LONDON -- After winning two consecutive Olympic saber gold medals, Mariel Zagunis found losing twice at the Games and going home empty-handed a disorienting experience.
“My chances here are done and now I can enjoy the rest of my time in — where am I? London -- and go on from there,” a composed Zagunis said after losing the bronze-medal bout. “And there’s nothing I can do about what happened here today.”
Zagunis had marched into these Olympic Games on the most exhilarating high. She was chosen by the American athletes as the U.S. flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony and became one of the most photographed faces of the team. Expectations followed her, too. She was trying to win an unprecedented three straight women’s saber titles.
“Of course having the honor of carrying the flag started off things great, and I was hoping to continue to ride that wave,” Zagunis said.
Instead, the wave crashed with a suddenness that left her wondering what had just happened.
After easing through her first three rounds, Zagunis met eventual champion Kim Jiyeon of South Korea in the semifinals at the ExCeL.
At first, the American appeared unstoppable.
Zagunis had three touches in the first 3 seconds en route to a 6-1 lead. She expanded the margin to 12-5, but could not put the bout away with three more touches. Kim roared back to tie it at 13, and won, 15-13.
“I had a little bit of a lapse in concentration,” said Zagunis, 27, of Beaverton, Ore. “Things started happening really quickly and I wasn’t landing my attacks.
“All of a sudden, it was 12-10, 13-10, 13-13, so things just happened way too fast. I should have slowed down my attacks. I should have slowed down the entire bout, so it really was like I pretty much handed it to her with all my mistakes that cost me the bout.”
Her coach, Ed Korfanty, said Zagunis was impatient, but there was nothing she could do to change the pace. “They don’t let you tie the shoes or something,” he said.
It was the first Olympic individual fencing bout Zagunis had ever lost.
“I guess I’m just in disbelief,” she said. “It’s just really strange because I’ve never been in this position before at the Olympics.”
In 2004, Zagunis was a late addition to the U.S. team after Nigeria decided not to use its berth. Just 19 and the daughter of two Olympic rowers, she was the surprise gold medalist as women’s saber made its Olympic debut. Zagunis was also the first American to win an Olympic fencing gold medal in 100 years. She defended her title four years later by defeating both of her U.S. teammates, and they combined for an Olympic bronze in the team event.
Going into London, Zagunis said, “I felt like I was prepared. I felt like I was ready to go and I was fencing really great all day up until the (12-5) turning point. Other than that I’m just going to look forward to the next one in the next four years and learn from that. That’s all I can do and not let it happen again.”
Korfanty said Zagunis was “a little bit sad and crying a little bit,” after the semifinal loss, so it was difficult to get her ready to fence for the bronze medal less than an hour later.
Facing Olga Kharlan of Ukraine, Zagunis made more mistakes, this time taking a 4-1 lead before losing, 15-10.
But Zagunis was more devastated by the semifinal defeat.
“She didn’t beat me; I beat myself,” she said. “If I lose, it’s generally not that they were the better fencer; it’s that I was mentally not there.
“Because I know that when I’m there, I fence like I did in 2004 and 2008 and at World Championships in 2009, 2010. That’s me fencing ‘on.’ And when I’m ‘on’ like that, nobody can beat me. … The other fencers are very strong fencers and congrats to whoever ends up winning, but in my opinion, I think that if I was completely 100 percent ‘on’ mentally, then I would have been able to win again.”
Zagunis acknowledged feeling the weight of having already won the gold medal twice, which may have contributed to her steely expression on the piste even while she was introduced. She also opted not to speak to reporters between bouts.
Athens, Zagunis said, felt like “being on Cloud Nine … but once you do it once, then you do it twice then and have the gravity of doing it a third time, you start to realize a lot more the significance of it. And perhaps that means you have to make yourself focus more and not be bubbly and happy and laughing and talking to everybody all the time.”
She already has turned her focus to 2016. “At this point, it would mean a lot to me to be able to have two very successful Olympics and one in between that wasn’t successful,” Zagunis said. “I think the only thing that I can really look forward to now is Rio.
But she has consolation back home in the form of two gold medals. Prior to the championship women’s saber bout Wednesday, the arena announcer excitedly said that it would mark the first time anyone from outside the United States would win a gold medal in the event.
He later amended that to say it would be the first time anyone other than Mariel Zagunis had captured the gold.
“You know, it’s a difficult thing to win the Olympics three times in a row,” she said. “Nobody can say that and still nobody can say they’ve done it twice, so I guess I can just tell myself that.”
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSAorg. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.