RIO DE JANEIRO — Mariel Zagunis was heartbroken after the London 2012 Olympic Games. The two-time defending Olympic gold medalist, she was a favorite to win again.
Instead, she finished fourth. She was devastated.
“London was tough; it was really, really tough,” said the 31-year-old saber fencer. “Initially, I felt like I wanted to give up because it was so devastating. It was heartbreaking. I didn’t want to end my fencing career on that.”
In Rio, Zagunis joins 14 other athletes on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team who have won Olympic gold medals in the past, but not in 2012. It’s a list that includes swimmer Anthony Ervin (gold in the 50-meter freestyle in 2000; fifth in 2012), track stars Justin Gatlin (gold in the 100-meter in 2004; bronze in 2012) and LaShawn Merritt (gold in the 400 in 2008; injured in 2012), and beach volleyball player Phil Dalhausser (gold, 2008; ninth in 2012), among others.
For these athletes, the 2016 Olympic Games offer a chance at redemption — and a chance to do it without the pressure of being defending Olympic champions.
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In retrospect, Zagunis realized that the pressure of winning a third consecutive Olympic gold medal was a difficult load to bear. Only one other fencer has ever won three gold medals in a row (Italy’s Valentina Vezzali in 2000, 2004 and 2008).
“I had to give myself a little benefit of the doubt as to how difficult that was and how much pressure was on me,” she said. “Everything came together at once, in the wrong way for me.”
But 2016 is a new year, and Zagunis showed up in Rio with gold hair extensions glimmering in her blonde mane. Throughout interviews, she kept repeating the word positive.
“I’m really focused on being positive and having fun and really making the most of it because I want to win that gold,” she said.
Zagunis is currently ranked third in the world.
She also has two events to compete in this time around — individual and team saber. With three weapons (epee, foil and saber), the Olympic program offers just two team events per Games. So Zagunis has only had one previous opportunity to compete in team saber — in 2008 in Beijing, where she and her teammates won a bronze medal.
Since 2004, U.S. women’s saber team has won eight medals at world championships: two golds (2005 and 2014), two silvers (2004 and 2006), and four bronzes (2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015).
“I think that 2014, to have that breakthrough win two years before the Rio Olympic Games says a lot about our team,” said Zagunis. “It shows that we can do it on that big stage when the pressure is on.”
Ibtihaj Muhammad and two-time Olympian Dagmara Wozniak will join Zagunis in the team saber competition on Aug. 13.
Matt Emmons has not won an Olympic gold medal since the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, where he claimed gold in the prone rifle event.
But the bronze medal that he won in three-position rifle at the 2012 London Games felt like gold.
That bronze was redemption for the mistakes that he had made in the three-position event in the 2004 and 2008 Games — mistakes that cost him the lead both times.
In 2004 — after winning gold in the prone event — Emmons fell out of gold-medal position (and off the podium entirely) after he fired at the wrong target.
Then in 2008, he won silver in the prone. But in three-position, he again lost the lead after his rifle fired while he was still aiming. Again, he fell out of the medals.
Before the 2012 Olympic Games, The New Yorker ran an article titled “Dealing With Olympic Failure” that featured Emmons. Some called him Wrong-Way Emmons or Cross-Fire Matt, said The New Yorker.
So finally winning a medal in three-position rifle at the London Games took the monkey off his back.
“What I had to overcome to get to that was mountainous,” Emmons said Thursday. “I was super proud of that.”
The 35-year-old shooter also had to overcome thyroid cancer, diagnosed in 2010.
“[London] was probably the toughest competition I’ve ever shot,” Emmons said. “Coming back from cancer, making the Olympic team and going back to the Games and getting a medal was pretty darn special.”
Now in Rio, Emmons is again aiming for gold in the three-position event. His life has changed since London — for the better. He and wife, Katy Kurkova, moved overseas to the Czech Republic, Katy’s home country. And they welcomed a third child, Emma, born in 2015.
Emmons has also overcome the back problems that plagued him in 2012. After the London Games, he devoted seven months to rehab and reconditioning and now has better muscle balance and no pain.
With his results in 2016, he’s a favorite in three-position rifle — his only event in Rio. Since the season opened in March, he has competed in three world cups and won medals in each (two golds and one silver). And he set a new finals world record in three-position in the Munich world cup in May.
Now in Rio, “a medal is of course the ultimate goal,” he said.
But mostly — like many Olympic athletes say — he just wants to perform to his potential and trust that he has done everything that he could do to reach it.
“I’ve gotten myself to the level that I want, and I need to let it all out there on the day that matters,” he said. “If I can do that, then no matter where I finish, I need to be happy.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.