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A Day In The Life Of An Olympic Champion At The Team USA Media Summit

By Lisa Costantini | March 08, 2016, 6:01 p.m. (ET)

Mariel Zagunis poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 7, 2016 in Los Angeles.

Mariel Zagunis poses during a shoot for Sports Illustrated.

LOS ANGELES -- For those of us looking in from the outside, being an Olympian seems extremely glamorous — the travel, the free stuff, the notoriety. But when we have our faces firmly pressed on the glass what we don’t see is all the smudges and streaks in the form of jet lag, intense training schedules, missing friends and family — and that’s just a few of the sacrifices. But it is a trade-off every athlete is willing to make for the love of their sport and the honor of representing their country.

And for three-time Olympic fencing medalist Mariel Zagunis — who is ranked No. 3 in the world and has already punched her ticket to Rio — she wouldn’t have it any other way. Born into a family of Olympians — her parents were rowers who competed at the 1976 summer Games  — athletic genes played a big role in her career choice, but so did her older brother.

“Do you have a brother?” she asked. “Does he beat up on you?” So when he decided to take up the sport of sword fighting — despite no one else they knew doing it — she was forced to learn it too as a way of defending herself.

Now she’s competed in the sport for more than 20 years and the crazy lifestyle and hectic pace feels normal. In Los Angeles and able to find time to attend her first pre-Olympic Team USA Media Summit — despite having represented the U.S. in Athens, Beijing and London — the 31-year-old looked at the schedule detailing her quick 24 hours in the City of Angels, where every minute was accounted for, and declared it “not that bad.”

Mariel Zagunis during a broadcast session.

Within minutes of landing at the airport — where she flew to from her hometown and current residence of Portland, Oregon — she is whisked to The Beverly Hilton hotel where the welcome reception is already underway. But with a Sports Illustrated photo shoot scheduled right in the middle of it, she is forced to miss the beginning so that she could do her hair and makeup.

After stopping by the pool, where the party was already in full swing, she grabbed a mini sandwich off a passing waiter’s tray and headed for the exit just as the Brazilian samba dancers started to perform.

Luckily all her activities took place in the hotel but the walk was so short, there wasn’t enough time to start her sandwich. She placed it — along with a giant duffel bag containing a variety of outfits as well as her competition gear — on a table as a hair and makeup person told her she looked like she’s already good to go.

“They told me there wasn’t going to be hair and makeup,” Zagunis explained as the woman did a quick touchup on her.

Mariel Zagunis preparing for a shoot with Vanity Fair in the bathroom of a hotel room.

Into her competition gear — which included pants, a long-sleeve jacket, glove, mask and a saber — for a flurry of photos that had her moving so fast there was no need for a wind machine.

“Are the swimsuit photos next?” she joked after getting word she was done. But next was a video interview for their website. She hopped into the chair, tried to fluff her hair, which was sweaty and matted down from wearing the mask, and started to explain her sport and the reason she got into it for what would be the first of many times over the next 24 hours.

Before going to bed she would still have to do a series of broadcast interviews, leaving her with just enough time to order a hummus plate from room service before crawling under the covers at 10:30 p.m.

The next morning started with the alarm going off at 6:05 a.m, followed by 15 minutes of hitting snooze. She admitted she loves to sleep, and is lucky to possess the skill to sleep just about anywhere at any time — a skill she said she doesn’t know how she would survive without since her lifestyle leaves her with so little downtime it takes her a whole competition season just to finish reading one book.

After a quick athlete briefing — where she was able to get in a couple bites of breakfast — she headed downstairs for back-to-back camera interviews. They were taking place in a row of hotel rooms that were converted into makeshift studios. The first two interviews were in the same room and started with the same questions. When she was asked how she got into the sport for the second time in only a matter of minutes she joked, “She can probably tell you,” as she motioned over her shoulder to the woman she just finished interviewing with.

Mariel Zagunis poses with a character from Sprout.

More laughs followed throughout the day as she was questioned on her saber and whether it made her feel like she was in Star Wars, to how it would be most beneficial against a zombie (most athletes said they could outrun them as field hockey was the only other sport that day that used equipment). She was also asked to see how many pencils she could bounce into a cup in one minute, pose with a chicken puppet from a kid’s show on Sprout and attempt to Hula-Hoop (spoiler alert: she didn’t have much luck).

Her multiple photo shoots required multiple outfit changes: she leapt in workout wear for Vanity Fair while they aimed a leaf blower in her face to get her hair to blow, posed in a white tank top for Glamour and waited patiently in an all-black ensemble for Ladies Home Journal while she had her makeup done in the bathroom on the only free space available, the bathtub ledge. She was sitting there when the call came that her car to the airport was downstairs — 30 minutes before she expected. With now less than two hours before her flight was scheduled to leave, her departure would be just another crazy ride to look forward to on the Road to Rio.

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head shot

Mariel Zagunis