Mariel Zagunis (C) stands on the podium with her gold medal at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 9, 2008 in Beijing.
With 14 world and four Olympic medals, Mariel Zagunis is the most decorated fencer in U.S. history. She first made her mark on the international stage when she won gold in women's saber's debut at the Olympic Games Athens 2004, which was the first gold medal by an American fencer in 100 years. Zagunis followed that up with another individual gold, plus team bronze, in Beijing in 2008. At the 2012 Games she was selected by her peers to serve as the Opening Ceremony flag bearer for Team USA. In Rio in 2016, Zagunis won another team bronze. Now 33, Zagunis is still one of the best in the world and hopes to compete at a fifth Games in Tokyo, this time as a mother. To commemorate the 10-year anniversary of her 2008 Olympic gold, Zagunis detailed her memories of that day for TeamUSA.org.
Many athletes will tell you that when they were ‘in the zone’ on the way to a momentous victory that they don’t remember much. But for me, although the Beijing Olympics were 10 years ago, I can still vividly recall the sights, sounds and even tastes and smells of those Games. I still remember the scores of each match I had on Aug. 9, and occasionally I even love to revel in certain touches I scored that day.
Even now, a decade later, that day when I defended my Olympic title from the Athens Games remains one of the best performances of my fencing career. And let me tell you, it had to be. The women’s saber field was incredibly strong in 2008 and my path to the gold medal was no exception.
The Opening Ceremony in Beijing is probably the most memorable thing for most people who watched the Olympics that year (besides Michael Phelps’ perfect 8/8 gold medals!). For the athletes, walking in the Opening Ceremony is what we look forward to the most after competing. However, my event, which takes place over only one day, was on Day 1 of the Games and standing, walking and celebrating for hours the day prior would not have been the best idea. But deciding to not take part in the Opening Ceremony was, in my opinion, just one sacrifice out of many that had to be made on the road to winning the Olympics.
So on Day 1 of the Beijing Olympics my teammates and I woke up bright and early for our competition. When there is a gold medal at stake and history to be made, it can feel either exhilarating, paralyzing or a combination of any and all emotions in between. The day started early and flew by, but like I said, thankfully I remember most of the details.
By the end of the day, I had made history and become Olympic champion. Again. And when you stand on the top of the podium at the Olympics there is no greater feeling as all of your hard work and years of sacrifices come to fruition. And what the world sees is an accomplished, relieved, ecstatic, usually weeping athlete. What the world doesn’t see is the team behind that athlete – because no one becomes an Olympic champion on their own or by luck. To this day, I am so incredibly thankful for my support system of coaches, family, friends and teammates who help make it all possible.
Mariel Zagunis celebrates her women's saber gold medal at the Olympic Games Beijing 2008 on Aug. 9, 2008 in Beijing.
I am so proud of myself for what I accomplished that day, but even more proud that I got to share the podium with my teammates, Sada Jacobson and Rebecca Ward. Repeating as Olympic champion is one piece of history, but Team USA sweeping the podium in women’s fencing had also never happened at the Olympics! What’s more, because it was the first day of the Olympics, ours were the first medals won for Team USA. So we had a brief moment to shine before Phelps took over!
Looking back at those amazing memories, it doesn’t feel like it was 10 years ago. Some days it feels like it was 20 years, sometimes it feels like only two. Life moves forward quickly and the years between each quad feel shorter and shorter every time. My life has changed so dramatically in some aspects, and has stayed pretty much the same in others.
I have two additional Olympics under my belt with London and Rio, and am hoping to add Tokyo in two years. I’m now a wife and a new mom, and trying to find a balance with those two important roles while also working my way back to being the best in the world. Over the past 10 years I’ve experienced amazing victories and heartbreaking defeats; days where I’ve felt unstoppable and others, especially during these postpartum months and recovery, where I’ve felt lost and unsure.
But it only takes a brief moment of reflection to remind myself why I’m still fencing. Being an Olympian is an incredible and unique honor. Becoming Olympic champion is an indescribable feeling, and I want that feeling again. More importantly, I want to set an example for my daughter that not only can you accomplish anything you put your mind to with hard work and sacrifice, but you can continue to succeed throughout life with the right attitude, work ethic and support system!