In another universe, the local grocery store might have a Mariel Zagunis cereal box on the front shelf, next door to a Mariel line of athletic wear or a Zagunis video game with its own parry-riposte throttle. But Zagunis may have to be content with merely being the best in the world today at what she does and the most successful U.S. athlete in the history of her sport, one that predates most other sports in this country. When she defended her world fencing championship in Paris this month, Zagunis floated into a new stratosphere.
She is the world's premier sabre fencer, the reigning two-time gold medalist at both the Olympics and world championships. That's four major international titles for a 25-year-old, who is still a few credits shy of a college degree. She spent two seasons fencing at Notre Dame, even after becoming Olympic champion, because, well, the benefits of scholarship and the coolness of fencing in college outweighed any financial gain she could have derived from turning pro. She only recently brought on an agent. And the magnitude of her unprecedented achievements practically makes her shiver. "All those idols I had who are setting records," she says. "I'm turning into one of those." There is no braggadocio in her voice; merely wonder, as if she can't believe how it happened, either.
Backtrack to the 1976 Games in Montreal, where Robert and Cathy Zagunis, a pair of Oregon State oarsmen, rowed for the U.S. Olympic team. A few years later, their middle child, Mariel, sandwiched between two sporting brothers, was getting into everything. She played soccer and basketball and once got her hand stuck in an amusement machine full of toys, determined to get her hands on them. Sure enough, the machine opened, the toys spilled, and Mariel's poking and prodding was rewarded. It was a good omen for her career as a fencer.
Once Zagunis followed an older brother onto the piste at age 10, it was love at first fight. She placed third in her first national age-group tournament a year later, and even then the Olympics were in sight. "Having competitive parents always kept the drive alive," she says. "If I'm not good at something right away, I either have to work and get better quickly or I'm not sticking with it. They went through the process and made it, so to me, the Olympics were always realistic. If they could do it, why couldn't I do it?"
Though she started in the more genteel event of foil, Zagunis fell in love with sabre, the one discipline in which fencers can score with the edge of the blade and not just the tip. The weapon and event therefore lend themselves to robust swipes rather than just technical thrusts. Epee and foil fencers may be artists, but sabre fencers are the adrenaline junkies. By her early teens, Zagunis was hooked on sabre and Ed Korfanty, a new coach in her Portland, Ore. community would guide her career.
Zagunis won titles at various levels, including cadet, junior and eventually elite. In 2004, she was within a point of an Olympic berth when she missed the final qualification spot by a touch. From April through early June, Zagunis trained essentially as an alternate, knowing she'd only go to Athens if another fencer declined or got hurt. She even stepped into the U.S. team picture for a snapshot and was then told to step to the side so they could take another one without her, in case nobody bailed.
As other foes fenced nervously through the summer with the Olympics drawing closer, Zagunis started beating them at international tournaments. She soon won her first senior World Cup event against many of the Olympic favorites. On June 7 of that year, she got word that a Nigerian fencer was out of the Athens Games and Zagunis, next in line, had her Olympic ticket.
Fencing with an Olympic berth she wasn't sure she'd have, Zagunis tore through the field in Athens with the fearlessness of someone who played with house money. She smiled broadly as she walked onto the arena stage and handily defeated China's Xue Tan, 15-9, in the finals. It had been a full century since a U.S. athlete had won an Olympic fencing gold.
The 19-year old had deferred her freshman year at Notre Dame, a great fencing school better known for another sport. She had no idea there would be a buzz among the fencers awaiting her arrival and she couldn't imagine the excitement of her first football game. "We upset Michigan that week," she remembers, "and I thought, 'Wow, do we get to swarm the field after every game?'"
During her stay in South Bend, where she studied anthropology, Zagunis predictably lost some of her edge. In 2006, she finished second at worlds to teammate Becca Ward, though she was part of history, as Sada Jacobson took bronze, while the U.S. women swept an event for the first time. Returning home to work with Korfanty, she spotted flaws. "My attacks were weak," she says. "I would finish with a giant lunge from way out of distance. All my opponents knew if they just took a step back, I'd finish short." With Korfanty's help, Zagunis reinvented her approach, and sharpened her skills of anticipation the way a chess master would. "It's like, if you know that I know that you know, then I have to do something different before you can figure out what it is," she says. "It's more mental than physical."
Soon Zagunis entered another Olympics as an underdog, fighting through a 2008 campaign of middling results, while Ward and Jacobson garnered the headlines and medal forecasts. All the while, Korfanty had her working on a new technique, designed to surprise and confuse her opponents. Instead of traditionally long strides, Zagunis was attacking with a series of short and awkward looking stutter steps that she had held in reserve throughout the summer. "If I had looked at my results," she said, "I wouldn't have picked me for a medal. But if you had seen how hard I was working, then I would have picked me for a medal." In Beijing, she defeated hometown favorite Bao Yingying of China in the quarterfinals and then knocked off Ward and Jacobson in the last two bouts, leading another U.S. sweep. Out of respect for Jacobson, she muffled the celebration in her teammate's presence.
For the last two years, Zagunis has won world titles, both times defeating Olga Kharlan of Ukraine in the finals. Again this year, she went in as an underdog, having lost to Kharlan several times during the year and having struggled with tendinitis for much of the season. She has become one of the most decorated 25-and-under athletes in the world, yet her success is cloaked in her sport's obscurity. Sure, there have been appearances on the Today Show and Oprah, but the crossover power that Apolo Ohno, Jennie Finch and Shaun White have carried from their sports hasn't yet lifted her into the mainstream. Blame at least part of that on an utterly dysfunctional U.S. national governing body that missed a golden chance to promote the modern-day pioneers and expand the reach and popularity of its sport.
At least there is time. Zagunis shows no malaise of a jaded veteran. At the SI offices this week, her eyes beamed at the 1955 cover issue of Louise Dyer, the only fencer ever to grace SI's cover. "I love seeing these things and learning something new," she said, with all the exuberance of a rookie. "I don't see an end in sight. London is coming up so soon. And I don't get tired of the training at all. I win and I want to win more."