Mariel Zagunis

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

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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.

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2020 Tour de France standings

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2020 Tour de France results for the yellow jersey, green jersey, white jersey and polka-dot jersey …

Overall (Yellow Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 87:20:05
2. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — +:59
3. Richie Porte (AUS) — +3:30
4. Mikel Landa (ESP) — +5:58
5. Enric Mas (ESP) — +6:07
6. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — +6:47
7. Tom Dumoulin (NED) — +7:48
8. Rigberto Uran (COL) — +8:02
9. Adam Yates (GBR) — +9:25
10. Damiano Caruso (ITA) — +14:03
13. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — +25:53
15. Sepp Kuss (USA) — +42:20
17. Nairo Quintana (COL) — +1:03:07
29. Thibaut Pinot (FRA) — +1:59:54
36. Julian Alaphilippe (FRA) — +2:19:11
DNF. Egan Bernal (COL)

Sprinters (Green Jersey)
1. Sam Bennett (IRL) — 380 points
2. Peter Sagan (SVK) — 284
3. Matteo Trentin (ITA) — 260
4. Bryan Coquard (FRA) — 181
5. Wout van Aert (BEL) — 174

Climbers (Polka-Dot Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 82 points
2. Richard Carapaz (ECU) — 74
3. Primoz Roglic (SLO) — 67
4. Marc Hirschi (SUI) — 62
5. Miguel Angel Lopez (COL) — 51

Young Rider (White Jersey)
1. Tadej Pogacar (SLO) — 87:20:13
2. Enric Mas (ESP) — +6:07
3. Valentin Madouas (FRA) — +1:42:43
4. Dani Martinez (COL) — +1:55:12
5. Lennard Kamna (GER) — +2:15:39

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TOUR DE FRANCE: TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage | Favorites, Predictions

Tadej Pogacar, Slovenia win Tour de France for the ages

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A Tour de France that almost didn’t happen ended up among the most exciting in the race’s 117-year history.

Tadej Pogacar, a 21-year-old Slovenian, rode into Paris on Sunday as the first man in more than 60 years to pedal in the yellow jersey for the first time on the final day of a Tour.

Let’s get the achievements out of the way: Pogacar is the first Slovenian to win the Tour, finishing with the other overall leaders behind stage winner Sam Bennett on the Champs-Elysees.

“Even if I would come second or last, it wouldn’t matter, it would be still nice to be here,” Pogacar said. “This is just the top of the top. I cannot describe this feeling with the words.”

He is the second-youngest winner in race history, after Henri Cornet in 1904. (Cornet won after the first four finishers were disqualified for unspecified cheating. The 19-year-old Frenchman rode 21 miles with a flat tire during the last stage after spectators reportedly threw nails on the road.)

Pogacar is the first man to win a Tour in his debut since Frenchman Laurent Fignon in 1983.

And he’s part of a historic one-two for Slovenia, a nation with the population of Houston.

Countryman Primoz Roglic, who wore the yellow jersey for nearly two weeks before ceding it after Saturday’s epic time trial, embraced Pogacar after a tearful defeat Saturday and again during Sunday’s stage.

Tasmanian Richie Porte, who moved from fourth place to third on Saturday, made his first Tour podium in his 10th start, a record according to ProCyclingStats.com. The age range on the Paris gloaming podium — more than 13 years — is reportedly the largest in Tour history.

TOUR DE FRANCE: Standings | TV, Stream Schedule | Stage By Stage

Three men on a Tour de France podium in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, each for the first time. Hasn’t been done since 2007, arguably the first Tour of a new era.

This Tour feels similarly guard-changing.

It barely got off, delayed two months by the coronavirus pandemic. Two days before the start, France’s prime minister said the virus was “gaining ground” in the nation and announced new “red zones” in the country, including parts of the Tour route.

Testing protocols meant that if any team had two members (cyclists or staff) test positive before the start or on either rest day, the whole team would be thrown out.

It never came to that. Yet the Tour finishes without 2019 champion, Colombian Egan Bernal, who last year became the first South American winner and, at the time, the youngest in more than 100 years.

Bernal abandoned last Wednesday after struggling in the mountains. His standings plummet signaled the end, at least for now, of the Ineos Grenadiers dynasty after five straight Tour titles dating to Chris Froome and the Team Sky days.

Jumbo-Visma became the new dominant team. The leader Roglic was ushered up climbs by several Jumbo men, including Sepp Kuss, the most promising American male cyclist in several years.

What a story Roglic was shaping up to be. A junior champion ski jumper, he was concussed in a training crash on the eve of what would have been his World Cup debut in 2007. Roglic never made it to the World Cup before quitting and taking up cycling years later.

As Roglic recovered from that spill in Planica, Pogacar had his sights on the Rog Ljubljana cycling club about 60 miles east. Little Tadej wanted to follow older brother Tilen into bike racing, but the club didn’t have a bike small enough.

The following spring, they found one. Pogacar was off and pedaling. In 2018, at age 18, he was offered a contract and then signed with UAE Team Emirates, his first World Tour team. The next year, Pogacar finished third at the Vuelta a Espana won by Roglic, becoming the youngest Grand Tour podium finisher since 1974.

Pogacar was initially slated to support another rider, Fabio Aru, for UAE Emirates at this year’s Tour. But his continued ascent propelled him into a team leader role.

Bernal and Roglic entered the Tour as co-favorites. After that, Pogacar was among a group of podium contenders but perhaps with the highest ceiling.

He stayed with the favorites for much of the Tour, save losing 81 seconds on the seventh stage, caught on the wrong end of a split after a crash in front of him.

“I’m not worried,” Pogacar said that day. “We will try another day.”

The next day, actually. He reeled back half of the lost time, putting him within striking distance of Roglic going into Saturday’s 22-mile time trial, the so-called “race of truth.”

Pogacar put in a performance in the time trial that reminded of Greg LeMond‘s epic finale in 1989. Pogacar won the stage by 81 seconds, greater than the margin separating second place from eighth place. Roglic was a disappointing fifth on the day, but he could have finished second and still lost all of his 57-second lead to Pogacar.

Pogacar turns 22 on Monday, but that might not add much to the celebration.

“Sorry,” he said, “but I’m not really a fan of my birthdays.”

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