Mariel Zagunis hadn’t competed in seven months. Not that she looked rusty.
Zagunis recently captured a world cup bronze medal last weekend in Yangzhou, China, at her first fencing competition since the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
What else would you expect from the most decorated fencer in U.S. history?
The two-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion is back, and the 32-year-old is poised to make a run at her fifth straight Olympic team in 2020 in Tokyo.
“I feel fresh and excited to compete again,” Zagunis said via email. “I am happy that in my first world cup competition since Rio, I won a bronze medal. It felt great to be on the podium again.”
The podium is a very familiar spot for Zagunis.
The medal she won in China marked her 80th individual podium finish at an official international competition. She followed it up with a sixth-place finish at a grand prix in Seoul, South Korea last weekend.
Zagunis said she took time off after Rio to rest and recover from “major injuries” she had been dealing with. During that time, she was honored with other Olympians at the White House and during a football game at her alma mater, Notre Dame.
“I had the opportunity to do so many other things,” she said, “and that was so much fun.”
There was also some unease at sitting out those first four events, though.
“At first, because of my forced rest I was pretty stressed out that I was missing half the season, because in my 20-plus year career I had never missed so many tournaments,” she said. “But the rest proved to do me some good. I feel great and I’m ready to compete again.”
Zagunis was still a teenager in 2004 when she became the first American in 100 years to win an Olympic gold medal in fencing in Athens.
She followed that with a second Olympic title in the women’s individual saber event in 2008 in Beijing, as well as a bronze medal in the team saber competition. Four years later, teammates selected Zagunis to be the flag bearer for Team USA at the London Games, although her gold-medal run finally ended when she placed fourth.
Zagunis battled back to earn a fourth Olympic berth in 2016 in Rio. Although she fell short of medaling in the individual competition, she was part of the American squad that captured a bronze medal in the women’s team saber event.
“First and foremost, I am so happy to have not come home empty-handed from Rio,” Zagunis said. “In London, women’s saber did not have a team event, so after my unsatisfying individual performance in Rio, I’m glad I had another chance in the team event to bring home a medal.”
Zagunis, now ranked No. 7 in the world, is considering the possibility of making a historic fifth Olympic team.
“At this point in my career, I’m often asked when is enough, enough?” she said. “It’s a blessing and a curse to have the feeling of never being satisfied, whether that’s because I’ve won and want to keep winning, or if I’ve lost and want to redeem myself. I’ve been extremely fortunate in my career to have so many wonderful Olympic experiences. Each Olympics has been so different and special in its own way depending on the host city and the timing in my life.
“It is absolutely crazy to think about having my very first Olympic experience at 19 years of age, and if I go to Tokyo I will be 35. Competing in Tokyo for my fifth Olympics would be a huge honor, and I already know that Japan will make it an unforgettable and incredible experience.”
Zagunis said she is keeping everything in perspective since it’s still early in this four-year Olympic cycle, with the 2020 Games still well over three years away.
“As always, it’s important to take it one season at a time, and one competition at a time,” she said. “But my overall goal and expectation is to make the Olympic team for Tokyo 2020. I am fortunate enough to have great support from my sponsors and family in order to keep competing, fulfilling my dreams and making history.
“It’s a long way off and a lot has to happen before then, but I am now even more determined than ever to win an individual medal in Tokyo. We have team in Tokyo, too, so I would love to return to the podium with my teammates. There would be no greater feeling than to be on the Olympic podium again.”