Valentina Vezzali is nicknamed “The Cobra” in her native Italy on account of her deadly speed and accuracy on the fencing piste.
Vezzali, a Rome policewoman by day, has become a national heroine and celebrity thanks to her outstanding Olympic record and high profile in a sport that is dominated by Italy.
Even before London 2012 she was the only woman ever to win three straight gold medals in the foil, at Sydney in 2000, then Athens and Beijing, making her arguably the greatest foil fencer in sporting history.
But Vezzali, her country’s flag bearer at the Games, proved unable to retain the title and took bronze behind Italian teammates Elisa Di Francisca, the champion, and silver medallist Arianna Errigo.
However, it was as part this fencing ‘dream team’ that Vezzali, 38, picked up her sixth Olympic gold medal, giving her a a record nine medals in total, overtaking countrywoman Giovanna Trillini’s Games haul.
Vezzali began fencing when she was just six years old in Jesi, a town in Italy’s Marche region with a history of producing elite swordsmen and women – a feat Vezzali puts down to the influence of her former coach Ezio Triccoli, who learned to fence at the Zonderwater prison camp in South Africa during World War Two.
Along with her Olympic achievements she has also won thirteen World Fencing Championship and nine European championship gold medals.
Reportedly held in awe by her teammates, Vezzali, who competes for Rome’s Fiamme Oro club, says she prays to her father and sings to herself before competitions, and puts her dominance of foil fencing down to nothing more than hard work.
Talent plays a part too. On the piste she comes into her own – a master tactician with supreme focus, who uses precise footwork and dazzling speed to outfox taller and more athletic opponents, particularly on the counter-attack.
Referees are no safer from her than opponents, as the world champion is rarely slow to share her opinion and shake a fist when decisions go against her.
Vezzali admits losing the individual foil title was very disappointing. And with her sights on the record 39 Olympic and World Championship medals set by Edoardo Mangiarotti she seems still to have unfinished business especially as she vowed to be at Rio 2016.
Vezzali – singled out by IOC president Jacques Rogge as one of the standout athletes whose achievements lit up London 2012 – said: ‘When there is a problem I want to resolve it.’