Olympic Tradition, A Zagunis Family Sampler

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April 7, 2012 by David Gillaspie

Good Parenting Makes The Difference (also posted on oregonsportsnews.com)

Mariel Zagunis, courtesy bigskyfencing.com

Children of great athletes often try their parents’ sport.

Muhammad Ali’s daughter boxed. So did Joe Frazier’s son.

Joe Montana’s kid plays football, John Elway’s too.

What sport would you guess the kids of two Olympic rowers might do? From Oregon State to Montreal, Mr. and Mrs. Zagunis rowed in the 1976 Olympics. They have three kids. If you say something to do with a boat and a paddle, you’d be wrong.

All three are fencers. Maybe you’ve heard of their daughter, Mariel.

Mariel Zagunis travels the world with a sabre. From the  Oregon Fencing Alliance:

Sabre: Sabre is a point-thrusting as well as cutting weapon. It is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword. The size and weight are similar to the foil. Points can be scored with the point and edge anywhere above the opponent’s waist including the head and arms. Sabre techniques emphasize speed, feints and a strong offense.

For the amount of precious metal Zagunis brings back from her fencing trips she could be a gold miner and her sabre a metal detector. She came back from Athens and Beijing with Olympic gold. Her World Champion gold came from trips to France, Turkey, and Germany. Mix in her silver and bronze medals and she’s got more jewelry than Tiffany’s.

Like other ground breaking athletes, Zagunis changed the perception of her sport. When Tiger Woods picked up a golf club, he was just another kid swinging a stick. After a stack of amateur and professional wins, he became the leader of a golf Renaissance. Because of Tiger, golf was cool for inner-city youth. Zagunis is lifting her sport, too.

Like Tiger’s NCAA title at Stanford , Zagunis collected one at Notre Dame. Imagine her college opponents’ when she walked out on the piste. Instead of a top-end American athlete, they faced someone who had already carved the sports world to their liking. She was an Olympic champion showing up in South Bend. Second place for everyone else became a reasonable goal with her in the house.

If Zagunis isn’t the leader of a fencing revival, she ought to be. She went back to back to back for a three-pete at the Junior World Cup Championships, joining other three-peter athletes like Michael Jordan. Her Olympic gold in 2004 is the first since the cobbled together 1904 Games in St. Louis. She went back to back in 2008, with the chance to go Olympic three-pete. The rare double three-pete.

In spite of her overwhelming success around the world, don’t be shocked if every girl you see isn’t carrying a sabre. It’s not that kind of sport. While most athletes can take a basketball and shoot a hoop, or play a game, fencing has greater demands.

Without proper training and equipment, a new fencer could lose an eye or get their face slashed. Dueling scars were cool in pre-WWI Germany, but they’re just mutilation to avoid. The right gear, the right coach, and you’re good to start. Then you’re ready to get better.

Everyone at the top of their game attracts those who wonder how long their run will last. Call them Sports Speculators. Each individual on every championship team plays under their microscope. They try and predict when the slide starts. It’s happening now with Peyton Manning and his neck. It’s happening with pitcher Jamie Moyer who recently earned a spot on the Colorado Rockies team at forty-nine years old.

It happened with Lance Armstrong.

When will it begin with Zagunis? Don’t start her retirement-watch clock just yet. With all of her awards and accolades, she’s only twenty-seven. She’s peaking in a sport that includes athletes with long Olympic careers, and she started early.

In an interesting twist, Zagunis didn’t make the American team in 2004. She was a late addition. It took Nigeria holding back their fencer to open a spot. The odd rules allowed the next highest seeded fencer in the world, Mariel, to participate.

All she did in Greece was win the gold medal in the first ever women’s sabre competition in Olympic history. Four years later in China she did it again. This year it’s London, and special rules apply.

Fencing is one of the few sports included in all the Games since the 1896 revival, and fencing asks casual fans to ignore images of pirates swinging ship to ship. No prince swinging from light fixtures, sword in hand, rescuing maidens.

And no Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Fencing is a high-tech sport for the modern world, not a Robin Hood fantasy in Sherwood Forest, though holding the Olympics in London makes it hard to resist. You’ll hear English voices speaking every variation of the language, but some things you won’t hear. As much as we yearn for an English voice to say, “Take that, you bounder,” during the fencing competition, we will have to be satisfied with this:

“And the gold medal for women’s sabre at the 2012 London Games goes to Mariel Zagunis.”

When we hear the victory announcement, remember the words her parents have heard from their daughter, a response all parents would love to hear:

“(they) have dedicated so much to their children that has enabled us to achieve greatness on many different levels. They have made me the person I am today and I never could have learned so much about life or how to work as hard as I do from any other two people. Through them I have been able to grow and understand what is truly important in life and how to reach any goal I set for myself. No matter how daunting a task may be, I know my family will always be there to support me and help me through it.”

She’s one of Oregon’s greatest, and still rising. The Black Knight had best beware.


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