|Flag bearer Mariel Zagunis leads the U.S. contingent during the
Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the
Olympic Stadium on July 27, 2012 in London.
July 27, 2013 will be a day filled with irony as I travel across the world from Portland to Poland through four different airports, wearing sweats and little makeup, accompanied solely by my coach and one teammate. Throughout this day I will walk passed and among thousands of people, all of whom have their own stories, destinations and agendas, and to all of whom my face and credentials will remain completely anonymous. If you are wondering to yourself who I am and why that puts me in an ironic situation, then I have just proven my point.
One year ago today, billions of people around the world watched in anticipation as the Opening Ceremony to the London Olympic Games began. London had a lot to prove as the host to the biggest and most popular sporting event in the world, especially if we look back on what China was able to pull off in 2008. Just about 48 hours before the Opening Ceremony was scheduled to begin, I received some life-changing news. Athlete representatives from each sport in our delegation had a meeting to vote on and decide which athlete would have the honor of being the flag bearer for our team. Not many people — including me at the time — realize that this important decision is made just two days before the Games kick off, and that it is decided on by panel of athlete peers. My teammate Tim Morehouse was the fencing representative in the meeting and he had mentioned to me that he was going to put my name in and push my story in hopes of getting a female fencer nominated. Although I was very thrilled and honored, I also felt that I did not stand a chance up against the likes of the more mainstream sports and athletes. Don't get me wrong — I am proud of what I have accomplished in my sport, but I also realize that fencing is not the first (or second, or maybe even 10th) sport that comes to people's minds when thinking about the Olympic Games. However, Tim was persistent and fought hard to get our sport in the spotlight just like he's been doing for years. Since I had no real expectations, I practically had a heart attack when Tim, who had obviously sprinted as fast as Usain Bolt back to our apartment in the Olympic Village with the news, scared me half to death by bursting into my room to tell me I had been selected to carry the U.S. flag in the Opening Ceremony!
The next 48 hours were a big blur. London was my third Olympic Games, so up until the point of being nominated I felt like I generally knew what to expect in the days leading up to my competition. Once I found out about my role as 'flag bearer' a big (albeit fun and exciting!) monkey wrench was thrown at me. Among lots of interviews and a press conference, I got to fence with Al Roker on the “Today” show, meet First Lady Michelle Obama and rub elbows with the big wigs in the USOC. The number of fans on my Facebook fan page quadrupled, at least. Before I knew it the 'big night' was here, and words cannot describe how surreal the next four hours were. Excitement was building as the athletes of Team USA gathered in the village around 9 p.m. while the world was watching the show take place inside the Olympic Stadium. Contrary to popular belief, the athletes who walk in the Opening Ceremony do not get to watch the show the rest of the world sees. Instead, we are lined up alphabetically by country in the village, more than a mile away from the stadium, and we slowly make our way only a few steps at a time towards the exciting lights, sounds, and cheers in the distance.
As Team USA inched closer and closer to the Olympic Stadium, nerves began to set in. At my two previous Olympic Games I competed and won a gold medal in front of thousands of people, with thousands more watching on television and I felt comfortable. But that was a whole other ball game; fencing is second nature to me. "But this is just walking in a straight line carrying a flag," you might think. True, but we are talking billions of people watching, and this wasn't just walking — this was leading Team USA, the greatest group of athletes in the world. Once we reached the tunnel and could catch a glimpse inside the stadium, it occurred to me that throughout this whole process no one in charge ever gave me specific directions on what I was supposed to do besides march, smile and wave — and not trip. I suppose that's all I really needed to know after all, because shortly thereafter the American flag was placed in my hand. As the music got louder and louder down the tunnel my nerves disappeared and were replaced with excitement and a feeling of, "Oh my gosh, is this really happening?!" The music was almost deafening, but there was no mistaking when the announcer introduced "the United States of America" and there was an eruption of cheers louder than anything else. I started walking, waving and smiling, never wanting that moment to end. Never again in my life will so many eyes be watching me or so many pictures be taken, and never again will I be able to replicate the feeling of pride and honor that I felt having the opportunity to represent my country and fellow athletes.
|Mariel Zagunis carries her country's flag during the Opening
Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Olympic
Stadium on July 27, 2012 in London.
I'm not exactly sure how long the walk was. Maybe those who watched it in person or on TV could tell, but all I know is that it was over too soon! Before I knew it I was being led up a ramp and away from the rest of Team USA. A woman who was obviously part of the show — dressed in head to toe sparkles and wearing an elaborate head dress — told me to stand in this spot until someone else came and got me. Then my favorite part of the whole night happened. As I stood on top of the ramp, still holding the American flag, I got to watch the rest of Team USA parade past me. I continued to smile and wave, but since I was now part of the backdrop I was able to remain a fly on the wall as I experienced all of them experiencing the Opening Ceremony. The look on every single athlete's face was one of pure joy and excitement. It didn't matter that it took us hours to walk to the stadium; you could just tell that nothing else could make them more content than that moment. It didn't matter if it was someone's first or fifth Olympic Games — it is still the most amazing and unique opportunity to march. And it didn't matter if someone is a world famous athlete, has multiple gold medals, or is relatively unknown; we all walked in to the stadium as a team, supporting each other as Olympic brothers and sisters.
Whether or not you are an avid sports fan, everyone gets excited about the summer Olympic Games every four years. The Opening Ceremony that kicks off the Games is watched by billions of people from all walks of life, and for the next two weeks the world is brought together by a common bond. In many cases U.S. athletes are admired throughout the world and in a majority of the sports are expected to win that precious gold medal. Think about how Phelps, Douglas, Felix, Eaton, and May-Treanor/Walsh Jennings remain household names even in this non-Olympic year. But the Games also allow the lesser-known names from equally credible sports — Varner, Harrison, Shields, Boudia, Zagunis — to have their time in the spotlight, too. The beauty of the Games and what makes them so special is that making an Olympic team is no easy feat. As an athlete you can look at your teammates across all sports and without a word know what they feel and what they've been through to make it to this point. We athletes all have a mutual understanding and respect for each other knowing: I've dedicated my life to this, I want this more than anything, nothing else matters more than bringing home that gold medal. Everyone's story is unique and special, yet the bond remains that we are all there, marching through the tunnel in the Olympic Stadium, united under one purpose. This is why being chosen to be the 'face' of Team USA — to represent all of those struggles, stories and successes — is such a huge honor. During the Olympic Games, the world has their eyes on Team USA and during the Opening Ceremony the world had their eyes on me. I am forever grateful and appreciative to my Olympic teammates who granted me this opportunity to represent them and our country in this way.
All that being said, you might understand now why it is ironic that I have slipped back into a 'normal' life since one year ago… back to not being recognized and going about my daily routine without a reporter or flashbulb in sight. Fencing is out of the spotlight once again despite the fact that the world championships, our biggest competition outside of the Olympic Games, is taking place in Budapest in just over a week. But that is totally fine with me. I have continued to train full-time and have been competing on the World Cup circuit in order to keep my world ranking up so I can qualify for Rio. It's hard to believe that a year has passed but it is even more unbelievable that Rio will be here in three short years. To the future flag bearer out there, if you are reading this, I am already proud of you and my only advice is to just take in the moment, smile, wave and, whatever you do, don't trip!
Mariel Zagunis is a three-time Olympian who earned Team USA's first Olympic gold medal in fencing in 100 years when she won the women's saber competition at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. Zagunis followed that up with more individual gold as well as team bronze at the 2008 Games. At the London 2012 Olympic Games, Zagunis was chosen by her peers to carry the U.S. flag into the Opening Ceremony.