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Medal of honor

Matt Lozar | Monday, August 30, 2004

The gold medal hung around her neck marking Mariel Zagunis as the best in the world at women’s saber. For the past 11 days, Zagunis’ life has changed because of that piece of jewelry, as it will for a long time. Doing five-question interviews with a seemingly unending number of NBC affiliates around the country, meeting Katie Couric on the Today show and visiting sponsors around Greece. Not being able to hang out in the Olympic Village with the other athletes, go shopping around Athens or tour the Acropolis. “Would I have rather not done as well and do all the stuff I wanted to do or win the gold medal and have all these press obligations,” Zagunis said. “It’s like a give and take. It was fine. I still had a good time.”Winning a gold medal will do that.But what Sunday morning’s press conference and photo shoot showed is it hasn’t changed who she really is.Her eyes lit up when mentioning meeting Andy Roddick (who lost in the third round of the men’s tennis competition) and a “couple other famous people.” Zagunis wanted to get on TV during the opening ceremonies. So she contrived the plan of walking next to the USA Basketball team, which was “really cool” and “it worked.” Zagunis rolled her eyes when mentioning this morning’s 8:30 a.m. swim test followed by a class in Hayes-Healy. During one moment in Athens, Zagunis even broke out her three-toed sloth impression. All of this attention has gone to someone who shouldn’t have even been in Athens.Zagunis deferred her enrollment to Notre Dame for a year to concentrate on making the Olympic team. In the final Olympic qualifying event, Zagunis needed to finish in first or second in a senior World Cup Event to make the Olympic team.She finished third.By one touch.”At first I was really devastated,” Zagunis said. “I put my entire life on hold to go make the Olympic team, and I miss it by one touch.”So that was kind of harsh.”Naturally, Zagunis and her mother Cathy (who was an Olympian along with her father in the 1976 Games) had a tough and “tearful” weekend.But she couldn’t lose her focus, there was a potential “loophole.”If any country declined its spot in the women’s sabre field, Zagunis would qualify as the highest-ranked fencer not going to Athens at that time.Nigeria declined, and now Zagunis has a big thank-you to send.And a big target on her back.Every collegiate fencer will want to knock off the Olympic champion, who will be only a college freshman and unknown to the team-oriented style of the NCAA Championships. “Talk about pressure. It’s okay. I’m just going to get back into it slowly,” Zagunis said. “You can’t win everything, but I’m sure going to try. People are going to be out to get me. I’m ready to fence and do my best.”Then there’s the issue of getting ready for Beijing in 2008. Zagunis acknowledged she might have to take time off to train because of the demanding Olympic training schedule. But she’s “got to go defend my title.”This time, Zagunis will be the famous person. And people will be standing next to her to get on TV.The opinions represented in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.Contact Matt Lozar at [email protected]