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Olympic Fencer Mariel Zagunis on Gold Medals and Surviving the Opening Ceremonies

The Beaverton native and sabre champ drops her guard.

By Bart Blasengame August 17, 2012 Published in the August 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Pete Stone

Your life changed after you stepped off the podium in Athens in 2004. How have you dealt with going from just plain Mariel to gold-medal-winning-Olympic-champion Mariel Zagunis? Things got really crazy almost immediately. Generally I’m a pretty grounded person, but you see your name in the newspaper, people wanting your autograph, people recognizing you—it was all so very overwhelming and hard to deal with. I was like, ‘Why are people freaking out?’ I kind of went through it, and I’ve got a persona now. It’s like, ‘OK, I’m a really good fencer,’ and when I’m competing I can feel the pressure and the eyes on me. But every other time of the day, I don’t even think about it. Ultimately I’m very much unchanged.

Except for all the traveling from tournament to tournament, I would guess. You’ve already been to competitions in China, Cuba, Las Vegas, and New York this year… Actually, that’s just in the past three weeks.

Jeez. So, how does fencing competitively in the United States compare to other parts of the world? Well, it’s not like we’re making millions of dollars, that’s for sure. In places like Italy, though, fencers are superstars. At the Athens Olympics, Italy had two medal winners and there were paparazzi following them around everywhere. They’re pretty serious about fencing in France and China as well.

All that travel has got to be a lot of fun, but shouldn’t you be graduating from Notre Dame right about now? Yeah, but I don’t want to look back and be like, ‘Wow, I gave up such a great experience’ for something I could do anytime in my life.

Your parents were both Olympians on the 1976 US rowing team. How did that affect your athletic endeavors as a child? It helped. It’s one thing if your parents are pushing a sport on you because they’re like a stage mom or living through their children, but my parents had been there. They’d done that. So they pushed me in all the right ways. They knew exactly what I was going through during the Olympics.

There’s been a lot of talk about doping and drug tests leading up to the Beijing Olympics, but you don’t hear fencing mentioned much in the equation. We’re not a very high-profile sport. I mean, maybe once in a blue moon somebody tests positive for weed or something.

Since we’re talking controversy, you aren’t taking part in the opening ceremonies in Beijing, but it’s not because of any kind of political statement or protest, right? I’d love to be there, but our competition starts at 8 the next morning. In Athens we were standing around for so long—marching for, like, five hours. Believe it or not, it takes a lot out of you.

What do you think when you see those weepy Visa Olympics commercials with the Morgan Freeman voice-over? I love them. It brings back a lot of memories seeing people like Kerri Strug in all their glory. But I don’t really think, ‘Oh my god, that’s me!’ It’s more like, ‘The Olympics—that’s something that’s really special.’

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