Sports
4:00 am
Wed February 8, 2012

Like Punk Rockers, Sabre Fencers Are 'Kind Of Crazy'

Originally published on Wed February 8, 2012 4:18 pm

There are three weapons in fencing: epee, foil and sabre. Mariel Zagunis is the best woman in sabre — she won Olympic gold medals in 2004 and 2008.

To understand the world of Zagunis' weapon of choice, it may be more apt to consult the Sex Pistols rather than a fencing historian. That's because sabre fencers, Zagunis says, are the "punk rockers" of her sport.

"You have to be more aggressive and explosive and kind of crazy," she says. "I think that kind of plays into our personality."

Lesson For A Champion

On an early morning in Portland, Ore., Zagunis looks more athlete-in-training than spiky punk. She's wearing blue running shorts, a gray T-shirt and a fencer's traditional mask with metal mesh and a neck-protecting bib.

At the U.S. National Sabre Training Center, she's moving along a fencing strip opposite her longtime coach Ed Korfanty. One of them stutter-steps and lunges, while the other retreats. Then they go back the other way.

It's part of Zagunis' daily lesson. Despite two golds, countless other medals and trophies, plus a current No. 1 world ranking, she still has a 45-minute to one-hour lesson each weekday.

"She likes to feel like she's executing actions perfectly," says Korfanty. "This is her routine now."

'Chess On The Strip'

Korfanty, 60, was a 10-time national team member in his native Poland. He ended up training young fencers in Portland — that's where he met and started working with 12-year-old Mariel Zagunis. That was 14 years ago.

Zagunis played competitive soccer then, too. She ultimately gave that up for the more cerebral game — fencers call their sport "chess on the strip." Zagunis recalls the chesslike qualities of her bout with fellow American Becca Ward in the semifinals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"It really came down to knowing what her tendencies were, knowing what she thinks she can use against me and not letting her do that," Zagunis says, "while at the same time executing something different. I had to mix it up. You're four or five steps ahead."

Four or five steps ahead at warp speed. Sabre features fast footwork and often quicker bouts than in epee and foil.

And for Zagunis, the former left-midfielder, a successful move in sabre can be as much of a rush as a goal on the soccer field.

"If someone's attacking you and you're in defense," she says, "they finish their attack and you just block it and hit them just like boom-boom! That's always a good feeling."

Wanting More

Zagunis keeps her Olympic gold medals at her parents' house near Portland. For her mom and dad, the Olympics aren't just a vicarious thrill they get through their daughter. They both competed in rowing at the 1976 Montreal games.

Zagunis' gold medals were both a bit of a surprise — at least to observers. In 2004, Zagunis was added to the U.S. team at the last minute. She was hardly a favorite. Then in 2008, she didn't perform well in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

London will be different. She's No. 1 in the world, and now she is the favorite. But Zagunis is ready to deal with that pressure and create a little anarchy in the U.K.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Today in our Olympic countdown, a peek behind the curtain at one of the oldest and most obscure Olympic sports: fencing. But fear not. In the hands of two-time gold medalist fencing can be quite accessible.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: There are three weapons in fencing: Epee, foil and sabre. Mariel Zagunis is the best woman in sabre. She won Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008. To understand the world of Zagunis' weapon of choice, versus the others, you're probably expecting a wonky fencing historian rather than, the Sex Pistols.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANARCHY IN THE U.K.")

SEX PISTOLS: (Singing) I am an anti-Christ. I am an anti-Christ. Don't know what I want but I know how to get it...

GOLDMAN: Saber fencers, says Zagunis, are the punk rockers of her sport.

MARIEL ZAGUNIS: You have to be like more aggressive and explosive and kind of crazy and stuff. So I think that kind of plays into our personalities.

(SOUNDBITE OF FENCING PRACTICE AND A SCREAM)

GOLDMAN: It's early morning in Portland, Oregon and Zagunis looks more athlete-in-training than spiky punk. She's wearing blue running shorts, a gray T-shirt, and a fencer's traditional mask with metal mesh and a neck-protecting bib. She's moving along a fencing strip opposite her longtime coach Ed Korfanty.

One stutter-steps and lunges while the other retreats, then back the other way. It's part of Zagunis' daily lesson. Yes, two golds, countless other medals and trophies, plus a current world number-one ranking, and she still has a 45-minute to one-hour lesson each weekday.

ED KORFANTY: OK, three lunges and every time you count.

GOLDMAN: Sixty-year-old Korfanty was a national team member in his native Poland. He ended up training young fencers in Portland, where he met, and starting working with 12-year-old Mariel Zagunis. That was 14 years ago. She played competitive soccer then too, but ultimately gave it up for the more cerebral game; fencers call their sport chess on the strip.

Here Zagunis recounts her bout with fellow American Becca Ward during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

ZAGUNIS: It really came down to knowing what her tendencies were; knowing what she thinks that she can use against me and not letting her do that, while at the same time executing, you know, something different. Like, I had to mix it up. You know what I mean?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, play like double and triple thinking.

ZAGUNIS: It really is. You're four or five steps ahead

GOLDMAN: Four or five steps ahead in warp speed. Remember the punk rock, explosive, aggressive analogy? Sabre features fast footwork and often quicker bouts than in epee and foil. For Zagunis, the former left-midfielder, a successful move in sabre can be as much of a rush as a goal on the soccer field.

ZAGUNIS: If someone is attacking you and you're in defense, they finish their attack and you just block it and hit them - just like boom-boom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FINGERS SNAPPING)

ZAGUNIS: Like, that's always a good feeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is AP Olympic Minute. Seven gold medals have left the shelves on opening day of the games. Mariel Zagunis won the first gold for the U.S., leading an American sweep Saturday in women's saber fencing

ZAGUNIS: He'd like to see the - my medals.

KATHY ZAGUNIS: Oh.

ZAGUNIS: I don't know where it's at.

ZAGUNIS: OK.

GOLDMAN: Absolutely I wanted to see Zagunis' Olympic hardware. Her mom, Kathy, a former Olympic rower, keeps the medals at her house. They were surprise gold medals. In 2004, Zagunis was added to the U.S. team at the last minute – hardly a favorite. In 2008, she didn't perform well in the lead-up to the Beijing Games.

London will be different. She's number one in the world and now the favorite. But Mariel Zagunis is ready to deal with that pressure and create a little anarchy in the U.K.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANARCHY IN THE U.K.")

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program