Mariel Zagunis – Olympic Gold Medalist

She’s Quick With A Blade.

The thought had crossed Mariel Zagunis’ mind.
If her older brother Marten hadn’t taken fencing lessons that she found frustrating to sit and watch because she was too young to start lessons, would have she chosen fencing as her sport? And what was it about fencing that enticed her enough to wait two years to finally be able to take lessons?
“I remember being a tag-a-long kid and how hard it was to sit on the sidelines while he got to fence,” she said. “I wanted to be doing what he was doing.”

Whatever the reasons, Mariel is grateful to her older brother for helping to introduce her to the world of fencing.

Mariel, 30, would rather let her actions speak for her than talk about her accomplishments. Polite and humble, she graciously shared growing up with Marten and her younger brother, Merrick in an athletic and competitive family.

Mariel appreciates her parents Robert and Cathy Zagunis for being not only her encouragement, but also great role models. Her dad was a collegiate rower at Oregon State University and her mom at Connecticut College. They met when training for rowing teams for the Montreal Summer Olympics in 1976.

From kindergarten to senior year in high school, she attended Valley Catholic in Beaverton. She remembers participating in all the traditional sports including basketball, soccer, swimming and track. But there was something about fencing that enthralled her.
“With fencing, I found it was a sport none of my friends were doing and it was really unique,” she said. “I remember thinking that fencing was special and it was different. I liked the fact, fencing was as much mental as it was physical.”

With fencing, she also found there was creativity, imagination, and it was both a mental and physical challenge.
“When you compete on a team, it’s the collective actions of all your teammates that result in a win or loss,” she said. “With fencing, the sole responsibility of the battle rested on my shoulders.”
Her accomplishments are numerous, including being the flag bearer at the London 2012 Summer Olympic Opening Ceremony, winning two Olympic gold medals and two individual World Championships, making her the most decorated fencer in U.S. history. She won her first gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics in sabre by defeating Chinese fencer Xue Tan in the finals, becoming the first American to win an Olympic fencing gold medal in 100 years. She won gold again at the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Mariel is currently training and competing to earn a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, explaining she needs to accumulate enough points based on the competitions she fences in. Her supporters are, Sabre coach Ed Korfanty, personal trainer Adam Skarbonkiewicz, and The Oregon Fencing Alliance. She previously trained at Twist Sport Conditioning in SW Portland.

She took time from her busy schedule and before leaving on a whirlwind competition schedule to share her story with the hopes of motivating another generation of fencers in Oregon.

How would you explain your sport to someone who has never seen it or heard about it?
Fencing is a physical chess where you need to be thinking three steps ahead of your opponent and have two or three counter moves to use. Fencing is about knowing how to capitalize on your opponent’s mistakes and apply an action in a split second or less. I compete in sabre – which requires making millisecond decisions.

Some athletes follow strict “rituals” – same meal, socks… Do you have any routines before you compete?
I’ve been competing for almost two decades so by now I definitely have my traveling and pre-competition routine down pat. Many, if not all athletes have routines they like to follow and I am no exception. However, part of my superstition is not telling people about my superstitious routines!

Do you have any funny stories about competing in fencing?
People love to make the building fences joke when I tell them I am a fencer. “Chain link or picket?” is a common response. But over the past few years, fencing has been gaining popularity in the United States and more of the general public now knows fencing is a sport and a really exciting one at that! As far as traveling, airlines used to think that my big bag was always a set of golf clubs. But they know me so well by now at the United Airlines desk at PDX that they ask where my competition is rather than what’s in my bag.

Why would you encourage someone to learn to fence – whether they are 10 or 50 years old?
One of the wonderful things about fencing is that it’s never too late to try it. Of course, if you want to get to a high level or to the Olympics there is a small age window, just like a lot of sports, when you have to be exposed and start learning the specific skill set. However, it’s a great workout for any age. We have adult classes at our club with a lot older people trying fencing for the first time. People often remark that it’s much harder than it looks and they can feel their muscles burning with the great work out they’re getting. At any age, it’s a unique sport, and a great way to get a fun work out in.

What do you enjoy the most about your sport – the mental or the physical challenge?
I love everything about fencing! When it really comes down to it, fencing is actually more mental than it is physical. Our sport is called physical chess because you have to know everything about your opponent’s tendencies and be two or three moves ahead of them the entire bout. Therefore, you have to able to outsmart them, which can sometimes work better than overpowering them physically. Nothing beats the feeling of confusing your opponent on the strip and dominating them in that way. All that being said, I still do love the physical aspect of the sport too. There is no better job than being an athlete and I enjoy working out every day and having the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.

