Striking Gold – Boston Globe 08/18/2004

Striking gold – Historic fencing win for Zagunis; bronze to Jacobson
By Tony Chamberlain, Boston Globe Staff

ATHENS — There’s a tradition in fencing that an Olympic champion gets thrown in the air by teammates. Not that the United States knows too much about that tradition, since it’s been 100 years since they won a gold in the sport at the Games. But that all changed last night at the Helleniko Sports Center as members of the US men’s team stormed the fencing strip and tossed 19-year-old Mariel Zagunis high into the air after she beat former world champion Tan Xue of China to win the first Olympic women’s individual sabre competition.

Striking gold Historic fencing win for Zagunis; bronze to Jacobson

By Tony Chamberlain, Globe Staff  |  August 18, 2004

ATHENS — There’s a tradition in fencing that an Olympic champion gets thrown in the air by teammates.

Not that the United States knows too much about that tradition, since it’s been 100 years since they won a gold in the sport at the Games. But that all changed last night at the Helleniko Sports Center as members of the US men’s team stormed the fencing strip and tossed 19-year-old Mariel Zagunis high into the air after she beat former world champion Tan Xue of China to win the first Olympic women’s individual sabre competition.

Zagunis not only won the first gold in a century, but she took home the first medal of any kind for the US fencers since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

And then to sweeten the pot, the bronze medal was picked off by 21-year-old Sada Jacobson, a Yale student who came into these Games ranked No. 1 in the world in the new discipline of individual sabre — an event that emphasizes quickness both in offense and counterattack.

As ecstatic as the US teams and fans were, yesterday’s action did not go quite according to script. Most bets were on Jacobson to medal, and even to take the gold, but she ran into a tough match against Tan in the first round of the semifinals, and had to beat Romania’s Catalina Gheorghitoaia in the bronze round — something she accomplished with ease.

In the gold medal match, Zagunis faced Tan, who had rallied to dispatch Jacobson in a stunning struggle. But Zagunis, who nearly did not make the Olympic team and was the last invited to Athens, took command of the match early and didn’t let up.

Zagunis mixed up her defensive and offensive approaches early in jumping to a 9-2 lead. But Tan made a run and with the score 10-6, and the momentum in danger of shifting against her, Zagunis took back control and ran out the string to a decisive 15-9 win.

“I felt so good,” said the Beaverton, Ore., native who is headed for her first classes at Notre Dame next week. “I felt I had the ability and I felt I’m going to win this. I’m just so ecstatic right now . . . I’m not saying it was easy or that it looked easy, but I just know it went fast. It went really, really fast. I know it seems like kind of a blur but I can look back and remember what I was doing at every moment. I was aware of everything going on every second.”

Because of a regional element in choosing the Olympic squad, Zagunis nearly didn’t make it to Athens. She was chosen last and largely overlooked by the media, she says, because of the focus on Jacobson and Jacobson’s sister, Emily, who could have squared off in the Games. But Emily lost in the qualification rounds.

“Mariel had been flying under the radar screen for a long time,” said team captain Jeff Bukantz who arranged the scene of having her tossed in celebration. “And so there was less pressure on her for sure. But no one realized that she was fourth ranked in the world, and so she has always been someone to watch.”

According to Bagantz, the emergence of such a strong women’s team and the winning of two medals signals a new era in this once European-dominated sport.

“We’ve just taken an immense step forward,” said Bagantz. “It’s happened because we start fencers earlier, we get them to Europe earlier, and they’re ready to compete with countries where the sport has always been strong.”

When Tan began to chip away at Zagunis’s lead in the gold medal round, Bagantz admitted to having some trepidation.

“Of course when [Tan] got three touches in a row I was thinking `Uh-oh, can she stop the bleeding?’ but then she got control. This was just Mariel’s day. She never imploded.”

Sada Jacobson, who was the first US woman and second US fencer ever ranked No. 1 in the world, said she was only mildly disappointed in missing her shot at the gold.

“As far as I’m concerned, I won an Olympic medal, and just to be competing at the Olympics is an honor,” she said. “So to win a medal and be part of this night with our team is just a fantastic experience. I’m honored.”

Said Zagunis, “I feel I had a better plan; I had in mind what I wanted to do and there was less pressure on me. And as the match went on, I adjusted the way I had to. It was just all there for me today.”

In men’s epee competition, Soren Thompson of San Diego upset No. 2 seed Alfredo Rota of Italy to reach the quarterfinals, where he lost to Russia’s Pavel Kolobkov, the 2000 gold medalist. Marcel Fischer of Switzerland won the gold, defeating Wang Lei of China, 15-9.