Mariel Zagunis is a saber fencer for Team USA and was the London 2012 flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony for Team USA. She is a two time Olympic Champion from the 2008 Beijing and Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
24 Hours I Will Never Forget
September 15, 2012
My teammate Dagmara Wozniak, our team leader Largman and me
This year’s trip to the White House for the Olympians and Paralympians is surely one that none of us will ever forget. As a three time Olympian, I have made this trip twice before. Not that it wasn’t anything special in the past, because going to the White House is just as special as it is to call yourself an Olympian, but this time around ended up being above and beyond all expectations.
I arrived late Thursday night and rode in a town car to my hotel with Paralympian and fellow fencer Gary van der Wege and Olympic long jumper Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin was able to make this special trip regardless of the fact that the multitalented athlete is scheduled to play in a game this Saturday as he is also a wide receiver for the University of Texas. Upon arriving at the hotel each of us was issued our uniform to wear to the White House the next day. As if we already weren’t spoiled enough with the bags and bags of swag from the Olympics, this was just one more outfit to add to the pile. Nike delivered once again with a letterman style white and navy jacket and a Nike Fuel Band for every athlete! Since I arrived too late to attend the athlete reception, I headed straight to bed to get some sleep before the early breakfast scheduled for 6:00am.
The next morning kicked off without a hitch regardless of the early hour. As all 400+ athletes and cadre boarded the busses, the energy and excitement in the air was palpable. We arrived to the White House grounds well ahead of schedule, which is understandable after the numerous security stops we had to go through. It was actually a blessing in disguise that we arrived so early, so we could take advantage of that time to take pictures on the lawn with the White House and the Washington Monument in the background.
Before we knew it, it was time to get organized and line up on the bleachers and await the arrival of the President, First Lady and Vice President. At this point I was pulled aside to prepare for my special role. Paralympian Brad Snyder, who carried the flag in the Closing Ceremony only less than a week before, and I were going to present the President with the flag we carried from the Games. I had a chance to talk at length with Brad, and he is an incredible person, athlete, role model and representative. I was honored to stand on the stage with him as the President, First Lady and Vice President arrived.
Mrs. Michelle Obama spoke first and then introduced her husband. Both the First Lady and President Obama expressed their gratitude to the Olympians and Paralympians for their dedication to our country, as well as their astonishment at what it takes to compete on the world stage. Then the best and most unexpected thing happened. President Obama, who was scheduled to say his piece, take a photo with the group and then be on his way, declared that he was going to stay and take the time to meet and shake hands with each and every athlete there! Although this probably threw off his schedule for the rest of the day and maybe the next few days as well, it only proved that his sincerely and support was genuine.
After the President finished speaking, it was Brad’s and my cue to do our part. I had been rehearsing my short speech for the flag presentation over and over for this moment. Suddenly, however, the music started playing and the service people ran in to disassemble the podium and started to carry off the flag! I had to say something to not let this moment pass. After some brief scrambling, we found another mic and were able to go through with the presentation. Although it threw me off a little bit, I was still able to say my part about the “Raise Our Flag” campaign and express the appreciation and thanks for the President’s support on behalf of all of Team USA.
Before I knew it, it was time to head back to the airport. Many of the athletes were in DC for less than 24 hours, but the whole experience was totally worth it. I know I will be adding this trip to the growing list of things to tell my children and grandchildren!
A Moment of Reflection
September 13, 2012
As I board my flight to Washington, D.C., for the Olympians' White House visit, I take some time to reflect on my journey of the past six weeks.
The Olympics are a very special time and I have had the privilege of experiencing three Games (04, 08, 12). People often ask me between Athens, Beijing, and London which was my favorite but they are all so special in their own way that it's literally impossible to choose. One thing that has been similar across the board, however, is the camaraderie among the athletes. After each Games I've come away with many special friendships with not only other fencers but athletes across many different sports and nations. In addition to making new friends and memories that will last a lifetime, it is still the 'once an Olympian, always an Olympian' feeling that really is the most special thing for me. When all of the medals are handed out and it is time to walk in the Closing Ceremonies, it is surreal to immediately reflect on the past two weeks and think to yourself, 'wow, I just did that.'
What set the London Olympics apart from Athens and Beijing, however, was the fact that I was nominated to have the honor and privilege of carrying the flag for Team USA in the Opening Ceremony. Only two fencers and six women have ever had this privilege before me. The overwhelming sense of excitement and pride in my country that I felt while walking through the tunnel with Team USA behind me is truly beyond words. It will be something that I will never, ever forget and a memory I'll cherish for the rest of my life.
There are many opportunities for Olympians in the small post-Games window of time that we must take advantage of before our names, sports, and accomplishments start to lose their relevance and the public moves on to the likes of presidential elections, college football, and fresh headline news stories. One of those special opportunities is the Olympians' trip to the White House, where Olympic and Paralympic athletes will all gather together again in the biggest contingent since the Olympics or Paralympics. This year's trip to this White House will also be extra special for me this time around because I will have the honor of presenting the U.S. flag I carried during the Opening Ceremony to President Obama. Apart from being very excited and proud to have such an amazing honor and responsibility yet again, I keep telling myself the same things I did before the Opening Ceremony: take in every second, don't forget to smile, and for goodness sakes please don't trip or drop the flag!!
One of the most exciting events that every Olympian is invited to attend is the visit to the White House. It's something I've looked forward to every time. We have dedicated our lives to our sports and represented our great country on the world stage, and now to be recognized by our President for our efforts is a huge honor. In a way it truly solidifies the fact that we have been a part of something very special. And like all of my previous Olympic experiences, I know this too will be something I will never forget.