The two-time gold-medalist puts her faith into action during competition.
- Posted on Jun 7, 2012
One point. Fencer Mariel Zagunis missed qualifying for the 2004 Olympics by the slimmest of margins.
The 19-year-old quietly took off her mask and shook hands with her opponent, but inside she cried out, I thought I was born to do this. I gave my best. Why wasn’t that enough, Lord?
She’d started fencing at age 10 for fun, like her friends who were taking dance or playing soccer. Fencing had it all, the grace of ballet and the strategy of soccer, and Mariel fell in love with the sport. It came naturally to her, a God-given talent.
The Olympics were in her blood—her parents competed as rowers in 1976—and she dreamed of one day going to the Games herself, winning the gold medal. That had been her sole focus since she was 15.
She’d devoted countless hours to perfecting each maneuver, thrusts and parries, counterattacks, learning to anticipate her opponent’s every move, working her reflexes until they were lightning quick, mastering the intricate footwork.
Now it was a dream that taunted her. Had she let everyone down, her family, her coach, even God? Had she failed to use the gift he’d given her to its fullest? She needed to work even harder, then. Wasn’t that the lesson?
Yet she’d been working so hard for so long that she couldn’t remember the last time she’d fenced just for the fun of it. There was always too much on the line.
No time to mourn the loss. There were still matches she had to compete in to maintain her international ranking.
The final competition was in Germany. No matter how the day’s matches ended she was headed home to Oregon and she could already picture herself going for long hikes in the woods, breathing in the cool mountain air, recharging her spirit.
This last competition? She would just have to let it go and put it in God’s hands. She felt an odd lightness walking into the pavilion. A calm she barely recognized. She moved into position. Her opponent attacked. Mariel parried effortlessly, then put her opponent on the defensive.
The battle was fierce, unrelenting, yet she was relaxed, not stressed. In her mind she could see the whole match unfolding, each move setting up the next, like a chess game. It was fun!
Within seconds she scored the winning touch. She won every match that day, even defeating women who were Olympics bound.
By the end there was no containing the smile stretching across her face, her spirit renewed not by her victories, but by rediscovering the joy of the sport she loved.
When she landed in Oregon after the long flight from Germany, there was a message from her coach on her cell phone. A fencer had dropped out of the Games. Mariel was going to the Olympics, as an alternate.
That summer in Athens she won gold, the first American fencer in 100 years to stand atop the podium. Tears of happiness streamed down her cheeks as she thought of how she’d been blessed. Four years later in Beijing she successfully defended her Olympic title.
This August Mariel will be going for her third gold medal. But that’s not why she competes. She fences for the sheer joy it brings her heart.
Read more inspiring Olympic profiles.