LONDON — As her opponent Olga Kharlan of Ukraine celebrated, U.S. fencer Mariel Zagunis stood with an emotionless stare, her mask off.
Her reign as the women's Olympic individual sabre champion had ended. She would not collect a third straight gold medal in the event. After Kharlan's 15-10 victory, she wouldn't even collect a medal in an event she had dominated since its inception in 2004.
"I guess I'm just still in disbelief," said Zagunis, emotionally distant moments after the bout. "It'll probably hit me later. Now, I don't have a medal. Which is strange, because I've never been in this position before at the Olympics"
Zagunis fenced for the bronze after she was upset in the semifinals by Jiyeon Kim of Korea, 15-13, in a bout that Zagunis had well in control at 12-5.
"I think part of the problem was that I was up [12-5] and I had a bit of a lapse in concentration. Things started happening really quickly. I wasn't landing my attacks," she said.
Kim's counterattacks methodically dismantled Zagunis, and momentum carried her to the win. But the American champion felt it was her own failings that led to the semifinal loss.
"She didn't beat me, I beat myself," she said.
"Things just happened way too fast. I should have slowed down my attacks. I should have slowed down the entire bout. I pretty much handed it to her with all my mistakes," said Zagunis.
She said that with such an early lead, she felt the match was hers. When Kim rallied, Zagunis was "mentally not there" to rally and win the bout.
"I wish I could tell you what I was thinking, but I wasn't thinking at that point," she said.
Her confidence in tatters, Zagunis couldn't overcome Kharlan and salvage the bronze. She tried to think of it as a gold-medal bout, but admitted that it's difficult to "get yourself back together" after losing in the semifinals.
"I've never been in this position before," she said.
Was it the pressure of a three-peat? There's no question that Zagunis' temperament had changed from her previous Olympics — a product of her maturity (she's 27) but also of her approach to the burden of defending her golds. "In Athens, it felt completely different. I guess I felt I was riding the wave, a cloud nine thing," she said.
But in 2012, it was all business; and in the end, she cracked under the pressure.
"It's a difficult thing to win the Olympics three times around. No one's done it twice, so I guess I can tell myself that [for comfort]," she said.
"Now I can enjoy the rest of my time here in … where am I, London?"
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