No American had won an Olympic fencing gold medal for 100 years when the Olympic Games of 2004 started in Athens. Mariel Zagunis launched a one-woman mission to change all of that. Zagunis has Olympic blood flowing through her veins. Her parents, both rowers, competed at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and in Greece she finally put the United States back on top of the fencing podium with a surprise win.
The anthropology student hadn’t actually qualified for the Games and was only included in the field when Nigeria opted not to send their entrant. She subsequently cut a swathe through the draw and won the gold.
Four years later and Zagunis had a team world championship gold under her belt and was strongly fancied, along with a strong contingent of U.S. team mates, to retain her title. She had to come from behind in her second-round clash with Canadian Sandra Sessine, but she hit top gear and raced into the final, accounting for home hope Bao Yingying and team mate Rebecca Ward on the way.
The final saw her take on another team-mate, this time Sade Robertson, who was ranked above Zagunis and favoured by most pundits to triumph.
But Zagunis was having none of it, and her charging, attacking style at the Olympic Green Convention Centre made her a crowd favourite.
Under the watchful gaze of former U.S. President George H. W. Bush in the front row of the crowd, Zagunis released a yelp of delight, removed her mask and thrust her arms skywards as she clinched the decisive point for a 15-9 victory.
She dashed into the crowd to collect an American flag, bowed to all corners of the hall before kneeling down to kiss the piste. It was the first gold medal of the Beijing Olympics for the United States. Ward beat Russia’s Sofia Velikaya for the bronze to ensure the U.S. won a clean sweep of the medals.