Mariel Zagunis reflects on being flag bearer, looks at her top rival and 2016, 2020 (and 2024?)

Mariel Zagunis
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Mariel Zagunis, the most decorated fencer in U.S. history with two Olympic gold medals and two individual World Championships, is in a different position than at this point the last Olympic cycle.

In December 2010, Zagunis was the two-time reigning World champion and the reigning Olympic champion.

Now, Zagunis is the reigning World silver medalist and second-ranked sabre fencer in the world. No. 1 is Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan, the two-time reigning World champion who beat Zagunis in the 2012 Olympic bronze-medal match.

Most remember Zagunis for an incredible high at the London Olympics — as the U.S. flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony — and for a disappointment, moved to tears in losing in the sabre semifinals.

Zagunis, a 29-year-old Oregonian, is preparing to make what could be her fourth U.S. Olympic team. The qualifying window begins next spring. She’s competing this weekend at the New York Grand Prix, the first event of the 2014-15 season and largest combined Grand Prix in the sport’s history with more than 300 fencers.

She has the opportunity to win two medals in Rio de Janeiro, as the women’s team sabre event returns to the Olympic program after being cycled out for 2012 (fencing is allowed 10 Olympic events, even though there are traditionally 12 in the international program, meaning a men’s and women’s team event is cut each Olympics).

OlympicTalk caught up with Zagunis as she sat down for tea at the New York Athletic Club, overlooking Central Park, on Thursday.

OlympicTalk: Do you see yourself in more of an underdog role at this point than four years ago, when you were coming off 2008 Olympic gold and back-to-back World Championships?

Zagunis: I think the underdog boat sailed a long time ago. That’s a great thing for anybody to be in, because you have so much less pressure on yourself, but I have learned to adapt to the pressure that’s put on me and the expectations. I’ve been on both sides of the coin (being an Olympic rookie in 2004 and defending champion in 2008 and 2012).

Rio will definitely feel way different than London, because the tables have turned a little bit. I don’t mind being in any position at all, underdog or not.

OlympicTalk: After London, did you and your coach (Ed Korfanty) talk about making major adjustments, or did you say, well, that just didn’t work for us that one day.

Zagunis: Sport is really up and down. Some days, everything clicks and works out. Some days it doesn’t. Unfortunately for me, that was one day that didn’t pull through all the way. You learn from it. You move on. There’s nothing you can do from that point on except to try to get better and do everything you can to work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

OlympicTalk: Do you feel you’re a better fencer than going into the 2008 and 2012 Olympics?

Zagunis: It’s hard to gauge. I’m working every single day to get better and stronger, more diverse and have my repertoire grow so I can be unstoppable on the strip.

OlympicTalk: Has there been a point in your career where you’ve thought that you were unstoppable?

Zagunis: There’s been a few times where everything seems to click for a long period of time. But, just as in life, even more so in sport, things are bound to go up and down. You have to appreciate the high points and low points.

OlympicTalk: Tell me about Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan, who you seem to face at every major competition.

Zagunis: She and I are Nos. 1 and 2 and the world, so if both of us are fencing well in a competition, we’re always going to run into each other for the gold medal. We’re friends as much as we can be off of the strip. I feel like we’re very cordial and that we’re friends, but at the same time we live across the world from each other. So it’s not like we can be best friends and hang out all the time, which I don’t think I would want anyway because she is one of my major competitors.

Video: Zagunis falls to Kharlan in 2014 Worlds final, wins silver

OlympicTalk: What types of conversations, interactions have you had with her? Does she speak English well?

Zagunis: She speaks English. I don’t think she’d be able to sit down and have an interview; she’s a little too shy with her English for that, but we have conversations off of the strip. She got me a wedding gift (in September 2013). I got her a wedding gift (in November).

OlympicTalk: What did you get each other?

Zagunis: I got her an engraved picture frame. She got me a really nice bottle of Ukrainian vodka (laughs).

OlympicTalk: Are you constantly watching film of Kharlan?

Zagunis: We all watch film of each other. That’s part of the tricky thing about fencing is that there are no secrets. Once you get on the strip, it’s almost like I have all the information about you that I could ever want. The same goes for you against me. It comes down to a battle of minds, really.

OlympicTalk: What do you remember about being the London Olympic Opening Ceremony flag bearer?

Zagunis: It was such an out-of-body experience. Even to this day, when I look back at pictures and videos, I can’t believe that was me.

