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.

The incomparable fight from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Photo from Pinterest.

It’s true that Americans haven’t won as many medals in fencing as they have in swimming, but we’re getting there. In the last century, medals piled up for the Italians, Hungarians, and most noticeably for the French, whose language is all over the sport. But fencing has been making a comeback in the U.S. ever since 1984 when Peter Westbrook took the bronze medal in Los Angeles. Westbrook was raised by a single mom in a rough part of New Jersey, who bribed the coach at his Catholic school to let Peter fence. It led to an Olympic birth and the first U.S. medal in sabre in eighty years.

Westbrook went on to establish the Peter Westbrook Foundation, creating fencing schools in inner-cities, most notably Harlem. The Foundation nurtured other athletes who went on to win medals, like Keeth and Erin Smart, Daryl Homer, and Ibtihaj Muhammad. Equally importantly, it put fencing on the map for Team USA, breathing life into the sport. This was especially true for women.

Forget Dancing About, Let’s Have Pirates!

I was surprised to learn that women had been fencing in the Games since 1924, surprised because so many events were closed to women until very recently. Women weren’t even considered capable of Olympic pole vaulting until as late as 2000. But Foil, one of the three fencing disciplines, had women medalists as far back as the first Paris Games. It makes some sense in that Foil is the lightest of the three swords, and the event that requires the most finesse. With Foil, you have to score with the blade tip and only on the torso, never arms, legs, or head. I always think of Foil as Dancing About.

The two fencers with the most medals are both in Foil: Edoardo Mangiotti, who had an incredible 13 medals (6 gold), and Valentina Vezzalli, who had 9 medals (6 gold). Both are Italian, so plenty of ballare there.

The other two fencing disciplines–Épée and Sabre–didn’t allow women to fence until 1996 and 2004, respectively. Épée blades are a little longer and can touch anywhere on the opponent’s body, so I call that Have at You! Sabre is the fun one. The blades are more flexible, flat-sided–so they can slash! yes they can–and a fencer can touch their opponent on the arm, leg, or anywhere on the body above the waist. Plus they have a hilt, which is cool. Sabre comes out of the French cavalry, but it always remind me of pirates.

Pirate Anne Bonny led the way in Olympic Sabre. Or so I’ve heard. Photo from Smithsonian Magazine.

Sabre for women came into Athens in 2004, and Americans have won 7 of the 18 medals that have been contested since then. To be more accurate, one more person has won 4 of those medals, successfully leading Team USA to bronze both times that Women’s Team Sabre has been held. The medal count isn’t Valentina Vezzalli territory yet, but she’s getting there. Actually, getting to the Olympics in the first place was Mariel Zagunis’ biggest barrier.

Sorry, Nigeria, But a Star is Born

Zagunis in 2004 was a fencing prodigy, holder of a World Cup junior title when she was only 17. Her parents were on the 1976 Olympic Rowing team, so they were no stranger to elite athletic competition, although it was Mariel’s brothers who took up fencing first. However, as the 2004 Games approached, most of the focus was on the Smart brother and sister team and on world #1 ranked Sada Jacobson and her sister, Emily. Zagunis didn’t even make the team.

Zagunis, appreciated by her fencing teammates for winning the first American gold in a century. Photo from Alamy.

However, Nigeria, which had qualified, ended up not sending their athlete, which left one spot open for Zagunis to take. She made the most of her opportunity. While Emily Jacobson lost an early round and Sada lost her semifinal, Mariel Zagunis blazed through the competition and decisively beat Tan Xue of China for the gold. (Sada did earn the bronze). That meant Zagunis earned the Team USA’s first gold medal in 100 years. Ample reason for a hip-hip-hooray and a toss up from the American fencing team.

But Zagunis wasn’t done. She went on to dominate the world rankings for the next several years, keeping in shape for Beijing 2008. There she’d be able to compete both as an Individual and Team.

All for One Etcetera Etcetera

Fencing at the Olympics applies an unusual variation on the format that further intensifies the multi-year interval tension. In order to limit the events (and why? because it’s the IOC and they said so), when women were added, the International Fencing Federation (FIE) decided to alternate the team events. Individual Foil, Épée, and Sabre are contested for men and women at every Games, but one team event is dropped for each gender. This means every third Olympics, your event isn’t available at the team level.

