The 12 in ’12 series celebrates the fact that the London 2012 Olympic Games are just two years away. The series previews 12 athletes who have proven themselves as true competitors in past Games and look to win medals for Team USA in London. The eighth part of the series features gold-medalist fencer from Athens and Beijing, Mariel Zagunis.
Two Olympic gold medals. One Olympic bronze medal. FIE World Championships gold medal.
Fencer Mariel Zagunis made history at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games where she won the first women’s individual sabre gold medal to be awarded at an Olympic Games. On top of that, Zagunis became the first American fencer to win an Olympic gold medal in 100 years. Four years later, she repeated her Olympic success and led an American medal sweep on the first day of competition at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, where she also helped her team earn bronze in the team sabre competition. Zagunis has her heart set on gold once again at the London 2012 Olympic Games and plans to leave no stones unturned to achieve that goal.
Cathy and Robert Zagunis rowed for Team USA at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games. Although neither one of them returned to the States with a medal, they have very fond memories of being a part of those Games and instilled the Olympic spirit in their daughter, Mariel, when she was born almost a decade later.
Cathy said she had no expectations for her children, Marten, Mariel and Merrick, to become Olympians but she wanted to introduce them to a variety of sports because of how sports-minded she has always been. She exposed them to swimming, volleyball, basketball, fencing and soccer at a young age. All three eventually chose to stick with fencing.
Mariel Zagunis was the first American fencer to become the FIE Junior World Cup champion when she did so in 2002. She earned that title again the following two seasons and said that having parents who understood the commitment that came with having Olympic dreams made accomplishments like this possible.
“They know what it takes to get to that level, which is a difficult path to follow especially when you’re so young,” Zagunis said. “I think I was really lucky that my parents understood that and were able to support me and push me in the right ways.”
“I had the understanding of what it takes to support your child – during the disappointments, during the injuries, during the times when they’re winning and feeling wonderful,” Cathy said.
Zagunis’ parents quickly realized how unique fencing is because of the high costs involved with the sport. But they also realized that their daughter was consistently in the top four U.S. sabre fencers and this was no pipe dream. Zagunis wanted to fence and she had a legitimate shot at making the 2004 Olympic team, so her family made the financial commitment that required.
Against All Odds
Unlike most athletes, fencers qualify for the Olympic Games based on their world ranking and not through their country.
In 2004, Zagunis was competing at the final qualifying tournament for the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. In the end, she fenced fellow American Sada Jacobson for her ticket to Athens. If Zagunis won, both Jacobson and Zagunis would go to Athens, along with Jacobson’s sister, Emily; if Zagunis lost, she would not make the Olympic team.
“As it happened, Sada beat Mariel under some controversial refereeing, so that was heartbreaking,” Cathy said. “And she didn’t make it. So that’s where we were, with a lot of tears.”
Zagunis had been revolving her entire life around going to the Games. She had deferred her admission to Notre Dame University and stayed home in Oregon to fence full time leading up to Athens.
“When you’re training for something as big as the Olympics, you don’t make the team by accident,” Zagunis said. “Everything you’re doing two or three years before that is laying the foundation for you making the team.”
Fortunately, an unpredictable chain of events changed Zagunis’ destiny. The Nigeria Olympic Committee was not going to send its fencer to the Games, so as the world alternate, Zagunis, was bumped up and named to the team.
“When I found out that I was able to go, I was more determined than ever to go there and fence really, really hard and fence my best,” Zagunis said.
Cathy, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck in Athens.
On Aug. 17, 24 women participated in the individual sabre competition. Zaugnis’ first bout of the day, against Japan’s Madoka Hisagae, was the toughest for both Cathy and her daughter. Zagunis was jittery because it was her first Olympic bout and she needed to focus and settle down, while Cathy knew how her daughter felt and was nervous for her.
Zagunis won that bout and was able to keep her cool for the rest of the tournament. She won the next two bouts, versus Azerbaijan’s Elena Jamayeva and Romania’s Catalina Gheorghitoaia, and moved on to the gold-medal bout.
“She was leading by quite a bit,” Cathy said. “But I didn’t want to do anything to jinx it because there have been dramatic comebacks in fencing. Somebody could lose their head and lose their concentration and their opponent could make up for those lost points and come back to win. Even though everyone around me was saying, ‘She’s won! She’s won the gold medal!’ I said, ‘She hasn’t until it’s over!’ ”
Zagunis won the bout and the first women’s sabre gold medal to be awarded at an Olympic Games. Without even knowing it, she made history for another reason as well. The last time any American fencer, man or woman, won an Olympic gold medal was when Albertson Van Zo Post won the singlestick competition at the St. Louis 1904 Olympic Games, a century before Zagunis won her gold.
