Champion Olympic fencer focuses on another sabre win in 2020
Since she was 14, Mariel Zagunis has been at the forefront of the international fencing scene.
At 31, the Beaverton native doesn't plan on that changing any time soon.
"I definitely see Tokyo in my future," says the two-time Olympic individual sabre champion, the reference to the site of the 2020 Olympic Games.
Zagunis, a four-time Olympian, has failed to medal in her last two Olympic ventures. After claiming gold at Athens in 2004 and at Beijing in 2008, the Valley Catholic High grad finished fourth at London in 2012 and was eliminated in the table of 16 last summer at Rio de Janeiro, the latter still a cause of consternation four months later.
"Terrible," the former World Junior champion says. "Absolutely below my expectations. I'm still beating myself up over my performance.
"I've been really spoiled. My first two Olympics were 100 percent successful. My last two were incredibly heartbreaking. It was really tough to go out there (in Rio) and not feel like my myself, but that's exactly what happened. As much as you want to prevent that, sometimes you just have that type of day."
Zagunis thinks her mental preparation threw her off and contributed to her loss to Russian veteran Yekaterina Dyachenko in the table of 16.
"I don't think I was lacking anything per se," Zagunis says."But on the mental side of thing, I could have put less pressure on myself. I wanted to win again so bad. It was more important to focus on relaxing a little more and letting my inherent reflexes and game and drive take over rather than try to force myself into the zone. My attitude was, 'I need to win,' rather than 'I can win.'"
The past season, Zagunis says, was the most difficult she has had in terms of injuries in her career. After a season-opening victory at a World Cup tournament in Venezuela, she suffered a serious leg injury and "tried to tough it out." That laid her up for a couple of months; in January, she won a World Cup event in Athens. But in March, the injury reoccurred. In the Pan American Championships at Panama in June, she was ahead of U.S. teammate Ibtihaj Muhammad 8-2 in the gold medal bout when the injury flared up again, forcing her to default.
Then came the loss to Dyachenko at Rio, and the bitter disappointment.
"We'd competed quite a bit against each other over the years," Zagunis says. "I've beaten her more than she'd beaten me. But it's any given day."
Zagunis finds some solace in being part of the U.S. team that took bronze in sabre. The U.S. women beat Italy 45-30 for the bronze, gaining the only women's fencing medal in Rio.
"All of us felt we could have done better individually," she says. "Having that second opportunity in team that we didn't have in London (only individual sabre competition was offered), we came out guns a-blazing.
"We didn't want to go home empty-handed. We were very happy with a bronze medal. When we lost (the semifinal), we weren't going to have any mercy on Team Italy in the bronze-medal match. We pretty much destroyed them."
Zagunis' competition ended early enough that she was able to enjoy more than a week of down time in Rio before flying home on Aug. 23. Mariel, husband Michael Swehla, teammate Dagmara Wozniak and another friend trekked up the Corovado Mountain to see the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue.
"We took a day trip to get up there and take pictures," Zagunis says. "We were able to see it up close, which was awesome."
Zagunis visited the beach at Copacabana almost daily, put in a few appearances for sponsors and "tried to make
the most of my week after
competing," she says.
The outcry over the potential effects of the Zika virus was overblown, she says.
"The organizers were as diligent as they could have been," Zagunis says. "We saw them spraying down the village (with insecticides) from huge trucks. The USOC had a training facility for all the U.S. athletes not far from the village, and that was sprayed down with bug repellent every night. They made a bigger deal of it than they should have.
"I didn't have any negative experiences there as far as disorganization or crime. I had a very nice time."
In September, Zagunis was part of the U.S. Olympic contingent that was hosted by President Obama at the White House.
"They always do such a nice job," she says. "It was amazing."
Zagunis is just getting settled into a her four-bedroom, 3,800-square-foot Beaverton-area home on a three-acre plot of land, purchased recently by Mariel and her husband. It's two driveways down from the house in which she was reared — and where her mother, Cathy, still lives.
"A year and a half ago, I was at my mom's house and saw this for-sale sign right in my old neighborhood," Zagunis says. "I checked it out, and it's a beautiful house. I was like, 'We have to strike on this. These types of properties go really quickly.'"
The fall has been difficult for Zagunis in one respect. On Dec. 2, mother-in-law Francine Swehla died unexpectedly, two days after her 56th birthday.
"It has been an incredibly difficult time for our family," Zagunis says. "It's the most surreal and sad thing I've ever dealt with. She was an amazing person, and so supportive of my career. Every tournament from here on out will be dedicated to her memory."
Zagunis remains near the top of her profession. She has been ranked No. 1 in the U.S. every year since 2009 and is currently ranked No. 4 in the world. She has not been out of the top four since 2008.
But at 31, Zagunis isn't where she was physically a decade ago.
"One of the most difficult and challenging things in my recent career has been training smarter, not harder," she says. "For me, to be 100 percent prepared means every day I'm going to wake up, and by the time I go to sleep that night I'm exhausted, because I've left everything I have in the gym. I've given every drop of sweat and every ounce of energy into that training day.
"That worked very well from ages 15 to 25. That's the way I could make sure I was at my best. Now I don't work myself to exhaustion every single day, because that's not how my body responds in the best way anymore. It's been difficult for me to accept that, because I don't want to take rest days. I don't want to taper.
"Getting older has been a transition for me, physically and mentally. I'm not doing the amount of volume, but I'm being smarter in the way I'm treating my body and recovering and resting and putting quality over quantity."
Michael — a Cornelius firefighter — and Mariel want to have children some day.
"Being a professional athlete, it's all about timing," she says. "When it happens, it happens, and hopefully it will work out within the Olympic schedule."
Zagunis intends to be part of the U.S. team that participates in the 2017 World Championships at Leipzig, Germany.
"I haven't missed a senior World Championships since 2000," she says. "I want to keep going, keep my points up and make sure I qualify."
Zagunis is the most-decorated U.S. women's fencer in history, with 13 world championship medals, plus two individual gold medals and two team gold medals from her Olympics past. But she wants nothing more than to add onto that at Tokyo.
"I'm not fulfilled," she says. "That's part of who I am. I always want to keep going. I always want to do more. It's a blessing and a curse to feel dissatisfied with not winning all the time."