What would your life be like if you'd won two gold medals?
Appearances can be deceiving.
Just look at two-time Olympic gold-medal fencing champion Mariel Zagunis.
To the casual observer, Zagunis is all sweetness and light.
Tall and fit from years of arduous training, Zagunis showed up for her interview in a stylish gray T-shirt with orange logo, form-fitting blue jeans, a Notre Dame national championship ring on her right hand, and a delicate gold necklace—a necklace sporting a small medal emblematic of her two Olympic golds—around her neck.
Along with her blue-gray eyes and megawatt smile, Zagunis’ entire look was capped, as always, by her signature long blond hair, this day trailing in gentle curls to the middle of her back.
It’s a look that can sell Cheerios, lead parades, grace magazine covers or greet young admirers.
But looks can, indeed, be deceiving.
Oh sure, Zagunis is all the things listed above. But she’s also more than her appearance suggests. Much, much more.
Beneath her angelic exterior and calm “I can handle any situation” demeanor, Zagunis is a stone-cold killer on the fencing strip.
She’s the ultimate sleeper agent, soft, sweet and beautiful on the outside, ready to share quality time with friends back home, work through classes at Notre Dame or shake hands with dignitaries.
But when competition begins and it’s time for action, Zagunis is as focused as a tiger stalking her ultimately doomed prey.
“There can only be one number one,” she says. “I’m always trying to improve on myself. I’m always trying to get better. There’s always something to work on.”
It makes sense, too, when you think about it, because Zagunis, now 25, has been one of the world’s best female sabre fencers for a very long time. She started winning Cadet and Junior World Championships almost a decade ago, and set records for success at that level. She then carried that momentum into open competition and dominated again, winning every women’s sabre title that fencing has to offer. Further, she won an NCAA individual title for Notre Dame in 2006 and helped lead the Fighting Irish to an NCAA team championship in 2005.
But all that success comes at a price.
Zagunis’ life is not that of your average twenty-something. Currently on hiatus from her senior year at Notre Dame—where’s she’s nearing a degree in anthropology—while training for yet another appearance at the World Championships, Zagunis shares a house with a roommate in her hometown of Beaverton, Ore., a suburb-heavy bedroom community of 100,000 located west of Portland.
But unlike many of her peers, Zagunis isn’t involved in any serious romantic relationships, rarely has time for clubs and dancing and certainly doesn’t have what would be considered a traditional full-time job or college life.
“It’s challenging on many levels,” she says of trying to establish relationships in a life filled with world travel and time away from home. “But it’s something I’m sure other elite athletes can relate to.”
So what about it? What’s it like to walk a mile in Zagunis’ shoes?
On a normal day between competitions, Zagunis starts each weekday with a one-on-one practice with longtime coach Ed Korfanty of the Oregon Fencing Alliance, then follows that with a lengthy cross-training session. Early afternoons are spent on interviews, errands and other moments of ordinary life, but after that, it’s off to physical therapy to care for the bumps, bruises, aches and tweaks that come with top-level physical performance. And finally, she’s back for yet another practice session before returning home for a late dinner at 8:00 p.m.
“It’s very regimented,” Zagunis says. “It’s three very intense workouts a day, but I can’t complain about it. I love it. I’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to do what I love to do, and do it at a high level for a long time. And I’m going to do it as long as I can. I hope I can keep doing it for a long, long time.”
There are moments, however few, for rest and relaxation, and Zagunis says she likes to get outside as much as possible on weekends and enjoys hiking in and around Portland. When stuck indoors during northwest Oregon’s copious rainy season, Zagunis has taken to cooking as a new passion.
Through all of it, though, it is Zagunis’ full-fledged dedication to, and love for, her chosen sport of sabre fencing that has kept her on top for so long.
“It takes a lot of sacrifice, not having a normal high school or college experience,” she admits, “but I’m okay with that. Like I said, there can only be one number one.”
And part of being the world’s best woman sabre fencer, Zagunis has learned, is that she lives her competitive life with a bull’s-eye painted squarely on her back.
She never enters a competition as the underdog. She never flies under the radar. There is no tournament, nor even a single bout, where she doesn’t see an opponent’s best effort.
That situation leads even the world’s best sabre fencer to sometimes fall short.
“You can’t win them all. I’ve learned that. You can’t be perfect all the time,” Zagunis says. “But it’s not all about winning. I want to feel like I fenced well, and I’ve learned a lot more from the tournaments I haven’t won than from those I’ve won.”
That said, Zagunis is—like any elite athlete—extremely focused on winning. It shows in her tournament record. It shows in her workouts and dedicated schedule, and it shows in the ever-growing award collection that already includes two Summer Olympic gold medals, a World Championship trophy, and a host of other medals and baubles.
Along the way, she’s learned the necessities of extreme dedication and commitment, mental toughness and the ability to focus on minute details.
“People don’t understand that (fencing is) so mental,” she says. “With my opponents, it’s all about who can outthink the other one. A lot of my training goes into being physically prepared, but a lot of it goes toward being mentally prepared, too.
“Our game is a game of millimeters and milliseconds. That’s how you learn and grow, and it carries over into life.”
There are, however, some perks to being a two-time Olympic champion, and Zagunis tries to relish and appreciate them when they happen. While the extraordinary moments that have come with Olympic gold have been too many to count, she particularly remembers her appearance with other U.S. gold medal winners on the Oprah Winfrey Show (“It was just amazing to meet her,” Zagunis says) after the Beijing Olympics, her two appearances on the Today show, and her chance to light the flame at the Montana State Games, memorable because she’d had to forgo the opening ceremonies in Beijing to prepare for competition.
Further, her own celebrity has given her insight into America’s fascination with celebrity, and at the same time, helped keep her own experience in perspective.
“My notion of celebrity has changed. Now I feel different when I meet a celebrity,” she says, mentioning Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone as two of the most famous people her own star status has allowed her to meet. “I don’t get starstruck. I know they’re a person just like me.”
Keeping her own sense of self, a sense of self based on who she was before she struck Olympic gold, has become an increasingly important part of Zagunis’ life.
“I never got recognized before the Olympics,” she says. “Now I get recognized more and I have to talk about fencing more, but I’m still me. I feel like I’m still the same person.
“Sure I think about the Olympics sometimes because I get asked about it a lot, but I don’t think about the medals. I don’t take them out and look at them. I’ve learned how to deal with it over the past six years.”
Having a close core of friends who’ve known her since well before her Olympic glories plays a key role in that process, too.
“I have my fencing life and I have my personal life,” she says. “I have friends who I’ve known for so long, and that’s who I hang out with. That’s who I vacation with, and we don’t talk about fencing and that’s something I’m grateful for.”
With all she’s accomplished, though, Zagunis remains far from satisfied, and far, far away from the end of her competitive career. While she’s given some thought to post-fencing life—she may make use of her anthropology degree, or she may move into media or athlete relations—she remains as focused as ever on setting the bar high every day and then leaping clear over it.
“Even though I’ve already won everything, I can still win Worlds again. I can win the Olympics again. I can set new goals,” Zagunis says. “Nothing is out of my reach.”
And if she loses?
“Sometimes it’s okay to lose,” she adds. “That gives them a chance to think they can be number one, and that’s when I step back in and win again.”