NEW YORK — Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall, built in the Victorian era, has been the venue for everything from cotillion balls to hip-hop music awards. But the historic hall has rarely hosted an event as intense as the semifinal and final rounds of the Absolute Fencing Gear New York Sabre Grand Prix, which was held over the weekend and featured more than 300 of the sport’s top men and women from 45 countries.
USA Fencing’s poster athlete for the event, Mariel Zagunis, did not disappoint. The three-time Olympic medalist (2004 and 2008 individual gold; 2008 team bronze) won four preliminary match-ups to earn a semifinal berth against Russia’s Sofiya Velikaya, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist.
In a gripping face-off, Zagunis fell four touches behind before drawing even at 13-13 in the second half, only to have Velikaya re-gain momentum and win 15-13. The Russian then lost the final to Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist and two-time reigning senior world champion. Zagunis settled for bronze.
“There was a lot of back-and-forth; Sofiya and I have fenced each other many, many times,” Zagunis, 29, said. “I know how to beat her, so I’m just going to go home and watch the film and then come back and use what I’ve learned to have a better performance.”
Bronze wasn’t the only award for Zagunis picked up in Brooklyn. She and teammates Dagmara Wozniak, Eliza Stone and Ibtihaj Muhammad were presented with the Overall World Cup medal in honor of finishing the 2013-14 season as the world’s top women’s sabre team.
It’s a victory Team USA hopes to repeat at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, where up to four women will compete for team gold. Two women will compete for individual medals.
“If this was a world cup event, instead of a Grand Prix, we would all have to wake up and fence team event tomorrow,” Zagunis said. “At the (2014) world championships, luckily none of us had to come up against each other, but it does happen. The individual event is one thing, but no matter what, when it comes to team we are together. We’re fencing not just for each other, but also for our country.”
Zagunis, a five-time senior world champion currently ranked second in the world, is the most decorated fencer in U.S. history. Still, she resists the mantle of “team leader.”
“I’ve been on the team the longest, 15 years, so I think because I’m the most experienced, that puts me into that role,” she said. “But it’s not necessarily one person stepping into the leadership role. We are all there supporting each other equally.
“We’ve gotten to know each other so well that if someone is having a great day, we know what to do, and if someone is having a not-so-great day, we know what to do as well. It’s all part of the team dynamic and takes a while to figure out. I think we’re in a good spot since we were able to achieve a number-one ranking. That’s a really good sign for us heading into Rio.”
Wozniak, ranked sixth in the world after winning bronze at the Orleans World Cup last month, was also eliminated by Velikaya in Brooklyn, losing in the table of 16. It was the third time this season she has fallen to the Russian.
“This was by far my best bout with her ever and I have a lot to go off of,” said the 26-year-old Wozniak said. “I was able to kind of hone in on what kind of preparation works well with her and put up a good fight. I challenged her technically and tactically better than I have in the past.”
Wozniak, too, is looking ahead to Rio.
“It’s right around the corner,” she said. “We have a really good shot. We’re clicking well together, we’re working really hard, we’re doing our homework analyzing the different teams. While we didn’t have the best team event at Orleans, we still got the silver medal. We need to continue to work harder to make sure we win gold every time.”
The Polish-born Wozniak was raised in New Jersey and trains at Manhattan Fencing Center; Zagunis trains nearly 2,500 miles away with the Oregon Fencing Alliance in Portland. Still, they are in lockstep when it comes to the team’s goals.
“You can run into (a U.S. teammate) in the bracket and want to beat her,” Wozniak said. “But when it’s a team, you’re friends and everyone else is the enemy. Obviously everyone wants to perform well individually, but having such an amazing chance to do well together give us that extra motivation.
A team member since 2007, “Daga” has settled into her own role.
“I would definitely look at Mariel as the leader, she is the most experienced,” Wozniak said. “I feel that I am the negotiator/peacekeeper. If someone is freaking out, I just lunge at them and say, ‘You got this.’ I’m really the nanny of the group.”
Zagunis, Wozniak and their teammates are fortunate to even be thinking about a team medal in Rio. Not every fencing event — sabre, foil and épée — has men’s and women’s team events at each Olympic Games. The disciplines that have a team event at the Games have been rotating since 2008. There was no women’s sabre team event or men’s épée team event in London, and there will be no men’s sabre team event or women’s foil team event in Rio.
“It’s unfortunate, but we knew this would happen,” said Daryl Homer, Team USA’s top-ranked male sabre fencer. “All of us contending for the team are relatively young. I am 24 and one of the older guys, and there are guys competing in the sport who are 33. We know we have another two Olympics together as a team.”
“Rio is just going to be the best — hopefully — two men qualify, we’re okay with that,” he continued. “We are just going to push and get better.”
Homer, currently ranked 11th in the world, just missed making the semifinals in Brooklyn, losing in the table of eight to Hungary’s Aron Szilagyi, the 2012 Olympic champion. Junghwan Kim of South Korea won the men’s event.
Tim Morehouse, a member of the silver-medal winning U.S. men’s sabre team at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, thinks the U.S. men are positioned to be threats in Tokyo in 2020.
“Daryl and Jeff (Spear) were both on the London team and have experience,” Morehouse said. “There are guys coming up, like Eli Dershwitz and Andy Mackiewicz, who are just starting to break through at the senior level. The hope is to keep the experienced guys going and everyone improving through to 2020, and get the men’s team positioned to be one of the top teams going into Tokyo. So there is a level of building this new team, while also focusing on trying to get two men to Rio who can do some individual damage.”
Meanwhile, though, it’s the women’s team who is thinking Olympic gold. After the holidays, there is training camp, with competition starting up again at the end of January. Every chance to hone strategy and skills is important, because Zagunis expects stiff competition from Russia and Ukraine, among other nations.
“Anything can happen,” she said. “Look at the world championships in Kazan in July. You would have thought Russia would have had the home field advantage, and yet they lost in the quarterfinals.
“There are many, many competitions before Rio and we are going to use each of them as a learning experience. And even when it comes down to Rio, we’re going to treat it just like any other competition.”