The Italian women’s foil fencer, (six-time Olympic champion Valentina) Vezzali, was elected for her country. She has always been one of my idols. So to be able to have that experience at the same time she was having it was a really great honor. I’m rarely able to compare myself to her, because I do look up at her a lot. To have that on both of our records now is really cool. It’s another thing to share with her and be connected with her.

OlympicTalk: What about the actual walk with the flag on the track at Olympic Stadium?

Zagunis: I kind of looked at the crowd, but the lighting was really weird. You couldn’t see people. I think the lighting on the chairs really drowned out all of the people. So when I walked in and looked around, it almost felt like the whole stadium was empty, because I couldn’t see any people. I could see the performers and everybody that was on the ground. I was looking around and just kind of smiling and waving. On top of having this out-of-body experience, I couldn’t find a familiar face. It was really strange.

OlympicTalk: They sped up the pace of the Parade of Nations in London. Did you notice that?

Zagunis: Right before we walked through the tunnel, there was a woman carrying the United States (sign in front of the delegation). She said, “Follow me and keep with my pace.” I was like, OK, no big deal. Then she just took off. I was like, oh my gosh. I had to be calm and collected and remember to wave and keep my flag straight. At the same time, I felt like I was power walking.

OlympicTalk: If your event in London was on the first day of the Games (as in Beijing, when she opted not to walk in the Opening Ceremony as most athletes in that position do), but you also could have been the flag bearer, what would you have done?

Zagunis: I would have told (fencing teammate) Tim (Morehouse) not to nominate me (the process for choosing a flag bearer includes nominees from different sports). For gymnasts and swimmers, where they have multiple events and even sometimes competing before the Opening Ceremony, their (national governing body) doesn’t nominate them. It just makes sense.

OlympicTalk: You get the sabre team event back in the Olympics in 2016. What does that mean to you?

Zagunis: Our international federation has been continuing to fight to get all of the medals we need. It’s been a really hard struggle for them to convince the IOC that we need these medals. It’s not like we’re adding events. We just want to be equal with men and women, for each weapon to have their team events that they deserve.

It’s long overdue. Of course, having won World Championships this year with our team, being ranked No. 1 in the world, we’re setting ourselves up really, really well to have a great position to win a medal, a gold medal, in Rio.

OlympicTalk: What about Tokyo 2020?

Zagunis: It’s one thing at a time. Right now, the immediate path I’m in is the New York Grand Prix. … It’s always something that’s on my mind. Whether it’s the Grand Prix this weekend, whether it’s World Championships (in 2015), whether it’s the Olympics in a year and a half or whether it’s the Olympics in five years, you always have to be setting those goals and setting the bar higher and higher. I’m not going to rule it out.

OlympicTalk: If you’re thinking 2020, what if the U.S. gets to host the 2024 Olympics?

Zagunis: (Smiles) Then it’s like, well I have to do that (compete in a sixth Olympics in 2024). Who knows, maybe I’ll change my perspective. But I think Tokyo, if anything, will be a lot of fun. At that point, I’ll be doing it mainly for fun anyway.

‘Foxcatcher’ racks up Golden Globe, SAG nominations

Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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Marie-Philip Poulin is first female hockey player to win Canada Athlete of the Year

Marie-Philip Poulin
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Marie-Philip Poulin became the first female hockey player to win Canada’s Athlete of the Year after captaining the national team at the Winter Olympics and winning her third gold medal.

Poulin, 31, scored twice and assisted once in Canada’s 3-2 win over the U.S. in the Olympic final on Feb. 17. She has scored seven of Canada’s 10 goals over the last four Olympic finals dating to the 2010 Vancouver Games — all against the U.S.

Nine different male hockey players won Canada Athlete of the Year — now called the Northern Star Award — since its inception in 1936, led by Wayne Gretzky‘s four titles. Sidney Crosby won it in 2007 and 2009, and Carey Price was the most recent in 2015.

Poulin is the fifth consecutive Olympic champion to win the award in an Olympic year after bobsledder Kaillie Humphries in 2014, swimmer Penny Oleksiak in 2016, moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury in 2018 and decathlete Damian Warner in 2021.

Canada’s other gold medalists at February’s Olympics were snowboarder Max Parrot in slopestyle, plus teams in speed skating’s women’s team pursuit and short track’s men’s 5000m relay.

In men’s hockey, Cale Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP in leading the Colorado Avalanche to the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy as the season’s best defenseman.

The Northern Star Award is annually decided by Canadian sports journalists.

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