CHIBA, Japan — María Belén Pérez Maurice was still grappling with her Olympic defeat Monday, reliving the match in an interview with an Argentine news channel, when a man appeared in the frame over her left shoulder, holding a piece of paper.
"Look behind you!" the broadcaster told her in Spanish. "Turn around."
It was Lucas Saucedo, her coach and boyfriend of 17 years – a man who had become her sounding board and travel companion, a constant source of support.
"Flaca," the paper read. It was his nickname for her, loosely translated to "skinny one."
"Te queres casar conmigo??? Po favo."
Will you marry me??? Please.
Pérez Maurice pulled down her mask and screamed. He got down on one knee. She screamed again.
Of course she would.
And just like that, Pérez Maurice completely forgot her 15-12 loss to Hungary's Anna Marton in the women's sabre competition. Her disappointment melted away. And the tears that welled in her eyes had nothing to do with her first and only event at the Tokyo Olympics, and everything to do with the man who was now standing next to her in the interview area at Makuhari Messe Hall.
"We love each other so much. Now we want to spend our life together," Pérez Maurice, 36, later recalled in English. "We were talking about this (getting married), but I didn't know."
And neither, in truth, did Saucedo.
The 51-year-old coach started thinking about popping the question the previous night. He didn't have a ring. But he didn't care. So when they arrived at the fencing venue Monday morning, Saucedo set out to find a piece of paper, eventually convincing a volunteer to pull a single sheet from a printer by giving him a pin.
He said he didn't actually write out the proposal until earlier that morning. Pérez Maurice, hearing him recount this to reporters, smiled and raised her eyebrows. "Oh, si?" she said in surprise.
Above the proposal, Saucedo also drew a picture of a cat. (Pérez Maurice loves cats.) Then he kept the sheet with him, just in case. He decided that if she lost a match, he would propose. If she won, he would wait.
"I love her," he said. "So when she lost the match, she felt very, very sad. So maybe this proposal will change the mentality of the situation."
It was fencing that first brought them together. Saucedo had represented Argentina at the world championships in 1999 and 2003, before becoming a coach. Pérez Maurice was among his pupils. In time, their feelings grew and their relationship changed. They started dating when Pérez Maurice was 20.
Then, in 2010, Saucedo felt the time was right. While they were in Paris for the world championships, they went out for coffee, after Pérez Maurice finished competing. He proposed. She said she was too young. Maybe in the future, she said. But not now.
"In Paris!" Saucedo added, to emphasize the inherent romanticism of the setting.
They kept training and traveling. Pérez Maurice competed at both the 2012 Olympics in London and the 2016 Games in Rio. In between, they would often turn fencing world cups into mini-vacations – spending a month or more exploring places in Europe or Asia, just the two of them, talking and smiling.
"We are always doing something," Pérez Maurice said. "We are very good partners. We have fun with each other."
They had no plans to celebrate the engagement in Japan, beyond packing their bags for their flight back to Buenos Aires. But when they get home, Pérez Maurice said, there's no doubt they'll have "a big, big barbecue" with all of their family and friends.
Then, at some point, they'll start wedding planning. Maybe they'll get married on a beach somewhere. Or maybe in Paris in 2024, when Pérez Maurice hopes to compete in the Olympics one more time before retiring. Sometimes, Saucedo can't believe they've been together 17 years now. "Time flies, it's incredible," he said. But after helping turn despair into delight, he's looking forward to a lifetime more.
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Argentine fencer loses match at Tokyo Olympics, but gets a proposal