|Mariel Zagunis celebrates winning the Korfanty World Cup on May 3, 2014 in Chicago.|
Even with two Olympic gold medals for fencing already on her mantle, Mariel Zagunis is looking forward to the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games.
The Pan Am Games, which feature athletes from the Americas, are the third largest international multi-sport Games in the world, surpassed only by the Olympic Games and the Asian Games.
“You treat it almost like a small world championship,” Zagunis said. “It’s a big deal to compete, represent your country, get medals.”
The Games have plenty to offer, from Olympic quota spots on the line for some sports and a chance for greater exposure and international glory for non-Olympic sports.
For Zagunis, qualifying for the Pan Ams (the U.S. fencing team will be announced June 1) would offer an important tune-up for the coming Olympic year. The Games also have a familial connection with her parents, Robert and Cathy, Olympic rowers at the 1976 Montreal Games, that keeps her coming back.
“Both competed in the Pan Ams in Venezuela (in 1983),” said Mariel Zagunis, who won two titles at the 2011 Pan Am Games. “It’s in my blood for sure.”
This year’s event kicks off in 100 days, running from July 10-26. Here are some essential details to know about this summer’s event.
Pan Ams History
This will be the 17th time the Pan Ams have been staged since the event was first held in 1951 and the third time Canada has staged it. The last time Canada was host was in 1999 in Winnipeg.
Lots Of Athletes
More than 6,000 athletes from all 41 member nations of the Pan American Sports Organization will compete in 364 medal events spread over 51 disciplines in 36 sports, making it the largest multi-sport event ever held in Canada — double the size of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver that had just under 2,600 competitors.
Approximately 630 athletes will represent Team USA in Toronto. The United States Olympic Committee will field athletes in nearly every sport on the Pan Am program, save soccer and team handball.
Full Olympic Program
The entire Olympic program will be contested at the Pan Am Games for the first time. Toronto also will have the Pan Am-only sports that are not part of the Rio calendar, such as baseball, bowling, karate, racquetball, roller sports (figure skating, speed skating), softball, squash and water skiing.
Golf, canoe slalom, women’s baseball and women’s rugby are all making their Pan Am debuts in Toronto, and men’s softball returns after a 12-year absence.
While some athletes will use the Pan Am Games as a tune-up for 2016, some performances in Toronto will have a direct impact on the Road to Rio. For athletes in 11 sports, Olympic qualification spots are on the line.
The U.S. field hockey and water polo teams could earn berths in Rio with a win in Toronto, while athletes in individual sports such as diving, shooting and triathlon also have the chance to earn quota spots for Team USA in Rio.
Naming The Team
Most of the U.S. sports teams still have to confirm their Pan Am rosters, but athletes in eight sports have already been nominated to the team, pending approval by the USOC. Fourteen of the athletes have Olympic experience.
USA Swimming’s roster includes 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, who is tied with Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the most Olympic medals by a U.S. woman. Joining Coughlin on the team are Olympic champions Cullen Jones, Matt McLean, Allison Schmitt and Nick Thoman, along with Darian Townsend, who represented South Africa at the Olympic Games in 2004, 2008 and 2012 before becoming a U.S. citizen in July 2014.
Zagunis, who won the individual women’s saber gold medals in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 along with a team bronze in Beijing, is one of several U.S. Olympic gold medalists still working to earn a spot on Team USA this summer. Other Olympic champions expected to join her there include judoka Kayla Harrison, boxer Claressa Shields, wrestler Jordan Burroughs and shooter Kim Rhode.
“The competition is definitely high level,” Zagunis said.
Youth Olympic Stars
Youth Olympic swimming medalists Meghan Small and Clara Smiddy have also been named to the team. Joining Small and Smiddy from the 2014 U.S. Youth Olympic Team is Lily Zhang, who earned table tennis bronze at the Games in Nanjing, China, and also competed for Team USA at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Team USA Tradition
Team USA has dominated the Pan Am Games throughout its history, winning more than twice as many gold and overall medals than its closest rival, Cuba. It took home 92 gold medals and 237 overall medals from Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2011. Cuba was second in the gold-medal hunt with 58 gold medals, while Brazil had the second-most overall with 141.
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.