And she showed that towards me so much today. There’s no way to thank her. I don’t care much about the victory, but her gesture was nicer.”

The victory gave Gaia the chance to represent Italy in epee in the individual competition at the European Under 23 Championships in May in Budapest, where she advanced to the round of 16.  In the team competition, Emilia and Gaia joined forces as part of the four-person delegation that earned bronze for Italy.

In addition to a bronze medal, Emilia received a Fair Play award in the inaugural Young Athletes category from the Italian National Olympic Committee.  “If we want (young athletes) to have an impact on future generations, it is important to educate them on sharing, brotherhood, solidarity and respect for each other,” says Cosima Guccione of Sport and Youth Policies in Florence, where Emilia received the award.  “Teaching fair play is like teaching civic education.”

Emilia’s sportsmanship has earned praise beyond Italy: from India to Great Britain, and now to the strip – er, stage − of the Musials. And the 17-second lesson in sportsmanship has proven its staying power. “I’d do it another thousand times,” Emilia says. “I’m very happy, indeed, even beyond the gesture. I’m satisfied with what I’ve done.”