Fencing is not a sport that people normally associate with the United States, but two-time Olympic gold medalist in saber fencing, Mariel Zagunis, hopes to change all of that.
Mariel Zagunis, 27, is a left-handed (normally considered a slight advantage in fencing) saberist from Beaverton, Oregon. Zagunis was born to two Olympic athletes who participated as rowers in the 1976 Olympics; she seems to be carrying on the legacy quite nicely.
In 2004, at the Athens Olympics, Zagunis was a replacement who lucked out in getting a spot to go to the Olympics and surprised everyone when she won the gold, the first American fencing medal in one hundred years. If that’s not enough she also helped take five other individual and team medals at the Beijing Olympics including the team bronze and individual gold in sabre.
She is also the highest ranking fencer according to the Federation International d’Escrime (FIE) since 2009 and has won the world titles for 2009 and 2010 and several world cup victories. She also won the FIE’s highest honor for sportsmanship and fair play, the Chevelier Feyerick in 2009 and was the first American ever to win it. Overall, she is the most decorated fencer in America.
Zagunis, who has been fencing since she was ten, has received so much corporate sponsorship that she no longer needs to work but can practice fencing all day and still provide for her family, an incredible feat. Zagunis knows she is lucky and commented, “a lot of American fencers who wish to pursue it at the level that I am doing at look at my story as an inspiration. That if they can also achieve success and do what I have done or close to what I have done, that they can also do it full time… Because that’s what I think fencing is lacking the United States…People go to college, and they fence through college and then after that it’s ‘welcome to the real world’.”
Mariel Zagunis not only wants to bring home some medals from the Olympics but also wants to raise awareness of the sport in the United States. She founded the Mariel Zagunis Women’s Saber Fund to support young female sabre fencers as well as the sport in general. Zagunis’ fame seems to have sparked a significant interest in fencing since as of May 2012 the United States Fencing Association reported that it had 20,000 members which is up from the just over 6,000 members in 1982.
The awareness is needed especially since NBC announced that it will only be covering some of the fencing events, only 2.5 hours worth in fact. With a sport that includes three different weapons (foil, sabre, and epee) and then the team events, that’s a lot of fencing that American viewers are missing out on.
MSNBC will cover the women’s events on July 28 – August 1 but will not feature any of the men’s events. In comparison beach volleyball will have four hours of coverage on opening day alone.
Something that should help bring more awareness to the sport is that Mariel Zagunis has been chosen to lead the American team in the parade at the Opening Ceremonies on July 27. This means that Zagunis will lead the 530 members of the American team – 269 women and 261 men – while she carries the American flag. Zagunis claimed, “I’m just going to focus on not tripping, not letting the flag touch the ground and doing everything right.” In order to become the flag-bearer Zagunis was chosen as a finalist and went through five rounds of voting by team captains, finally coming out on top.
Zagunis also knows that she is the athlete to conquer this year. “Everyone else really has nothing to lose.” Her worst threats are Russian Sofia Velikaya who won gold against her in October of last year in Italy and the Ukrainian Olga Kharlan who won the Korfanty Cup against Zagunis in Chicago last month. Hopefully for the sake of American fencing, Zagunis will continue to bring home the gold.
Image Courtesy of Mariel Zagunis