The child of immigrants, U.S. Fencing star Dagmara Wozniak shares how, through hard work, she's made her own American dream come true.
- Posted on Jul 18, 2016
When Dagmara Wozniak was nine, she found something she would eventually commit her life to: fencing.
The Olympic athlete was an energetic, but accident-prone child. She remembers falling into the creek when she was young. She tore open her calf and needed 60 stitches. As the cuts and bruises kept coming, her father decided his young daughter needed an outlet – something that wouldn’t send her to the hospital so often.
She tried gymnastics and karate before her dad signed her up for fencing classes at a Polish cultural foundation just a town away. It worked.
“I fell in love with the thrill of it,” Wozniak explains. “I think it takes a lot of creativity. Everyone describes it as a physical chess game and I really think that’s like a lot of what it is. It’s such a battle of wits, a physical battle of wits.”
Wozniak flourished at the cultural center – which became a kind of after school care for her as her parents worked. But fencing was more than a sport she enjoyed. Her father also saw it as a way to keep his daughter connected to the culture of the country he left behind.
Wozniak’s father, Gregory, left Poland in the late 1980s, as communism began to fall and the country’s economy was crumbling. Gregory wanted to create a better life for his family in America.
The family made their home in New Jersey. Wozniak’s parents worked hard, often juggling several jobs but keeping their traditional, Polish values. While her friends were being driven to the mall or spending their allowances, Wozniak spent time with her family – something that is still important to her. Watching her parents work had a profound effect on her.
“They kind of made me put a lot of things into perspective,” Wozniak says. “They made me really focus on being the best that I can; if I really like something, to commit to it.”
She committed to fencing.
Her coach at the cultural center convinced her parents to let her compete in a few youth tournaments. By the time she was 14 years-old, Wozniak knew fencing was what she was meant to do with her life, even though some people discouraged her.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I’ll never make an Olympic team,” Wozniak says. “I’m definitely not the tall, slender fencer like most girls are. I just want younger girls to feel like they can do [anything], regardless of body type. I remember how I felt when I had role models and the only thing I can hope is that I can be that inspiration to someone else.”
Wozniak became an alternate for the U.S. Fencing team in the 2008 Olympics before competing as a full-fledged member for the squad in 2012. Last year she battled injuries and more than a few disappointing performances. Now she’s got her eye on gold. She wants to honor her country and her family—and inspire little girls who may be watching. She doesn’t mind that no one’s really betting on her to win.
“I think other people have their chips on someone else but for me, that’s one of the beauties of fencing,” Wozniak says. “It all depends on who feels great that day. If you come in with a great mindset; you don’t feel any doubt, you don’t feel any fear, then I think you can unleash the inner warrior that’s inside and just dominate.”