Mariel Zagunis

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

Leave a comment

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

Mo Farah focused on Chicago Marathon defense, not ruling out 10,000m double

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Mo Farah said all of his training focus is on defending his Chicago Marathon title on Oct. 13, but the British star also said Tuesday that he can wait until “the last minute” to change his mind and also enter the world championships 10,000m on Oct. 6.

“I am a reigning world champion, so I do get an automatic spot anyway,” Farah said of the 10,000m, where he is a three-time reigning world champion.

Farah transitioned to road racing after the 2017 season and was thought to be done with major track championships. Farah was the distance king for more than a half-decade, sweeping the 5000m and 10,000m at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

Farah said Tuesday that he didn’t know what the deadline would be to enter the world championships 10,000m.

“I really don’t know. I think the last minute,” he said. “As I said, I get an automatic spot anyway. I don’t know. My main target is to defend my [marathon] title, come out to Chicago. All the training is geared toward the marathon.”

An IAAF spokesperson said Farah must be entered as part of the British team by Sept. 16 to be eligible for worlds.

British Athletics said Wednesday that its team will be selected Sept. 2.

“Should Mo wish to race the 10,000m in Doha, he would need to advise the selection panel prior to this date,” a spokesperson said.

Farah enticed his followers about the 10,000m in a July 27 Instagram with the hashtag #doha10k, referencing the site of world championships in Qatar. Farah was asked Tuesday why he included the hashtag.

“Anything is possible,” he said. “I’m a reigning champion. I get an automatic spot. There’s nothing I have to do. I just thought why not?”

It’s not an unprecedented type of move to race a 10,000m one week before a marathon. Former training partner Galen Rupp placed fifth in the 2016 Olympic 10,000m on Aug. 13, then took bronze in the marathon on Aug. 21.

Farah said he hasn’t set any major racing plans beyond Chicago. He finished what he called a disappointing fifth in the London Marathon in 2:05.39 on April 28, three minutes behind winner Eliud Kipchoge. Farah said a satisfying result in Chicago would be a win above worrying about a specific time. The last man to repeat as Chicago champ was Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru in 2010.

The 2020 London Marathon is three and a half months before the Tokyo Olympic marathon, a tight turnaround.

“I think I can get back in form for the London Marathon before the Olympics, and then the Olympics, I guess, but I haven’t decided,” Farah said. “My main target now is just Chicago, then work from there.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Eliud Kipchoge likens next shot at two-hour marathon to moon landing

Race Imboden, Gwen Berry get probation for Pan Am Games podium protests

Getty Images
1 Comment

DENVER (AP) — The letter went to the two protesters. The message was meant for a much wider audience.

The CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee sent letters of reprimand to hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden for protesting on the medals stand last week at the Pan American Games, but the 12-month probations that came with the letters also included a none-too-subtle signal for anyone vying for next year’s Olympics.

“It is also important for me to point out that, going forward, issuing a reprimand to other athletes in a similar instance is insufficient,” Sarah Hirshland wrote in the letters sent Tuesday. The Associated Press obtained copies of the documents.

Neither Berry’s raised fist nor Imboden’s kneel-down on the Pan Am medals stand were met with immediate consequences, in part because they happened at the tail end of the Games that were wrapping up in Lima, Peru.

Hirshland’s letter was as clear a sign as possible that athletes who try the same next year in Tokyo could face a different reaction.

It’s the IOC’s role to discipline athletes who break rules that forbid political protest at the Olympics — much the way the IOC triggered the ouster of John Carlos and Tommie Smith after their iconic protest in 1968 — though national federations can get into the mix, too. Before going to the Olympics, athletes sign forms stating they’re aware of the rules and won’t break them.

“We recognize that we must more clearly define for Team USA athletes what a breach of these rules will mean in the future,” Hirshland wrote. “Working with the (athletes and national governing body councils), we are committed to more explicitly defining what the consequences will be for members of Team USA who protest at future Games.”

Neither athlete immediately returned messages sent to them by AP via their social media accounts and agents.

Both will be eligible for the Olympics next summer, when the United States will be in the heat of a presidential campaign.

In a tweet sent shortly after his team’s medals ceremony at the Pan Am Games, Imboden said: “Racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate are at the top of a long list” of issues that need to be addressed.

Berry said she was protesting social injustice in America, and that it was “too important to not say something.”

Hirshland said she respected the perspectives of the athletes and would work with the IOC “to engage on a global discussion on these matters.”

“However, we can’t ignore the rules or the reasons they exist,” she wrote.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Top coach investigated by USA Gymnastics, report says