Mariel Zagunis celebrates winning the Korfanty World Cup on May 3, 2014 in Chicago.
CHICAGO -- Mariel Zagunis has been at the top of her sport on the world’s biggest stage. At both the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, and the 2008 Games in Beijing, Zagunis won the gold medal in the women’s individual saber competition.
In 2012 at the London Games, though, she did not reach the podium and went home without a medal.
Two years after that result, Zagunis is working her way through a long-term plan to not only get back on the medal podium in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Games, but to win the gold medal again.
“Every elite athlete looks at the Olympics as their biggest goal, and it is the most important tournament to us,” said Zagunis, who also won a team bronze medal in 2008. “Mainly because it is the Olympics and it only happens once every four years. So of course that is my main motivation, but it’s also important for us as fencers to keep it in retrospect.”
Zagunis knows that 2016 is still a long way off, though, and that many steps remain to complete her journey to another Olympic medal.
“Even though two years from now is going to pass by very quickly, we still have a lot of competitions in between then,” Zagunis said. “Like today (Saturday) for example. We still have to qualify for the Olympics. So it is really taking it one season at a time, one tournament at a time. Although the big long-term goal is Rio, I’m still here today fencing and not thinking about Rio today, I’m thinking about winning Korfanty.”
Korfanty is the Korfanty World Cup, which was held May 2-4 on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus. Zagunis won the tournament on Saturday night by defeating Viktoriya Kovaleva of Russia in the finals. On Sunday, Zagunis joined Ibtihaj Muhammad, Eliza Stone and Dagmara Wozniak to win the team silver medal.
The tournament is named after Ed Korfanty, who is Zagunis’ coach.
“It is added motivation, sure, to win it when it is named after my coach, and also because I haven’t won it before,” Zagunis said after reaching the semifinals of the event. “I’d love to win it in honor of him and in honor of Team USA.”
The championship for Zagunis wasn’t without challenge. In the second round, she held off a late surge by Saoussen Boudiaf of France to win 15-14.
“She is a very strong fencer,” Zagunis said. “She and I have come up against each other many, many times in competition. She had my number for the first time we fenced because she was just so surprising with how fast and how quickly she was able to move on the strip.
“We’ve now gone back and forth. I was getting ready to close out the bout, and she’s a fighter. She moves really well on the strip and doesn’t give up. I knew it wasn’t going be an easy bout. I didn’t want it to be 15-14, but it was, and I’m just glad it was in my favor. I’m glad I was able to close it out. It was a little bit of a nail-biter, but it kind of woke me up and got me ready for the rest of the day.”
Zagunis said the beginning of this fencing season was a challenge. Over the first two-thirds of the season, there were six competitions in nine weeks, all of which took place in Europe.
Then Zagunis had the entire month of April off, which she spent at her home in Beaverton, Ore. It was something she welcomed as she prepared for the Korfanty World Cup.
“So you had kind of a really tough two months, and then I got to stay at home for once, and train and get ramped up,” Zagunis said. “This (the Korfanty World Cup) is actually an advantage for a lot of the U.S. fencers because we don’t have to travel far. Preparing for this, I knew it was going to be easier physically than having to go all the way to Europe and fence the next day after getting there. We had a great training camp at home. I was at home training full-time and we had international fencers come, and we geared up for this competition pretty hard.”
With the 2016 Games buried in the back of her mind, Zagunis has been able to keep her focus on the present this fencing season, and has continued to put up stellar results.
“For me, I’m just trying to keep a level and consistent type of fencing and hope for good results always,” Zagunis said. “You just kind of have to take it one at a time. For me it is more about that than focusing too much on one thing.”
John Juettner is a sportswriter from the Chicago area. He is freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.