Fencers Race Imboden, Tim Morehouse and Dagmara Wozniak (right) at the USOC's 100 Days Out celebration in Times Square on April 18, 2012.
Every weekend, when other college coeds on campus were busy being coeds, Dagmara Wozniak drove about an hour home to see her mom.
Irena Wozniak had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and while Dagmara’s decision of where or when or even if she would attend college had required some soul searching, driving home to Avenel, N.J., every weekend to be with her mom did not.
To Wozniak, who is ranked 10th in the world in saber fencing, fear is not facing an opponent with a sword.
“I was just graduating from high school when she was diagnosed, and so the decision to leave for college was hard,” said Wozniak, 24, who plans to graduate next year from St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y. ”I was lucky enough to get a full scholarship, so we decided I should take it, and I traveled home every weekend to help take care of her. I didn’t know if she would be there or not.”
After a couple of tough years, including nine months of chemotherapy, Irena recovered.
”She’s a fighter,” Wozniak said. “She had a port put in her chest for chemo and she would come to practice and watch me. She said it made her happy to watch me fence — it made her forget about what was going on.”
In 2008, when Irena was coming off her two-year struggle, Dagmara was chosen as the replacement athlete on the U.S. women’s Olympic saber team and traveled to Beijing, but she did not compete. This time, Irena is fully recovered and Dagmara is on the U.S. team that will compete in London.
”We didn’t go to Beijing, but we will be in London, of course,” said Irena, who will travel there with Wozniak’s father and sister.
Wozniak’s parents immigrated to the United States when she was a year old. Fencing was popular in their native Poland, so Wozniak was signed up for lessons at the Polish Cultural Foundation. ”I think it was more of something to keep me busy,” she said. “The essential reason was that I was hyperactive. It was almost a day care.”
At 14, Wozniak started training with Yury Gelman, who later became her coach at St. John’s, where she was a four-time All American. She started competing and winning at the world level shortly after meeting Yury, and since Beijing has medaled three times in individual World Cups and international saber events.
This year, Wozniak’s U.S. team earned the bronze medal at the world championships, but there is no women's team saber competition at this year's Olympic Games. Only Wozniak and top-ranked Mariel Zagunis, who won gold in the last two Olympic Games in the individual saber, will represent the United States in women’s saber.
There’s a chance, depending on the draw, that Wozniak might end up fencing Zagunis, who is her close friend and teammate. ”We travel all year long together and are in a different country almost every weekend, so we are all really close and like family,” Wozniak said.
“Being able to defeat Mariel this year at No. 1 in the world helped me to move forward in the Olympic qualification process. But it’s a competition. What happens on the (fencing) strip is on the strip, whether she defeats me or me her. After it was over in London, we went to dinner together.”
Gelman, who is also the U.S. Olympic men’s saber coach, said Wozniak’s chances of medaling are good. Gelman said Wozniak’s toughest foe will be Russia’s Sofiya Velikaya, who won the 2011 world championship and is ranked No. 2 in the world. Wozniak has beaten Zagunis this year and also Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan, who is No. 3 in the world. But Wozniak has not beaten Velikaya.
“In the Olympics, it’s all very mental,” Gelman said. “It’s so much nerves and handling the pressure. I tell Dagmara that she is strong and she can do it. If she is psychologically strong, she can beat anyone in the world.” Gelman knows the depth of Wozniak’s strength. As her coach during the time of her mother’s illness, he said there were many talks and tears.
“Dagmara was nervous and upset, and we would talk and I told her she had to continue to do things the way she did them before this happened or even better than before,” he said. ”Make better grades, fence better, and your mother will be happy to see that you are a success. If you are happy, she will be happy. She cried with me but she didn’t with her mom. She was tough and it was good.”
When Irena was young, she was on a skydiving team in Poland and became national champion.
”It was like an extra-curricular activity in high school,” Dagmara said. “They measured how fast the jumps were and for accuracy. I always make a joke that they were preparing for war. My mom’s amazing.” Irena laughed when asked about her skydiving days, then seemed to think hard when asked if her daughter inherited her toughness.
“Maybe,” she said, “it’s some kind of continuation for me.”