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Former Irish standout bears flag in London

Sam Stryker | Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Two Olympic gold medals. Two World Championship titles. Three consecutive Junior World Cup Championship titles. For Mariel Zagunis, a former member of the Notre Dame fencing team, her list of accomplishments is nothing to shake a sword at.

But this summer, Zagunis added perhaps the most significant accolade of all to her already sterling resume – flag bearer for Team USA at the Opening Ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics.

Zagunis, who competed in the women’s sabre event, said in a phone interview last week that carrying the flag at the head of the United States delegation was the highlight of her London Games.

“I am still trying to wrap my mind around how big of a deal that was,” Zagunis said. “I think it is not going to hit me for a couple more weeks probably until I look back on my experiences. It is something I am never going to forget.

“It was a huge honor, and I cannot imagine a greater privilege. It is definitely something I am going to tell my kids and my grandkids about.”

Zagunis said carrying the flag for the powerhouse Team USA was an “honor and a privilege,” accentuated by the high-profile nature of the delegation.

“To be chosen as the sole face of Team USA walking into the Opening Ceremonies, which billions of people watched on TV, is incredible,” she said. “We are the most looked-at team. To be the face of that team was a huge honor for me.”

Representatives from each sport met two nights before the Opening Ceremonies to select Team USA’s flag bearer. Zagunis said she knew she might be the fencing delegation’s nominee. She was in a deadlock with another athlete during the final four rounds of voting before another member of Team USA decided to change their vote at the behest of fencing representative Tim Morehouse.

“There are so many great athletes on our team, so I am really not that surprised that it was a difficult decision,” she said. “Because there are so many great athletes, it makes it that much more special.”

In the sabre competition, Zagunis lost in the semifinals to Kim Jiyeon of South Korea and then the bronze medal match to Olga Kharlan of Ukraine, walking away without a medal after winning back-to-back golds in Athens and Beijing. For Zagunis, failing to medal was a tough pill to swallow.

“Looking back, what I was trying to accomplish by winning [the women’s sabre] three times in a row is not an easy feat,” she said. “I felt positive and confident that I was going to do it, but looking back on it, of course I am disappointed.”

Despite her fourth-place finish, Zagunis will use her experience in London to drive her training for the 2016 Games to be held in Rio de Janeiro.

“All in all, it’s not the end of the world,” she said. “I still have a lot of fire in me, and now I have a lot of motivation towards Rio. I’m looking at it as giving a lot of fuel to my fire for the next four years.”

Zagunis took a year off prior to her freshman year at Notre Dame to train for the 2004 Olympics. A resident of Pasquerilla East Hall and anthropology major, she said the University was “immediately supportive” of her Olympic aspirations.

“They were even more proud I came to freshman year as a gold medalist,” she said. “I think throughout my time at Notre Dame, everyone there from teachers, staff, people in my dorm to my classmates, my teammates on the fencing team – everyone was 100 percent supportive of me before, during and after.”

Five members of the Team USA fencing team were former or current members of the Notre Dame squad. Zagunis said the fact so many world-class fencers look to compete for the University speaks to Notre Dame’s reputation as both an athletic and academic institution.

“It says a lot about the place, about the school, about the sport that they are able to provide for these Olympic athletes,” she said. “We are competing at a high level, and to have high level competition, high level training and a high level education all in one is a really unique situation.”

Even though she took a leave of absence prior to the 2008 Olympics and has not returned to Notre Dame, Zagunis said she still feels connected to the University.

“I couldn’t ask for a better situation, because I know it could be very different,” she said. “My time there was amazing, and having the ability to still have those Notre Dame connections and still have that support has always been special to me, and I really appreciate it.”

Zagunis said she is thankful for this continuing relationship with the Fighting Irish community.

“It’s a big part of my career,” she said. “There are a lot of things you sometimes wonder ‘What if?’ But I never wondered with Notre Dame. I know that it is a big part of my life, and I am glad it is there.”

Though she has not completed her undergraduate degree, Zagunis said doing so remains a goal of hers. While balancing high-level training with school is difficult, she has taken summer classes at Notre Dame and in Portland, Ore., where she trains in the hopes of completing her degree soon.

“I’m definitely hoping to get that diploma within the next few years and have that ‘ND’ on it.”


Contact Sam Stryker at sstryke1@nd.edu