Mariel Zagunis loses her fencing semifinal bout, and the Olympic spirit

August 1, 2012

There goes the emotional sitdown with Costas. The brainless chit-chat in the morning with Matt Lauer and a cereal-box cover are also off the table.

Say buh-bye, America. Mariel Zagunis’s Q-rating just left the building.

Thanks for carrying the Stars and Stripes into the Opening Ceremonies, Miss Flag Bearer. Now pack your swords and go home for four years. We’ll call you before we get to Rio.

This isn’t meant to be unnecessarily mean to Zagunis, who Wednesday night failed to medal in the individual women’s sabre competition in which she’d won gold the past two Olympics. It’s being harshly honest.

Zagunis had all but wrapped up her semifinal bout against South Korea’s Kim Jiyeon, taking a 12-5 lead before allowing a riveting 11-1 scoring run. With that, the former champion was relegated back to obscurity, which makes Zagunis’s apparent inability to enjoy the moments she had the day’s real lament.

“I just handed her the bout,” Zagunis said of Kim after she also lost her bronze-medal bout against Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan.

Zagunis gave Kim the slightest credit for weathering only after being told she hadn’t genuinely congratulated her foe.

“Pretty much all my mistakes cost me the bout,” Zagunis said, adding that any bout she ever lost had less to do with the skill, smarts and perseverance of her opponents than it was “my lack of concentration.

“Congrats to them for winning, [but] in my opinion, if I was completely 100 percent on mentally, then I would have been able to win again. It’s happened to me before.”

Beautiful, Mariel; that’s the Olympic spirit.

This is what happens when you get used to being No. 1, used to winning gold and world championships. You forget when you weren’t even supposed to be in the Olympics eight years ago.

I met Mariel Zagunis in Athens in 2004. Zagunis then was this likable teen with a blond ponytail who did spot-on impersonations of a three-toed sloth because she watched so much Animal Planet. As an alternate on the 2004 Olympic fencing team, she wasn’t even supposed to be in Athens, but the Nigerian team decided to pull out at the last minute, opening a spot for her.

Her more-accomplished teammate was thought to be the U.S. fencer with the best gold-medal chance. But Sada Jacobson faltered in her semis before winning bronze. Zagunis then stunned the little world of individual women’s sabre, going from alternate to the top of the medal podium the first time the event was held at an Olympics. It was the United States’ first gold in fencing since 1904.

Her mother, an Olympic rower who met Mariel’s father on the U.S. team in Montreal, cried in the stands when her little girl won. Mariel smiled and laughed often, stopped by the mixed zone to educate the media on her sport between two of her matches and said, “Cool” and “Wow” a lot. It was one of those This Is What The Olympics Are About moments.

Contrast that with Wednesday’s unsmiling, hyper-focused, I’m-not-talking-to-anyone-but-my-coach-between-matches ball of stress, who remained in an autopilot daze even after she lost.

“In Athens, it felt completely different,” Zagunis admitted. “I was riding the wave, being on a Cloud 9 type thing. But you do it once, then you do it twice and then you have the gravity of doing it a third time, you start to realize a lot more the significance of it.

“Perhaps that means you have to make yourself focus more and not be bubbly and happy and walking and talking to everybody else.”

Perhaps that means you need to laugh and smile more, because you made it to the Olympics again.

Miss Flag Bearer went down. Hard. Three points away from her third gold-medal match at the Olympic games and she became too aggressive, trying to force the action while Kim patiently counter-attacked and scored.

“I wish I could tell you what I was thinking, but I wasn’t thinking,” she said.

There was one moment I felt for Zagunis. At the very end of her interview session, she said, “The only thing I can really look forward to now is Rio. Now I can enjoy life and the rest of my time in . . . where am I? London.

“I’m in disbelief right now. Ever since I lost that lead to Kim and lost that bout. And now I don’t have a medal. It’s just really strange because I’ve never been in this position before at the Olympics.”

But I felt worse for Dagmara Wozniak, the Polish-born kid from Woodbridge Township, N.J., who lost a tough quarterfinal match. She cried and cried after it was over, realizing the moment had passed, maybe understanding the unwritten Aug. 13 rule.

That is, no one but fencers care about fencing after the Olympics are over. And nothing is as over as when the Olympics are over.

So while they’re going on, niche athletes need to savor the Games and smile more often for those two weeks, give opponents that beat them credit more often — because they really matter to most of us only every four years.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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