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ATHENS 2004

Sabre-Rattling Victory

Mariel Zagunis of U.S. makes fencing history with the first sabre gold. Teammate Sada Jacobson takes the bronze.

August 18, 2004|Helene Elliott | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The first women's Olympic sabre fencing champion has a long blond ponytail, an irrepressible smile and the quickness and guts of a cat burglar.

She also has a remarkable story to tell.

"It's one for the history books now," Mariel Zagunis said, wide-eyed in wonder after her bold 15-9 triumph over Tan Xue of China led a one-three U.S. medal finish at the Helliniko Fencing Hall.

It's a remarkable tale, because Zagunis nearly didn't go to Athens.

The 19-year-old from Portland, Ore., thought she'd missed a spot in the Olympic tournament after she lost to compatriot Sada Jacobson in the semifinals of a World Cup tournament in Italy in March. Her only hope was that someone who had qualified might pull out of the Games, but her chances seemed so tenuous that U.S. fencing officials hedged their bets.

"They took the Olympic team picture and then they were like, 'OK, Mariel, you come out of this one, just in case you don't make the team,' " she said. "And I'm, like, aw, sad.

"But I'm glad that they took one with me in it because now I have one."

And after her victory over Tan, ranked fourth in the world, Zagunis also has a shiny gold medal. It's the first by a U.S. fencer since 1904 and first medal of any kind since Peter Westbrook won an individual sabre bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Zagunis' victory and top-ranked Sada Jacobson's bronze-medal finish represented the first time two U.S. fencers had medaled in the same Games in a century.

"Hopefully, this will give fencing an increasing amount of publicity," said Jacobson, who lost to Tan in the semifinals and had about an hour to regroup before she defeated Catalina Gheorghitoaia of Romania for the bronze medal, 15-7.

"This is not what I expected, from the beginning," added Jacobson, a resident of Dunwoody, Ga. "It's been an interesting experience. I'm so proud to have medaled and I'm very proud of Mariel."

Zagunis' parents, Cathy and Robert, competed on the U.S. rowing team at the 1976 Montreal Games, and she became the family's third Olympian in June, after Nigeria's Jacqueline Esimaje pulled out of the Games. That left the African region without a representative, but because there were no other ranked African fencers to take Esimaje's place -- and because Zagunis' world ranking had improved to No. 6 after she won a World Cup event in Germany -- Zagunis got the berth because she was the highest-ranked fencer who hadn't already qualified for Athens.

"I couldn't ask for more," said Zagunis, who graduated from high school a year ago and deferred her enrollment at Notre Dame to train for the Olympics. "It feels great. It feels wonderful. The entire experience of the Olympic Games has been incredible."

Perhaps because she wasn't expected to be in Athens, she had little pressure and even less publicity. Most of the attention centered on sisters Sada and Emily Jacobson, even though Zagunis was a member of the U.S. women's team that won the world sabre championship in 2000 and she'd won various titles at the cadet and junior levels.

Happily working at her own pace, Zagunis delivered a series of outstanding efforts against a variety of opponents. She was wielding the sabre -- a lighter and more flexible version of the traditional military weapon -- with agility, grace and intelligence, using her own strong attack to balance Tan's strong attacks. The sabre is faster than the foil or epee, and fencers can score using the tip or edge of the blade to touch the body above the bend in the hips and including the head.

Zagunis maintained her poise in her semifinal bout against a fast-closing Gheorghitoaia and again in the final, when Tan repeatedly pumped her fist in apparent efforts to sway the referees into agreeing that she'd won the point.

"Mariel was happy to be here and that's probably why she fenced so great. Sada was expected to win. For her, the silver would have been a loss," U.S. team captain Jeffrey Bukantz said.

"When the Nigerian pulled out, [Zagunis] was playing with the casino's money. She came in under the radar and the stars aligned. She was in an easier bracket, but this is the best I've seen her fence."

Jacobson was the favorite based on her No. 1 world ranking, and her younger sister, Emily, also was deemed a possible medalist. But Emily lost in the round of 16 on Tuesday and Sada lost to Tan, 15-12, in the semifinals after building a 9-7 lead.

Sada Jacobson and Tan were tied 12-12 when Tan switched to a new weapon and promptly scored a point on a touch, turning the match in her favor. "It was a great parry and riposte," said Jacobson, who took a leave of absence from Yale to train for the Games. "I was psychologically devastated."

Fencing for the bronze medal, she said, "was surreal. At first I didn't want to even do it, but I'm just so glad I had an opportunity to do it."

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