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A Stab at Greatness

Zagunis Wins Gold, Jacobson Bronze for the United States

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page D07

ATHENS, Aug. 17 -- Mariel Zagunis flung off her mask and began waving triumphantly to the packed house with her platinum sabre, the weapon she used to make Olympic history Tuesday night. She was mobbed by the U.S. men's team, which tossed her into the air at the Helliniko Fencing Hall.

"U-S-A! U-S-A!" they bellowed, until her mother Cathy, herself an Olympian once, began crying in the stands.

The United States won its first fencing medals in 20 years on Tuesday, including a gold by Mariel Zagunis in the saber competition. (AP)

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The United States had a bright young musketeer on whom to hang gold, an admittedly silly 19-year-old who does accurate impressions of three-toed sloths from watching too much "Animal Planet."

The blond ponytail and perma-grin smile? All a ruse, belying the few seconds of fury Mariel kept unleashing on her opponents.

"I don't even know what to say, I'm just so happy," said Zagunis, the Oregon teenager who beat Tan Xue of China, 15-9, in the final of the women's sabre competition.

She added that she was "psyched" and "in a zone" a lot, and having won the first fencing medal by a U.S. woman and the first gold by an American fencer since 1904, you could understand.

Atlanta's Sada Jacobson, the world's top-ranked fencer, captured a bronze, beating Romanian Catalina Gheorghitoaia, 15-7, after Tan had beaten her in the semifinals 90 minutes earlier.

They became the first American fencers to stand on the medal podium since Peter Westbrook won a bronze in 1984 in the men's sabre. Zagunis was so excited, bouncing up and down, that she nearly lost the olive wreath crowning her head.

When her coach, Ed Korfanty, leapt over the barrier to hug and hold her after the victory, it looked much like Bela Karolyi jumping for joy with Mary Lou Retton 20 years ago in Los Angeles.

Indeed, not unlike the boom in American gymnastics when Karolyi came from Romania to coach, the medals of Zagunis and Jacobson came via the great fencing tradition of Eastern Europe.

Korfanty, a three-time Olympian who still competes, was for 10 years a member of Poland's national team. And Arkady Burdan, the coach of Sada Jacobson and her sister, Emily, was a former coach of the year in the Soviet Union who emigrated to Atlanta in 1990.

"When I first get here, we have bad national team," Korfanty said. "But a lot of coaches emigrate and more kids want to fence. We are now a powerhouse in juniors and colleges."

Said Burdan simply: "Tonight is the greatest night in the history of American fencing."

The sabre competition in Athens was the first for women in the Olympics. The weapon is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword. It is used as a thrusting and cutting weapon in competition, and the target area is from the bend of the hips to the top of the head. The uniform includes a lame' (a metallic jacket), which fully covers the target area to register a valid touch on the scoring machine. Since the head is also a scoring opportunity, the mask also has a metallic covering.

It is the fastest of fencing's three weapons and, unlike the foil and epee disciplines, sabre fencers can score with either the tip or the edge of the blade.

The sport is replete with diminutive Svengalis pacing on the sideline. Competitors clench fists after each point and display laser-like reflexes against their armor-clad opponents. The action resembles the fight scenes in "the Karate Kid," except on this night the hero had a blonde ponytail and off-the-wall sense of humor.

Zagunis took fencing up when she was 10 years old, after her brother got involved. Her parents, Cathy and Robert, both rowed for the United States in the Montreal Games in 1976 and began dating soon after.

No, Cathy said on Tuesday night, she and her husband had not planned to conceive an Olympian.

"We tried to give her all kinds of options to find her way," Cathy said, still emotional an hour after the bout. "I just can't believe this. It's just so exciting."

Zagunis sliced through a field of 32, advancing to the semifinals to face Romania's Gheorghitoaia. Lunging, scoring even as she retreated on the strip in which they competed, she built a 9-2 lead before winning 15-10.

"I think my fencing has changed a lot," she said. "I think a year or two ago, I was more of a fighter. I was crazy in my head, and I was fighting physically for everything instead of going and strategically fencing against an opponent, finding their weaknesses and destroying their strengths."

Zagunis then felt compelled in the mixed zone between media and athletes to break into her three-toed sloth impressions, which were rather good.

"I guess you could call me a little nutty," she said. "And yesterday, Emily Jacobson and I were walking around the village, and we saw an albino pigeon, and it was moving its head really weird, and I did an impression of that.

"We almost peed our pants. But anyway. You had to be there, I think."

Jacobson handled Leonore Perrus of France, 15-11, in the quarterfinals. Perrus had beaten Sada's sister, Emily, 15-13, in the round of 16, preventing the sisters from meeting each other. But Sara could not get past Tan in the semifinals, losing early leads and then her composure.

She sat stone-faced as Zagunis, who wasn't even originally named to the Olympic team, won her semifinal. Less than 90 minutes later, Sada gathered herself and came back to medal.

"I just wanted to go away after I lost," she said. "I didn't know how I going to get out of my funk. But I'm glad I did."

Zagunis, who deferred her admission to Notre Dame for a year, has a litany of international awards, but she got an Olympic berth only after a Nigerian fencer decided not to compete.

She'll go straight from Athens to South Bend, Ind., unsure whether her professors would understand missing the first week of school. But she said her new Athens souvenir might help excuse the absence.

"First gold medal since 1904?" she said. "That's one for the books."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company