Professional. Fencer. United States.
In the modern history of the sport these words rarely find themselves in the same sentence and only one person is the U.S. Olympic fencing squad can legitimately use them together.
Mariel Zagunis is a professional fencer from the United States. At 27, the left-handed Beaverton, Oregon resident is the world number one in the women’s sabre. She made U.S. fencing history with the first gold medal in 100 years at the 2004 Athens Games when she capitalised on an entry spot left unused by Nigeria.
Four years later in Beijing she proved it was no fluke and neither did the United States, who came away from Beijing with five other individual and team medals. The U.S. women’s sabre squad swept the individual podium and took the team bronze.
Zagunis, whose parents were Olympic rowers in 1976, has held the top ranking on the Federation International d’Escrime’s (FIE) point standings since 2009. The FIE is fencing’s world governing body based in Lausanne, Switzerland.
After world titles in 2009 and 20010, plus World Cup victories, Zagunis is America’s most decorated fencer and best hope for an individual gold medal in London.
She says she knows she is the athlete to beat.
“Everyone else really has nothing to lose,” Zagunis told Reuters, adding that she intends to enjoy the ride and try for the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Success has earned her enough corporate sponsors to allow near complete devotion to fencing while still putting food on the table and keeping a roof over her head. Food is her other passion, and likely the subject of her twitter tweets as much as her fencing exploits.
The FIE awarded her sportsmanship and fair play with its highest honour, the Chevelier Feyerick Trophy in 2009. She is the first American recipient.
Her European peers, past and present, garner sponsorships but also receive, for example, state subsidised jobs in local police or military forces where their fulltime duty is to win tournaments and be ambassadors for their services and nations.
Current world champion, Russian Sofia Velikaya, who beat Zagunis for gold in Catania, Italy last October, and Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan who beat her in the Korfanty Cup final in Chicago last month are the most obvious threats.
The Korfanty Cup is named for her Polish-born coach Ed Korfanty and is supported in part by the newly created Mariel Zagunis Women’s Saber Fund. She wants to help nurture young female sabre fencers and the sport overall, completely separate from the United States Fencing Association (USFA). Zagunis started fencing around the age of 10.
The ability to be a fulltime fencer competing at the highest international levels consistently puts her in unchartered territory among her U.S. peers, many of whom juggle fulltime jobs or put education plans on hold and live at home.
“A lot of American fencers who wish to pursue it at the level that I am doing (it) 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,” she said.
“Because that’s what I think fencing is lacking in the United States…People go to college, and they fence through college and then after that it’s ‘welcome to the real world’,” Zagunis said.
U.S. team mate Tim Morehouse relates that while training for Beijing, where the men’s sabre team snagged a silver medal, he was working 70-80 hours a week in education.
London is the third Olympics for both Zagunis and Morehouse.
“For our team to really dominate, our athletes have to have the kind of corporate support that some of the other sports have,” Morehouse told Reuters.
Membership in the USFA, the sports governing body in America, has swollen to more than 20,000 as of May from just over 6,000 in 1982.
To help promote the sport, most of the London-bound U.S. team, including Zagunis, participated in an exhibition against some past and present international Olympians co-organized by Morehouse called Fencing Masters. Before a crowd of 1,800 mostly paying guests in New York, fencing matches were televised on local cable sports network SNY.
“Fencing Masters is great for our sport, it raises awareness and the profile,” said Zagunis before turning graciously to sign an autograph for a young girl.