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Ready for Rio

Sabre fencing legend Mariel Zagunis looks to regain Olympic gold


TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JAIME VALDEZ - Mariel Zagunis is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and world fencing champion. She trains at the Oregon Fencing Alliance with her longtime coach, Ed Korfanty, and will compete in the 2016 Games at Rio de Janeiro.She is the most accomplished U.S. woman in fencing history, and Mariel Zagunis continues to build on her legacy.

The Valley Catholic High School graduate and Beaverton resident, a two-time Olympic sabre champion and three-time Olympian, is headed to Rio de Janeiro in August to compete in her fourth Olympiad.

Zagunis clinched her spot on the U.S. team by winning gold last month at the World Cup in Athens, Greece — the site of her first Olympic title in 2004. That earned her enough points in the national senior team standings to qualify for Rio.

In the finals at Athens, Zagunis beat defending world champion Sofiya Velikaya of Russia 15-11 in the final.

“It’s a really incredible feeling,” Zagunis said after a recent training session with coach Ed Korfanty at Oregon Fencing Alliance in Southwest Portland. “I was on a trajectory where I knew I was going to make the team, but the win at the World Cup solidified it.

“It’s great to know my spot is secured no matter what, and I was especially happy with my performance. I fenced really well at that competition. I’m excited to keep that positivity going for the next few months.”

At 31, Zagunis is hardly an old-timer by any standards. But she has been near or at the top of her craft since winning her first Olympic gold medal at age 19. And in a sport where few have excelled beyond their 20s, she shows no signs of slowing down.

“For a sabre fencer, (age 31) is getting up there,” Zagunis said. “Women’s sabre is younger than the other two weapons (epee and foil) among the top fencers, because sabre is so aggressive. The 1985 birthday — you don’t see that very often. It’s interesting the difference five years can make — your body, your mind, your experience, the way you approach things.”

Zagunis ranks No. 3 in the world in women’s sabre behind Velikaya, 30, and Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan, 25.

Velikaya, Ibtihaj Muhammad (who also will represent the United States at Rio) and Zagunis are the only ones ranked in the top 10 who are 30 or older.

Only one fencer in the top 25 — No. 11 Aleksandra Socha of Poland, who is closing in on 34 — is older than Zagunis.

As Zagunis has aged, the experience that comes from years of world-class fencing has offset any loss in her physical skills.

“She is injured more than she was before, but she is still fencing dynamically,” said Korfanty, the U.S. national women’s sabre team coach who has been Zagunis’ personal coach since she took up the sport at age 10. “She is different than she was, but the world of fencing also changed. She has bigger competition than she did before.TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Fencing star Mariel Zagunis (left) of Beaverton has worked on all aspects of her sport, including new strategies, in order to keep competitive at the world level.

“Mariel is a real professional fencer. Her strength is her mind. She is every day on the clock.

“She takes care of her physical fitness, and she takes very seriously her lessons and the advice she is given. We try to invent something that the world is not doing.

“The way the referees give points has changed. We have to also change. Mariel has changed three or four times. It’s pretty tough for her to change so often, but we can do it.”

Zagunis has continued to practice daily at OFA under the tutelage of Korfanty, 64, who has been the U.S. national women’s sabre team coach since 1999.

“Fencing is a constantly evolving game,” Zagunis said. “I have to make sure I’m unpredictable all the time. If you just keep fencing the same way, (opponents) are going to figure you out. You always have to be trying to get better and break different types of barriers and come up with new things.

“That’s one of the main goals of being here every morning — working one-on-one with my coach, having a lesson, honing my skills, but also doing what we can do that nobody has seen before, which I can take to competition and surprise people.”

Zagunis said it’s difficult for non-fencers to grasp the mind game that goes into the sport.

“You’re not just out there trying to be a clock,” she said. “You’re not just trying to do your best routine on your own. You’re playing against another human being. You don’t know what’s going on in her mind. At the same time, you have to control what’s going on in your mind. Then you have a referee who is doing something in (his/her) mind. There are a lot of moving parts in a fencing match, and it goes very quickly.”

Through most of her career, including gold-medal performances at Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, Zagunis has mastered the mental part of the trade. She believes she lost that edge in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympic Games at London, where she lost 15-13 in the semifinals to South Korea’s Kim Jiyeon after leading 12-5.

“She didn’t beat me — I beat myself,” a disconsolate Zagunis said afterward.

Jiyeon went on to win the gold medal, while Zagunis lost in the bronze-medal match.

Zagunis’ opinion on the subject hasn’t changed.

Jiyeon “fenced well that day,” Zagunis said, “but I had a mental brain fart, for lack of a better word. I lost my concentration for some reason. Having almost four years to reflect on it, it was really bad timing to have something like that happen in my brain.

“You can’t make excuses. I let my guard down, and she took advantage of it. She beat me, and it was a really tough moment to live through, during and after.”

Is Zagunis a better fencer today than she ever has been?

“Depends on the day,” she said with a smile. “Everything is up and down. On a whole, I’m absolutely a better fencer. I have more experience, more hours of work in the gym under my belt, and that can only help you.TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Mariell Zagunis (left) trains at the Oregon Fencing Alliance.

“Fencing has a lot to do with experience and mental toughness. You may not be able to move as well, but if you can outsmart your opponent ... it’s a mind game. If you’re not mentally tough, you can lose to somebody who is not as athletic or experienced.”