“That’s one of those things you don’t pay attention to until after the fact,” Zagunis said. “You just think about competing and doing your best. Looking back on it, it’s really special. To bring attention back to American fencing after 100 years is really special for me.”
Defending Her Title
After Athens, Zagunis earned a silver at the team sabre competition in the 2004 FIE World Championships. The U.S. team outdid itself by winning gold at the 2005 FIE World Championships. The following season, Team USA earned silver at the event and Zagunis also earned silver in the individual sabre competition.
But in 2007, Zagunis struggled, placing fifth at FIE World Championships. On the FIE Grand Prix circuit that season, she had a 17th-place finish, two fifth-place results and tied for third at two of the events.
“It was more mental anguish than physical anguish because she was very well-prepared physically,’’ Cathy said.
Zagunis managed to do well enough in 2008 to qualify for the Olympic team. This time around, she went to the Games with more pressure.
“Everyone was gunning to beat her because she’s the reigning champion,” Cathy said. “So it was a different kind of mental game for her in Beijing.”
But Zagunis had lost her top spot in the world and entered Beijing seeded sixth in the world. Zagunis said that worked to her advantage.
“Media didn’t pay much attention to me because they just look at your ranking of your previous season,” Zagunis said. “That’s better for me because if they think I’m a huge underdog and don’t expect me to win, I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s expectations.”
She won her first three bouts with ease and moved on to the semifinal round, where she had to fence teammate Rebecca Ward. Zagunis defeated Ward, 15-11, and fenced her other teammate, Jacobson, in the gold-medal bout.
“It was really surreal because we’re teammates and we practice with each other every day,” Zagunis said. “Especially Becca and I, because we’re from the same club in Oregon, and Sada and I have been on the same team for 10 years. You can’t think, ‘I’m fencing my teammate.’ You have to think, ‘I’m just fencing another opponent.’ ’’
She beat Jacobson, 15-9, and successfully defended her title as Olympic champion.
Five days later, Zagunis teamed with Jacobson and Ward for the team sabre competition and together they took the bronze for Team USA.
Zagunis remained at the top of her sport after Beijing, and in 2009, she won the one title she had missed out on in the past. She won the individual sabre gold medal at the 2009 FIE World Championships.
“Finally after winning in Beijing, I feel like I had a lot of confidence,” Zagunis said. “2009 was my best season ever. Going into 2009 Worlds, I felt unstoppable and I felt like it was my time. I was like, ‘Finally, I’m gonna do this,’ and I was able to win pretty soundly after all these years.”
She then added to her impressive end of the year by being named the winner of the Challenge Chevallier Feyerick Trophy, awarded every two years by the International Fencing Federation to the fencer exhibiting the best sportsmanship.
Her domination continued this season and she is currently the No. 1-ranked sabre fencer in the world. She won the last FIE World Cup of the season in June in New York City by beating Reka Benko of Hungary, 15-13, in the women’s sabre final. She also is one of 24 American fencers who will be heading to Paris for the 2010 World Championships, set for Nov. 4-13.
And then there will be London less than two years from now.
“Maybe going into London they’ll finally expect me to win because I won two in a row,” Zagunis said. “Anything can happen, but I always expect myself to win because it’s a good mindset to have going into every competition.”
She also hopes to increase her sport’s visibility in the United States.
“I know in Beijing it got a lot of coverage, and I think that we, as a U.S. team, have a big opportunity to do well,” Zagunis said. “Americans should watch to support the U.S. team and hopefully we’ll do well. I do wish it was a little bit more popular, but hopefully by the time the Olympics roll around again it’ll become a little more popular.”
And London might not be the end of the road for Zagunis.
“People have asked me, ‘Doesn’t it ever get old?’ before, and it really doesn’t,” said Zagunis, 25. “I think that’s one of the things that’s really cool about the sport of fencing is that you’re always learning how to improve upon yourself because it’s so much of a mind game. If you stay the same fencer that you always have been, people are going to figure you out really easily. And soon enough what’s been working for you isn’t going to work anymore, and obviously you’re not going to be on top.
“I’m gonna keep fencing until I’m not having fun anymore,” Zagunis added. “I’m definitely gonna be in Rio [de Janeiro, the site of the 2016 Olympic Games] if I’m enjoying what I’m doing. If I’m heatlthy, why not? I’m having the time of my life right now.”
Alex Monnig of RedLine Editorial contributed to this article.
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