CALGARY, August 4, 2012 — On August 1, 2012, American sabre fencer Mariel Zagunis failed to win what would have been her third straight gold medal in the Olympics in the individual women’s sabre event. In the end, she failed to win any medal at all, dropping back-to-back bouts to finish fourth.
When it was all over, after nine years of complete dominance, Olympic titles, world titles, and number one rankings, it all crashed to a halt. She confronted her emotions and honestly told the gathered reporters how her day had come undone.
“I pretty much handed it to her,” Zagunis said, referencing her semifinal loss to eventual gold medalist Kim Ji-yeon of South Korea.
Expanding on that point, she proceeded to describe exactly what is on the mind of every fencer when a huge lead is erased in a heartbeat. “She [Ji-yeon] didn’t beat me, I beat myself. That’s pretty much how the bouts that I lose go — if I lose, it’s generally not that they were the better fencer, it’s that I was mentally not there.”
In the forty-eight hours since Zagunis made those remarks following a 15-10 bronze-medal bout loss to Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan, she has been alternately vilified in some media accounts for somehow disrespecting her opponent and praised for her honesty and openness.
Those who have sought to portray her comments as haughty, obnoxious, and disrespectful have missed the point entirely, in stark contrast to Zagunis herself, who could not have been more spot-on.
As a nationally ranked fencer, I can vouch in a heartbeat for the accuracy of Zagunis’ statements.
When a fencer blows a lead like the 12-5 advantage that Zagunis held in her semifinal, it is because the mind becomes unable to finish. Sitting three points away from a win, the thought is finish fast, finish any way possible. When Zagunis let that impulse take over, she rushed her actions and let her control in the match’s mental aspect dissipate.
She opened the door to Ji-yeon, who took it and allowed Zagunis to keep beating herself with rushed and insufficient actions.
That is how momentum can work in fencing, causing one competitor to simply come undone, gifting the win to his or her opponent.
The best fencer in the world does not lose a 12-5 lead because her opponent had a sudden flash of inspiration. She loses because she under thinks or overthinks her way right into defeat. She loses because she’s “mentally not there.”
Demeaning a victorious opponent after a loss is one thing. Stating the reasons behind a loss is another. To say that Zagunis disrespected Ji-yeon is a shallow analysis fed by the influence of the brash, smash-talking culture of “mainstream” professional sports.
By confronting her loss, Mariel Zagunis judged herself. There is no reason to judge her for facing up to her own performance in a sport where one’s own mind can strike faster than one’s opponent.
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