Z is for Zagunis

Punk rockers. Primal screamers. Saber fencers are the cool cats of the Olympics, carrying themselves with deadly grace but ready to strike to the death at the first Engarde!

America’s greatest fencer is a good Catholic girl until she puts on the mask. Then, she is All Ninja.

Mariel Zagunis qualifying for Tokyo, one last Olympics. Photo at Oregon Tribune.

Like ninjas, no one knows she’s even there. If you query who is the greatest American fencer, her name doesn’t even come up, until Touché! And, since ninjas never lose their skill and training, Mariel Zagunis, the one you don’t see until it is too late haha!, is going to Tokyo once more.

Maybe They Should Dress Like Luke Skywalker

Fencing is such a cool sport to watch that it’s hard to understand why Americans don’t follow it. Especially when we do follow it in movies, right? We love a good swordfight. Robin Hood, Zorro, Conan, D’Artagnan, the Man in Black! My name is Inigo Montoyaprepare to die. If you give kids a pair of sticks, the first thing they do is start poking each other.

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Y is for Yoshida

As Saori Yoshida, thirteen-time world champion and triple gold medalist in women’s wrestling, walks towards the microphones to announce to the press that she is retiring, her shadow looms large. Larger than she is, the shadow seems a perfect metaphor, a thing that will always tower over her, no matter what she achieves.

January 2019, Saori Yoshida announces her retirement. Photo by Toshiki Miyama.

Yoshida was the face of women’s wrestling—Japanese wrestling, Japanese SPORT—a bona fide celebrity in every possible way. Daughter of a national champion who startled wrestling at age three. A national Japanese hero who, in Brazil on August 2016, was expected to tie the existing Olympic record of four consecutive gold medals for the same event. A drone winning-machine who could be relied on to add to the Japanese medal tally. A national disgrace when she was upset in the finals by the unheralded Helen Maroulis of Rockville, Maryland.

With 40 seconds left, Yoshida dives in like an eel in a way that she has not, all day long… but Maroulis dances to the side…They are waltzing in a weird kind of circle. Until the buzzer sounds. Time seems to stand still; there is a pause, a silence across the arena… Maroulis sinks on her knees and clasps her hands together one last time in prayer, in benediction, in emotion, in whatever her body can think of to do…

From my story, “Rulon with Cornrows” about the Yoshida-Maroulis match.

Yoshida hadn’t lost a match in four years. The last time the two had met, Maroulis ended with a broken arm.

The buzzer sounds, Rio 206. Photo by Mark Reis of the Colorado Gazette.

What’s it like to stop being a legend? When the failure to win, when your achievement of a silver medal isn’t even mentioned in your achievements? You’re not a four-time medalist, but a three-time winner who lost. Your story is no longer your record of being undefeated for 119 matches; your story is how you were beaten.

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X is for X Games

Sky Brown will be 13 in 2021, not the youngest ever, but still hoping to qualify for Skateboarding at Tokyo 2020. Photo from the aptly-named SkyNews.

This post is not alphabetically cheating. X Games starts with an “X.” It does stand for the word “Extreme,” but it also refers to Generation X, the athletes who came of age during the 1990s. Those whippersnappers gravitated towards sports that involved new devices, like motorcycles, skateboards, and snowboards. At the time, cable sports channels were expanding, with networks like ESPN desperate for more things to cover. An annual festival with athletes performing circus-like tricks seemed a natural. With some of the sports coming into Tokyo, it seems like a perfect time for a preview.

X Games sports has already made serious inroads into the Winter Olympics. Snowboarding was introduced in 1998, and, by now, multi gold-medalist Shaun White is already 33 and retired. It took longer for summer X sports to trickle into the Olympics, although BMX will be entering its fourth Olympics in Tokyo. There’s already been a two-time BMX champion dethroned, Maris Strombergs of Latvia. Would it surprise you that Latvians and Estonians are nuts about a sport created in southern California? If you’ve read my posts or are an Olympic fan, it would not.

Extreme sports have captured the fancy of athletes worldwide. Even if many come out of American backyards by American kids using American products shown on American TV, the youth of the world has taken notice. BMX riders from the Netherlands and Colombia are world-class. The best surfers may be from Brazil. Sky Brown, the skateboarder who would have gotten in the record books, is from Great Britain, and Lizzie Armanto will skate for Finland. So, while some have suggested that these sports are going Olympic because they bring in lucrative TV revenue, the truth is that they have worldwide popularity and international talent.

That’s not to say that the IOC isn’t a committee full of greedy old men looking for broadcasting dollars–they are. But Olympic sports are added and eliminated by a formula more complicated than how much the IOC gets paid under the table (which it does). Not only does today’s “X” stand for Extreme, it also stands for Excluded Sports. Because to understand what’s Included, you need to understand what’s Excluded, and how that has created an ongoing raging debate.

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W is for Water Polo

Serbia, a country roughly the size of my own Bay Area but with half the population, shows us how to get a country excited about water polo. In a 2016 video, the European, World, and World League Champions exhort everyone–kayakers, radio DJs, children with leukemia, poets, and even bikers–to don caps and sing their team to “the throne.” Serbia won their first Olympic water polo gold medal in Rio 2016, defeating their neighboring countrymen, Croatia.

Eastern Europeans are passionate about water polo. These are countries torn by revolutions, assassinations, and war, which spills over into sport in ways that Americans would understand. Fistfights in the stands, hooligans attacking players in restaurants, and opponent’s flags set on fire outside the stadiums. Every match is a grudge match, which makes this combination of swimming, basketball, and pro-wrestling always exciting.

How to properly support your winning water polo team. Photo from video, “Serbia Is Mad About Water Polo,” at swimswam.com.

Too bad America doesn’t appreciate the game. Especially when Team USA is a threepeat World Champion, back-to-back gold medalist, and has won a medal in water polo in every single Olympics. Oh, not the men’s team. I’m talking about the women’s squad. This explains why our dominating water polo beasts, who would be mobbed by fans in every cafe in Serbia, can’t get the time of day in the U.S. Still, our women’s water polo team is a force to be reckoned with in a sport that calls for extraordinary speed, strength, and teamwork.

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V is for Vault

Vaulting in gymnastics takes a particular kind of bravery. It’s one thing to do a handspring on the floor. Even on the balance beam, you’re either upright most of the time or moving slowly. Doing a handspring after running as fast as you can, so that you can launch off a trampoline to push off another object as high as your shoulders to do three somersaults, a twist, and land standing perfectly still? Divers at least land in the water, not on their feet.

Kerri Strug in Atlanta 1996, hopping after she stuck the landing. Photo from Pinterest.

American Olympic fans remember the spectacular courage of Kerri Strug in Atlanta 1996, when she vaulted for gold after injuring her ankle. But Americans don’t corner the market on audacity or determination, and the vault needs it all, as the stories of Svetlana Khorkina and Oksana Chusovitina also demonstrate.

It’s simple Gymnastics 101, as NBC announcer Tim Daggett always says:

Just fly high and stick the landing.

Gold medalist Tim Daggett
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