Zagunis has 13 world championship medals, including two individual titles (2009 and ‘10) and two team victories. But she lost in the 16th round of the world championships at Moscow last July. Before that, she had reached at least the quarterfinals of every world championship and Olympics since 2005.

In that regard, 2016 has been a comeback year for Zagunis, who has won two world tournaments on the circuit this year.

“She has a big shot for the gold medal at Rio,” Korfanty said. “We’ll do everything we can possibly do to get there.”

Korfanty and Zagunis have worked hard to develop new tactics to keep her opponents off-balance.

“I’m going to do whatever I have to do to win,” she said. “If that means coming up with some crazy new strategy, that’s what I’m going to do.

“That adds to the journey. There’s a lot not in your control in this sport. The stuff you can control, you have to be 100 percent perfect at. That’s what I’m working toward every day.”

When she began training with Korfanty, Zagunis competed in foil. In 1998, Korfanty switched OFA to a sabre-only club.

“Ed gave me my first sabre lesson, and it was a reinvention for my fencing,” she said. “It’s so much fun. I get to slash. I don’t have to probe. I get to hit him on the head, which I didn’t get to do in foil. It revamped things for me, made it a lot more exciting. The speed and the game of it fit my personality a lot more.”

Zagunis has been a dominant force in her weapon since 2004, and she doesn’t feel she has ever really fallen from the pedestal.

“The last time I won senior worlds was 2010, but I was second in 2011 and ‘14,” she said. “I was right there. You have an entire season, and you have to try to peak for world championships. Sometimes it goes well; sometimes it doesn’t.

“But I’m always motivated. I have been motivated for Rio from the day after I fenced in London. I’m ready to get to Rio, to fence hard and fence well.”

Her relationship with Korfanty for more than 20 years has given her stability.

“I’m extremely fortunate to be under his tutelage,” she said. “Ed has taught me everything I know about the game. He is such an amazing coach. He knows it like nobody else. He has helped me adapt and grow as a fencer season after season.

“He is always coming up with new and inventive moves and strategies. It comes down to his genius and patience and knowledge of the sport, which is unmatched by any other coach in the world.”

Zagunis is the first U.S. woman fencer to make a living off the sport. She has endorsement deals with Nike and Absolute Fencing, an equipment company. This year, a new as-yet-unnamed Olympic sponsor will come on board.

Women’s sabre wasn’t an Olympic sport until 2004 when Zagunis won her first gold medal.

“I got really good results early, and that broke through to get the Nike sponsorship,” she said. “Now, Nike is heavily involved with sponsoring the top fencers. I think that started with having so much attention in Beaverton.

“In the U.S. now, a majority of the top men and women fencers across all the weapons are fencing full-time. We’re sponsored and have a way to make ends meet, which is fantastic, because we never had that before. The results we’re having in all of USA fencing are amazing. Finally, we’re getting some outside support.”

European fencers, meanwhile, have had financial assistance for decades.

“All of the Europeans are professionals,” Zagunis said. “Getting written a $1 million check for winning a world championship is something I don’t think I’ll ever see in my lifetime as an American fencer, but that’s OK. I’m very happy with what I’ve been given. It would be nice to have a million-dollar bonus, but it comes down to doing it for the love of fencing.”

Cash awards have been given at world championships for only the past five years. Fencers now also get a stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee based on world ranking — more during an Olympic year. Is the stipend $100,000? Or perhaps $50,000?

“No,” Zagunis said with a laugh. Much less than that? “Yeah,” she said.

“Let’s just say, if I didn’t have Absolute Fencing and Nike, I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she said.

Zagunis, however, is grateful for the opportunities fencing has given her.

“It’s been such an amazing journey, and it’s not even done yet,” she said. “I’m very fortunate to have that. I owe everything to the sport. I owe everything to my coach.

“I’ve been traveling the world since I was 13 or 14, having Olympic experiences, meeting people from other countries, having people from other countries train here. The friendships and relationships I’ve had ... considering some people never leave the United States to travel, even on vacation, it’s incredible I’ve had the opportunity to do that.”

Zagunis was U.S. flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies at London in 2012, a laurel voted on by her Olympic teammates.

“That made the London Games for me,” she said. “It’s one of my top Olympic memories. So surreal still to think about. I remember being a kid, watching the opening ceremonies on TV, with the world waiting for the U.S. to come out. Such an honor.”

Life is different than it was when Zagunis first hit the international fencing scene. She married Mike Swehla — now in training to become a firefighter — in September 2013 and said she wants to be a mother some day.

“I want to have little athletic babies running around — not necessarily fencers,” she said. “We’ll see about that. But kids? That’s the plan.”

Would she have to retire from fencing to do that? Not necessarily. Velikaya had a child, then came back to become No. 1 in the world.

“I’ll just have to make that decision when it happens,” Zagunis said.

Korfanty sees no reason why Zagunis can’t stay in the international fencing picture for some time.

“She could very easily make the 2020 Olympic Games,” he said.

Zagunis feels the same way.

“Who knows what’s going to happen if I stay healthy,” she said. “I love what I do. I have an amazing time and great opportunities. It’s one of the best jobs in the world. I get to be here every day and work out all the time and improve myself as an athlete.

“I don’t want to stop. I don’t see any retirement on the horizon.”