LONDON — U.S. fencing is bigger than Mariel Zagunis — and congrats to the women's team epee for winning the bronze on Saturday — but Mariel Zagunis was the biggest name in American fencing entering the London Games.
She was the flag-bearer for the U.S., defending two consecutive gold medals. That's why her failure to medal in the women's individual sabre was huge news.
[Photos: Flagbearer Mariel Zagunis]
The carefree kid from the Athens Games had become a businesslike athlete in London, and left the Games in what she admitted was "disbelief" over losing in the semifinals and bronze-medal match. Of her loss in semis, she said: "She didn't beat me, I beat myself."
Washington Post columnist Mike Wise seized on that attitude and torched Zagunis — aka the "unsmiling, hyper-focused, I'm-not-talking-to-anyone-but-my-coach-between-matches ball of stress" — in a column after the loss:
There goes the emotional sitdown with [Bob] Costas. The brainless chit-chat in the morning with Matt Lauer and a cereal-box cover are also off the table. Say buh-bye, America. Mariel Zagunis's Q-rating just left the building.
Thanks for carrying the Stars and Stripes into the Opening Ceremonies, Miss Flag Bearer. Now pack your swords and go home for four years. We'll call you before we get to Rio.
He also went after her "disbelief" as poor sportsmanship:
"Congrats to them for winning, [but] in my opinion, if I was completely 100 percent on mentally, then I would have been able to win again. It's happened to me before."
Beautiful, Mariel; that's the Olympic spirit. This is what happens when you get used to being No. 1, used to winning gold and world championships. You forget when you weren't even supposed to be in the Olympics eight years ago.
A columnist going after a fallen champion isn't exactly rare. Neither is the media eating their own, as Kevin Drum took a run at Wise's run at Zagunis in a piece called "The Real Reason Why The Olympics Suck."
[Related: Zagunis says she beat herself]
What is rare? A member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team taking time away from training in London to respond on his blog to an attack on his teammate, which is what former silver medalist Tim Morehouse did.
Mr Wise: Maybe she didn't respond to defeat to your liking, but she didn't make excuses, throw her equipment, curse anyone out or do anything but respond as best she could to an emotionally challenging situation. I have seen far worst displays from athletes and this one certainly didn't warrant the zeal to which you attacked her in your article.
… Fencing is a great sport and Mariel Zagunis is a great champion. Whether people are writing about it or not over the next 3 years, she'll be working hard to achieve her goals while conducting herself as a role model and contributing to our society. She pursues excellence not for the Bob Costas sit down or the Wheaties box, but because she is trying to be the best she can be. And in the end, that IS the Olympic spirit.
P.S. Don't mess with the fencing team. We have swords (and twitter).
Take to Twitter they did, as Wise defended his piece and hinted his opinions on Zagunis go deeper than her Olympic performance.
[Related: Shemyakina wins women's epee gold]
Where Morehouse, who lost in the quarterfinals a day after blogging, is right: Zagunis didn't throw a tantrum. She didn't exhibit poor sportsmanship; like any elite athlete, she believes that on her best day, she's wins those matches. Later in her press availability, she gave credit to her opponents, albeit briefly.
Where Wise is right: There's a column to be written about Zagunis' change in attitude from Athens to Beijing to London, and how that affected her mindset when things turned sour during the finals rounds. She's a different person, either through maturity or, as she mentioned in her post-match comments, the pressure of continuing to defend her Olympic legacy. Is that why she'll return home without a medal?
It's a legit question. But it's difficult to mine an answer from a commentary that dismisses a two-time Olympic champion who placed fourth in the world as "Miss Flag Bearer" ...
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