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U.S. fencing legend, Beaverton native, has rebounded on world stage since giving birth

COURTESY PHOTO: MARIEL ZAGUNIS - Mariel Zagunis at home with daughter Sunday and husband Mike Swehla.Word came from the International Olympic Committee early Tuesday. The 2020 Games in Tokyo would be postponed — no later than the summer of 2021 — because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Across the country, Olympians took in the news with a variety of opinions, most agreeing that setting back the date is the sensible thing to do.

In Oregon, fencing champion Mariel Zagunis reacted with disappointment but understanding.

"I am heartbroken, but have no choice but to accept the decision for what it is," said Zagunis, the most successful of all U.S. fencers. "I feel for the Tokyo organizers and the people of Japan, who have put their heart and soul into creating a memorable Olympic experience for the world. I know that whenever the Games will be held, Japan will make them one of the best, most memorable Olympics ever.

"I hope the global community is able to get the coronavirus under control, as it's devastating and disrupting the lives of so many people at so many levels. I will continue to do all I can to prepare myself mentally and physically, and to stay positive."

That's been made easier by the presence of 2 1/2-year-old Sunday Zagunis, the first offspring of Mariel and her husband, Mike Swehla.

"We're hitting a really fun groove right now," Mariel said. "(The break from coronavirus) has been a blessing in disguise. It's meant extra time with the kid at home. I am pretty fortunate to have a flexible schedule. Even though I'm training full-time, I'm with her every day. She's amazing, so fun and funny, talking and telling stories and having her imagination grow."

COURTESY PHOTO: AUGUSTO BIZZI/FIE - MARIEL ZAGUNISHas motherhood affected Zagunis' fencing abilities?

"It has," she said. "For any woman, it changes you fundamentally as a person. As a professional athlete at the level I've been at for so long, so much of my life has been inward looking. it's been selfish to many degrees, but you have to be. Motherhood opens your eyes to a whole new world and gives you a new set of responsibilities.

"There is a sharp learning curve as you try to balance your new life. It's never going to be what it once was. It changed me as an athlete and changed me as a person. I'm so thankful. She's an amazing person and fills my life up in more ways than I ever could have imagined. It's all good."

Zagunis, who turned 35 on March 3, qualified for her fifth Olympic Games in sabre with a surprise victory March 6-8 in a World Cup event in Athens, Greece. It was her first victory in international competition since winning there four years ago.

"It was an awesome weekend — surreal, but awesome," said Zagunis, who vaulted from a No. 16 world ranking to No. 9 with the victory. "I'm still in the process of coming back, but to finally win an international competition was incredible.

"It was a big relief to know I am getting closer to my goal, that I'm performing more and more to the level I expect of myself. And the cherry on top was having that result send me to Tokyo."

Zagunis is the biggest name ever in the U.S. fencing scene, with two gold medals in both the Olympics and the world championships and a No. 1 ranking in the country for 11 straight years (2007-17).

The first-ever American to win the Junior World Cup in 2002 and the youngest fencer to claim FIE World Championship gold, Zagunis became the first American to win an Olympic gold in 100 years at Athens in 2004. She followed with gold in 2008 at Beijing, but has not medaled individually in the last two Games. (She won gold in team sabre in 2008 and bronze in the team competition at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games). Zagunis finished fourth in 2012 at London and was eliminated in the table of 16 in 2016.

Then came the baby, and a one-year hiatus that saw her ranking plummet from No. 4 to as low as No. 77.

"I was out of competition for a very long time," Zagunis said. "I slowly started to creep my way back up."

Zagunis couldn't qualify for international competition because she wasn't ranked among the top 12 in the U.S. In tennis, it would be like denying Serena Williams a chance to compete in the U.S. Open after her pregnancy.

"There never has been a fencer of my caliber who has left, had a baby and then had the desire and the drive to come back," Zagunis said. "Of the high-level female athletes across all weapons who have retired and had babies, none have made the effort to get back. And there was no protocol in place for how to handle my situation."

Zagunis pleaded her case with the USA Fencing council.

"It was a little contentious," she said. "Their response was, 'We don't want to give you one of those 12 spots. We need to save them for the people who earned it.' I know it sounds arrogant, but my response to that was this: 'I'm the most decorated fencer in U.S. history, had a baby, and I don't deserve a spot? This is my livelihood. I'm trying to get back into things. Give me the opportunity that I deserve.'"

A rule was enacted in late 2017 — a few months after Sunday's birth — establishing the opportunity for a national or Olympic team member with an injury, surgery or pregnancy to have two petitions to gain entrance into international events.

Zagunis used one petition to enter the 2018 Seoul Grand Prix.

"I made the top eight, which was better than any other U.S. result," she said. "It was a good start to my comeback."

That result, combined with two domestic tournament triumphs in 2019, gained her a spot in the 2020 World Cup, where she proved she is a medal contender in Tokyo.

In the days after Zagunis returned from Greece, the coronavirus threat grew exponentially. No longer can she practice at her training facility.

"I'm trying to stay as positive as possible and focus on everything I can control," Zagunis said. "I'm working out at home as much as I can. We have some workout equipment.

"I'm doing a lot of cross-training. Fencing is very sports specific. i am kind of doing some fencing footwork, but the majority of my (regular) training is sparring with other people, and being on a fencing strip with equlpment. I'm not doing any of that. It's been surreal. I don't know when my next competition is."

But when action resumes, Zagunis will carry momentum with her.

The World Cup victory "came at a really good time as far as my confidence and knowing I'm on the right track," she said. "It happened in the nick of time for me to get those good vibes. I'm hoping to carry it forward to whenever the next one is."

COURTESY PHOTO: USA FENCING - Mariel Zagunis (left) competes in Moscow.Zagunis said she has a couple of goals to carry through the next year of competition.

"One is to feel like I'm back at the level I was before taking my leave for pregnancy," she said. "That is sometimes reflected in results, but more so for me, it's about the quality of my performance. When you're starting from the bottom, you might start slow and not have the result.

"And two, I'm always expecting to be on the podium. It took me awhile, but in Athens, I felt like I fenced well, and that also was reflected in the result."

Standing on the podium can mean one of three finishes. Is she looking for gold at Tokyo, whenever that may be?

"That's always been the goal," the veteran southpaw said. "I've never settled for anything less. I wouldn't commit myself to this goal if I didn't have that intention. Of course I want gold. As long as I can perform at my top level, then that color will be gold."

Does the World Cup victory make Zagunis the favorite in Tokyo?

"I don't think so," she said. "After improving my ranking to No. 9 in the world, some people might look at it that way, but it's not No. 1.

"You have to beat everybody, anyway. I came in ranked No. 1 in London (in 2012) and that didn't happen. It's whatever happens on that day. When I'm at my best, though, I know I can beat everybody."

By Kerry Eggers
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