Athens didn’t hold a Sabre Team event for Women. But Beijing did, and both Mariel Zagunis and Sada Jacobson stayed at the top of their game for four more years. In fact, the American women’s sabre team were so good by 2008, that Zagunis, Jacobson, and Rebecca Ward swept the medals. This heralded good news in the team event as they brought in an outstanding trio. The Ukrainian team did upset them in the semifinals, but the women won bronze, allowing Zagunis to the first American to win two fencing medals in the Games. More hip hip hooray!

Zagunis, USA flag bearer in London. Photo by Daznservices.

But Zagunis wasn’t done because ninjas never rest. She was thrilled to be awarded the honor of carrying the flag in the Opening Ceremony in London. The choice is made by the athletes before the Games, so it’s not always based solely on popularity to U.S. audiences but rather given to someone known inside their sport. Unfortunately, Zagunis ran into a juggernaut of Korean Kim Ji-Yeon, who fenced her way to a gold, while Zagunis lost again to a Ukrainian nemesis from Beijing.

Still, Zagunis qualified again for Rio 2016, and, although she was shut out of the individual round, she and her teammates were set for the team round.

Heads of Red, White, Blue, and Black

The women’s sabre matches in Rio got a lot of attention, but not necessarily for the fencing. Ibtihaj Muhammad made headlines as the first American athlete to compete in a hijab. In a year where a candidate for president was criticizing Muslims, Muhammad was subjected to constant questions about her background and political opinions, a great distraction from the sport. She handled the press well, but she also didn’t fence well in her Individual bout. Something about the early losses for Zagunis, Muhammad, and the brilliant young Dagmar Wozniak made all of three of them eager for some sort of redemption.

Team Sabre in 2016, Aksamit, Muhammad, Wozniak, and Zagunis. Photo from advancelocal.net.

They found it in the Team event, despite tough competition from the Russian steamroller. The Russian and Ukrainian women had fought their way to the top of the podium for most of the world championships and medals. Team USA scratched their way into the semifinals, but though they valiantly contested with the Russians, they couldn’t quite eke out a win.

However, in their bronze medal against the strong Italians, Team USA was victorious. Wozniak scored most of the points early on, but it was Zagunis who steadied the team when the Italians made a run towards the end that threatened the medal. And it was Zagunis that the team wanted to score the final point.

Zagunis, never one to be shy, leading Team USA to another bronze medal. Photo by Oregon Daily.

Just One More Scream

After Rio, Zagunis finally took time off from the sport to start a family and, perhaps, settle down from a life of international competition. She displayed some of her cooking prowess on Chopped, and it was hard to compare the quiet-voiced, whippet-thin young woman making eggplant rollatini with the fist-pumping slasher. But she was done in by the lamb roisette roast.

One of the most entertaining or annoying aspects to fencing is that athletes are allowed to shout for “joy” when they get a point, or even when they think they get a point. For the men, they yell like a drunken Yankees fan, but the women scream. Zagunis, in fact, has a signature banshee shriek.

That shriek was on display this past January when Zagunis qualified, at 35 years old, for Tokyo 2020. With the postponement to next year, she’ll be a long shot to win a medal, but Hungarian Geza Imre fenced for gold in Rio at 41 years old, so Zagunis has a chance.

Zagunis will have to wait one more year for a few more screams. Photo by Matt Detrich-USA TODAY Sports.

Who knows? Maybe she’ll end up in a galaxy far, far away where she can teach technique in a new school, for Jedis.

This is the final installment in my experiment of the April’s A to Z Blogging Challenge: Olympics. It’s been a blast! Thanks for reading.

3 Replies to “Z is for Zagunis”

  1. Very cool. I don’t follow a lot of sports, but this does sound interesting. Congratulations on reaching z.

    I hope you and yours are staying safe and healthy during this difficult time.

    J Lenni Dorner~ Co-host of the #AtoZchallenge, Debut Author Interviewer, Reference& Speculative Fiction Author

  2. Thank you! Running the alphabet was exhausting, but also a life-saver to get through a very hard month. Great planning that years ago someone decided to create this monthly challenge just so it would give us momentum during the 2020 pandemic. All good here!

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