You shared you love your sport because you feel like you are always learning – share a little more about this.
Because fencing is such a mental sport, I’m always learning new things in every practice. I am lucky enough to work with one of the best coaches in the world -Ed Korfanty – and he is always helping me hone my skills and learn new actions. To be a top fencer, you have to have many different moves that can work for you and sometimes that means inventing new actions. Day in and day out you must learn and grow as a fencer and that’s one thing I like about it- you can always improve upon yourself and get better, so it never gets boring. There’s also the quest to be perfect in your sport and to avoid making any mistakes.

What’s the best advice given to you when you were doubting yourself or feeling frustrated at your performance – we talked about how as an athlete people expect you to be at the top of your game every day and be perfect every day.
Although I strive to be, nobody is perfect. In life and especially in sport, you will always go through ups and downs. When I am feeling frustrated, I tell myself to just keep digging, to stick to my routine and keep working hard every day because it will turn around eventually- it has to. Attitude is everything so I try to stay as positive as possible, even when things aren’t going as planned. I think the bad days when things don’t go as planned teach you to appreciate the good days and the good days teach you to battle through the bad days and learn from your mistakes.

How do you deal with bad days?
I think the more positive I am, the more positive things are bound to happen. I met a group of young girls at the national competition and I asked how they did in their competitions. I remember one girl being so excited because she finished 97 out of 98 girls. She was so happy that she wasn’t last again and was excited to go to the next competition. I remember that and think about it’s about improving a little each time, each day.

You shared you are super competitive – is that in everything or just your fencing?
I’ve always been a competitive person. I grew up in a competitive household with my two brothers so I do think I bring that approach to other aspects of life. For example, teach me a new sport or board game and I want to master it as quickly as possible.

You have traveled and competed in some amazing places. Do you get to sightsee?
I have been all over the world competing, but it’s a job. It’s a great job, but mostly I go from the airport to the hotel to the competition venue and back to my hotel. I get glimpses of the places I go, but rarely am there for more than two to three days and during that time I am competing.

What are a few of your favorite quotes and why?
“The more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in times of war.” This quote is pretty self-explanatory because every time I compete, it’s as if I’m going into battle- we are fighting with swords after all! It is also about self-preparedness, something important for our sport.
I really like Kipling’s ‘If’ poem in its entirety, but this excerpt in particular- “if you can meet with triumph and disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same” There will always be good and bad days and what matters is how you react to what happens to you. This is especially true in sport, because you can learn from your wins and losses, and it’s important to remain humble.

How do you deal with stress?
It is really important to have balance in life. Although fencing is my job and I enjoy it, it is still very stressful and demanding at the same time. On weekends that I’m in the country, I try to take Sunday as a day for myself where I let myself sleep in and relax, sometimes I’ll take a yoga class. Or if I’m feeling extra stressed, I’ll go for a hike and immerse myself in nature. There is a real calming and healing effect to fresh air and green space that helps me relax and decompress. If I’m having a rough week of practices, my husband and I will talk it out over dinner at home and I usually feel much better by the end of the night. The most important thing is to not hold stress in. Find a way to physically and/or emotionally let go and release built up tension and you’ll feel much better.

Who are your role models?
From the time I was young, I have always looked up to my parents and I thought of them as wise people. I think they have taught me to follow my passion and how to compete, realizing there will be good days and bad days. They also had the experience of competing in the Olympics so they knew what I was dealing with. They taught me to chase my dreams but to also work to achieve them and how important my actions or whatever I am doing. My mom is our squad manager and she travels with the team and is a great travel buddy. My husband sometimes gets to go to my competitions. Everyone in my family is supportive.

If you gave a tour of Oregon, where would you take a visitor?
I would take them hiking on the Wildwood trail to Pittock Mansion, brunch at Meriwether’s and dinner at Farm Café – can’t beat the farm-to-table freshness; a Timbers or Thorns soccer game at Providence Park; windsurfing in Hood River, followed by Umpqua Ice Cream; explore the different McMenamins’ locations such as the Kennedy School and depending on the time of year, going to the Park Block’s farmers’ market or Beaverton farmers’ market.

What do you love to eat?
There’s what I love to eat and then there’s what I love to eat but shouldn’t eat. I love to cook and right now I love cooking with ingredients grown in my garden, especially kale or getting fresh ingredients at New Seasons and making something new for dinner. My husband Mike and I were married in September of 2013 and I enjoy cooking for him when I am home.

Besides cooking, what activities do you enjoy doing?
I love being outside and enjoying the nice weather in Portland when we have it. Although I really don’t mind the rain either. I love going for hikes, running and playing tennis. I have a garden which requires a lot of attention, but it has been really fun to grow my own produce to cook with.

About The Author: DC Rahe

Contributing Editor