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Mariel Zagunis: Hard Work Makes Lasting Legacy

By Maryann Hudson | Feb. 20, 2013, 6:47 p.m. (ET)

Gus Welsh stands in front of one of many Mariel Zagunis images at Notre Dame.

That Gus Welsh was down and a little bit out, not liking his situation, and mad at himself for wasting time in the past, is all understandable. At 25, he had spent eight years trying to get through college, taking time off to earn money, then going back to school, then work, then he’d do it all over again. He was one semester or so from graduating, and in his work phase, when he got a more important calling: his mom needed some help back home.So he’s there now, in South Bend, Ind., working two jobs. He unloads trucks for Walmart and is a janitor at Joyce Center, the athletic facility at the University of Notre Dame. His goal was to work for NASA, pushing the limits. Instead, he’s pushing a broom.

That’s where Olympian Mariel Zagunis comes in.

Both of Welsh’s jobs are at night. So one night, when he was not the least happy about cleaning toilets at Notre Dame and wondering where his life had gone — is going — he went into the old fencing gym to clean. Notre Dame now has a beautiful, new fencing facility, but this was the old one, hidden from the rest of the complex up a back flight of stairs and down a corridor with pipes sticking out of the wall, then through the mechanical room.

“Then you get to a dank, dark little place,” Welsh said. “It’s like a dungeon in there, with no windows.”

Mariel Zagunis signs autographs for fans after winning the
2012 Orleans Grand Prix in France

That’s when Welsh saw all these awards on the wall with Mariel Zagunis’ name, from matches that he thought no one probably saw, remembered, or ever heard of.

“I’m thinking that I’m working two jobs and wasting a lot of time, and then I started reading all the plaques and ribbons and tournaments,” Welsh said. “They started in one spot and then there were even banners on the ceiling because they ran out of room.

“This is Notre Dame, where it’s all about football and basketball. But I’m looking at this and thinking that the fencing teams (and individuals) here won 35 national championships. Thirty-five. And I’m reading the ribbons and thinking that here’s a girl who is a three-time Olympian and her name was not on a building or there was no statue of her, but she was hidden in a dark corner behind everything else.”

Zagunis, 27, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the fencing saber competition, left Notre Dame during the spring of her junior year, in 2007. Welsh was in the Notre Dame ROTC program during some of that time.

“There is a picture of her in the fencing department and another picture in a glass case showing her carrying the (U.S.) flag at the Olympics,” Welsh said. “But here was Mariel, back then when she went to Notre Dame, working every day in this dungeon, not in the spotlight. Looking to be the best. That’s what struck me. We can give it our all, whether it’s cleaning a toilet or practicing for the Olympics. We need to do our absolute best everyday whether anyone sees it or not.”

So Welsh read up on Zagunis. And then he sent an email to her website. After introducing himself, Welsh told her how much she had inspired him.

The signed poster Mariel Zagunis sent to Gus Welsh

“I was reading a lot about you,” Welsh said in the email. “Your work ethic and so on. I don't know if you have seen the new fencing area there at ND but it’s pretty awesome. They have your picture up on the wall. ... So for the past three weeks, I’ve been cleaning every night. And you reminded me of a work ethic I (used) to have. Strong. Dedicated. Never giving up. I don’t know. Maybe it’s luck that I was placed there at ND and able to be reminded of that good work ethic. So I just wanted to say thank you. I know you don't know me, but your story has inspired me and refueled my spirit and soul to achieve something again. Perhaps it’s just starting out cleaning locker rooms. No matter what I’m doing, I’m sure you would say, ‘They better be the best cleaned locker rooms here. Because you can, Gus.’

“So thanks ma’am. If you are ever here at ND again and see a 25-year-old kid cleaning over there, it’s me. Trying to work as hard as Mariel Zagunis would.”

Cathy Zagunis, Mariel’s mom, was the first to see the email.

“I bit my lip and tried to fight some tears as it was very humbling to know your child can have such an inspirational effect on someone,” she said.

She passed the email along to Mariel, who was amazed. There’s a generation of fencers who look to her for inspiration, but a janitor?

“Something like this is so meaningful to know that my life influenced someone that wasn’t a direct connection (in fencing),” Zagunis said.  “The halls at Notre Dame are filled with athletes who have done amazing things. But he (Welsh) works in the fencing gym and there are pictures and memories there. It’s knowing he’s part of the whole big picture.

“...If I look back at my career, so many people have helped me.  There are your coaches and people close to you, but it shows me that no matter what, we are so connected. Some people have a huge influence and then there are smaller pieces of the puzzle that you may not even know about, but every little bit counts.”

Zagunis is the most decorated fencer in the history of U.S. fencing. She won the individual gold medal in saber fencing at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games. She won a bronze in team at the 2008 Games and finished fourth in 2012 in London.  Zagunis won the 2006 NCAA individual national championship while at Notre Dame. She was the top-ranked fencer in the world at the end of the past four seasons and in 2005. 

“It’s a ripple effect that you realize in a positive way, that the universe is on the same page, whether it’s in sports or in jobs or whatever your goals,” Zagunis said. “I don’t know what his job is now, but when I was there you would practice and practice and at the end of the day you would throw your dirty laundry into a bin and the next day they would be waiting for you all clean. So you’d put your workout clothes on and do the whole thing over again.

“It may seem like a small gesture, but somebody cleaned those clothes. It’s very important to really understand that no matter how big or small something is in your life, what is happening is that it’s all working together to help achieve your goals.”

Janusz Bednarski, Notre Dame’s fencing coach, sat down and talked with Gus after Mariel’s mom told him about the email.

“Many young people in his age, 24-28, are staying at home and live from parents work and he decided to take any job to be independent and we should support such a person,” Bednarski wrote. “In addition it looks that he is trying internally to reach to higher ethical standards. Great guy.”

Welsh received a package from Zagunis in late January. She sent him a signed poster and a London Olympic Games key chain. He put them in his room as a reminder to keep going, he said. Welsh, once again determined, said he has three goals.

“It’s a long walk, but if anything I want to be a good man,” Welsh said. “Mariel and her work attitude and ethic reminded me of my grandfather. He was in three wars, he loved his wife, his children and he was a good man. Second, I want to get out of college. Third, I still want to work for NASA or some sort of place doing exploration, and pushing the limits."

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Maryann Hudson is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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Mariel Zagunis