Mariel Zagunis was about 8 years old when she decided the sport that propelled her parents to the Olympics wasn’t for her.
Robert and Cathy Zagunis had met at the 1976 Olympic rowing trials and competed in Montreal. But when their young daughter climbed onto her dad’s rowing machine in the family’s home in Beaverton, Ore. (pop. 89,803), she balked at the intensity of the workout.
“It was not fun,” recalls Zagunis, now 27. “You’re just sitting there going back and forth and getting really tired.”
Soon, however, she found her own path to the Olympic Games—advancing and retreating on a fencing strip with a saber in hand.
America’s most decorated fencer and ranked No. 1 in the world, Zagunis earned Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008, and is a favorite to win again this summer in London.
She credits her parents, if not their sport, with setting her Olympic course. “I heard their stories and had seen their pictures,” she says. “Just knowing that they did it and it’s something that was a big part of their life, I knew that it was possible to make it a big part of mine.”
Zagunis discovered her passion at age 10, following older brother Marten who wanted to learn how to sword fight. A unique sport that demands lightning speed, physical strength and tactical prowess, fencing became the perfect fit for her muscular frame, innate coordination and competitive drive.
“I just love the feeling of working hard and putting all that you have on the line for a goal,” says Zagunis, a 5-foot-8 left-hander.
Unlike with the foil and epee—the sport’s other weapons—saber duelists use both the tip and edges of their blades to score rapid-fire points above the waist. The key is to stay ahead of adversaries in a battle of wits often compared to the game of chess.
Zagunis has become a master of the sport, parlaying her skill and hard work into a history-making career that includes earning 25 world championship medals, winning America’s first Olympic gold medal in fencing in a century, and being named athlete of the decade at the University of Notre Dame, where she majored in anthropology.
She is the top student at the Oregon Fencing Alliance, the Portland club that has produced a crop of fencing virtuosos, including 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Rebecca Ward.
“Mariel not only takes advantage of acquired skills and capabilities, but actively tries to raise their level,” says head coach Ed Korfanty, 60. “She also has an amazing psychological disposition like courage and self-confidence, independence and responsibility on the fencing strip. She believes she’s the best.”
During a recent training camp at the club’s gym, Zagunis and her national saber teammates donned the sport’s traditional white uniform topped with a lamé, an electrically conductive jacket that registers hits from blades.
Zagunis, who also was a high school soccer player, dances along the 6-by-46-foot strip with explosive strides—leaping, lunging and activating a flurry of lights as she lands strikes with her saber. The clashing steel drowns out voices as protégés practice alongside her.
“Mariel is definitely one of the best fencers,” says Olympic teammate Dagmara Wozniak, 23, of Avenel, N.J. “She’s really aggressive; she likes to attack.”
Pulling off her mask, her blond hair held back in a ponytail, her face damp from exertion, Zagunis knows she’s the one to beat in London.
“Before, it worked to my advantage to have people not pay so much attention to me,” says Zagunis, who was a last-minute addition to the 2004 Olympic team and posted a lackluster season before competing at the 2008 games, where she also earned a bronze medal for team fencing.
“But now it’s obviously a much different case,” she says. “I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve, though, that I’m looking to pull out. I’ll be ready for anything.”