(L-R) Eliza Stone, Mariel Zagunis, Ibtihaj Muhammad and Dagmara Wozniak celebrate after winning gold at the FIE World Fencing Championships on July 21, 2014 in Kazan, Russia.
Nine years was long enough.
Mariel Zagunis, a two-time Olympic fencing champion, won her first women’s saber team world championship at age 15 in 2000. She won another in 2005. Until Monday, when the U.S. Women’s Saber Team defeated France in the finals at the FIE World Fencing Championships in Kazan, Russia, it hadn‘t happened again.
Zagunis and her three teammates, all of them first-time world champions, defeated France 45-39 to clinch the season’s biggest win for a team that was ranked No. 3 in the world.
“It felt really, really good to win today,” Zagunis said.
Following a celebration dinner, they finally got back to their hotel rooms, tired and happy, after midnight.
“We really felt like it was overdue and we were going to leave nothing on the (competition) strip and just fight for each other, fight for ourselves, fight for Team USA,” Zagunis said. “We all really wanted gold today. We kept our focus and we were able to achieve that.”
The win marked the fifth world title for Zagunis, a three-time Olympian who also won individual world championships in 2009 and 2010. For teammates Dagmara Wozniak, Eliza Stone and Ibtihaj Muhammad, it was their first team gold medal at the world championships.
“It feels amazing,” said Wozniak, a 2012 Olympian. “Now I know why Mariel likes winning so much.”
“I don’t think I’ve registered it,” Stone said. “I don’t think I quite understand how big of a deal it is. I’ve heard it’s big, but I’m still in shock.”
The win was the United States’ third in women’s team saber fencing. The U.S. women won bronze medals in each of the last three world championships. The United States also won bronze at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
In addition to the team gold medal, Zagunis returns home from Russia with a silver medal in the individual saber. The achievements stoke the fires for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
“To be able to do what we did today here, with the pressure and everything that we were dealing with going into today, (the victory) really sets a high bar for Rio and really gives us the confidence to keep improving for the next two years,” Zagunis said. “Even though today wasn’t the Olympic Games, it sure felt very important and significant, and I think that it sets us up to have the confidence to come home with the gold from Rio.”
While Zagunis is the only previous world champion on the team, there is plenty of experience among her teammates. Muhammad is a five-time member of the world team and narrowly missed making the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team. Wozniak, who is ranked No. 5 in the world, is also a five-time world team member and a 2012 Olympian. Stone is a two-time world team member and is ranked No. 7 in the world.
Together, they combined to win gold, silver and bronze medals on the world cup circuit this season. Zagunis said a strong bond developed not only among members of the women’s saber squad but the entire world championship team in Russia.
In addition to the women’s gold medal finish, the men’s saber team finished sixth — its best placing since 2005. Gerek Meinhardt finished fifth in men’s foil and Lee Kiefer was sixth in women’s foil.
“This year feels extremely special,” Zagunis said. “This year feels like everybody is really supporting each other. There’s great camaraderie on our team. I think that it really shows when it comes to the results that we’re able to get. Everybody’s supporting each other, everyone is happy to be here, everyone is happy to be around each other. It’s really come a long way in the past couple of years for our team.”
The bond has stretched to other members of the squad and helped the women’s saber team as it defeated Kazakhstan, China and Ukraine on the way to the medal round.
“It’s just a nod to the hard work and team unity and camaraderie that we have,” Muhammad said. “I feel really thankful and just blessed to have the group of girls that I’ve been with. I feel like we have this core team, and no other team has what we have. We fight for each other and know we’ve always got each other’s back out there. We’ve fenced together for so long that I feel like we know each other’s idiosyncrasies and the way we play off of each other and the way we build each other’s confidence.”
That is not always easy, Zagunis said, because at the world championships and world cup events, the team competition often begin the day after the individual competition is held.
“One day, you’re fencing just for yourself and you’re out there doing all the hard work, and the next day you have three other people that are behind you and you’re depending on each other,” Zagunis said. “So for us it’s really important to have that really strong trust between the four of us because you’re out there fencing for yourself, but you’re also fencing for the other girls and representing your country. There’s really a lot that goes into the team event, and it can be very intense. It can be very rewarding but also very heartbreaking at the same time because you’re not only fencing for yourself but for your teammates.”
There were no heartbreaks this time around.