In the middle of a cavernous festival hall at Chicago's Navy Pier, Mariel Zagunis was immersed in a book. Outside, tourists and suburbanites on a jaunt to the city milled about, checking out a Ferris wheel, tall ships, cotton candy and a stunning view of the city's skyline.
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Save the group of fencing fans who filled 200 or so chairs at the Korfanty Cup and clamored for pictures and autographs, few seemed aware that Zagunis, one of the world's best fencers and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, was getting ready to fence just a few steps from the children's museum and Segway rental.
Zagunis, who won gold in the individual sabre in Athens and Beijing and a bronze in team sabre in Beijing, spoke to Fourth-Place Medal about the oddity of being an anonymous celebrity.
"I have a good balance between celebrity and normalcy. One of my sponsors, Frontier Communications, is doing a campaign. I'm on TV commercials, my face is on bus benches. More nationwide, there's the TD Ameritrade commercials, I have a banner on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Ore. There is a sense that people look at me and think, 'Should I know you? How do I know you?' But for the most part, I can lead a completely normal life."
Zagunis is currently ranked No. 1 in the world at sabre, and is favored to win gold again in London. She was not expected to win gold in '04 or '08. Though the pressure to win is there, Zagunis is focused on her training, not expectations.
"I don't allow myself to think about it. I'm doing my thing, I'm doing my training, I'm concentrating on staying healthy, and working on what I need to work on. It would be one thing if I was one hundred percent dominant over everyone. Then I'd feel more pressure going into the games."
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She has battled with Ukrainian fencer Olga Kharlan and Russian Sofya Velikaya. While in Chicago, she dropped a match to Kharlan.
"Even though I'm the number one-ranked fencer in the world, it's not like I've won every tournament. There's still a lot I can improve upon. That's what I'm concentrating on. I don't think about everyone's expectations. When people start to worry about that, they're not focused on what they're about to do."
Zagunis found fencing after her mother signed her brother up when he wanted to swordfight. She watched him, and wanted to join. Now, she's meeting children who took up the sport after seeing her win, and she's hoping fencing will continue to grow in the U.S.
"When I started, it happened to be by chance. I feel like a lot of my teammates, the same thing happened. They stumbled upon it. Since Athens and on, I've met so many young girls who said, I started fencing because of you, which is so cool. That's never happened for U.S. fencing before. To have us have so much success, only in that small Olympic window, it makes a difference. It's so great to meet these kids who have started because of us. Now, to be the inspiration for the future of U.S. fencing is a really cool feeling."
Zagunis and her sabre teammates will compete on Aug. 1. Fencing starts July 28.
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