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Zagunis takes U.S. fencing gold medal

| Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2004

ATHENS -- Mariel Zagunis almost missed the Olympics.

Yet yesterday, before a packed house in Helliniki Sports Complex, she shrewdly attacked her way to a surprise gold medal -- the first for an American fencer in a century -- in the Olympics' first individual sabre event for women.

Zagunis also became the first American woman in Olympic history to win a fencing medal. Teammate Sada Jacobson threw in a bronze for good measure.

Watched by a cheering, foot-stomping crowd, Zagunis, 19, of Beaverton, Ore., aggressively attacked Tan Xue, of China, and raced to an 8-2 lead. She parried return attacks by Tan, who never caught up, and won, 15-9.

"I'm so ecstatic," she declared afterward, flashing a huge smile. "I felt so good and I was in the zone. I felt like I was going to win this when I stepped on the strip."

Zagunis' unexpected win and Jacobson's bronze gave the U.S. Olympic fencing team its first gold medal in a hundred years and its first double-medal finish ever.

In 1904, Albert Van Zo Post won gold for the United States in St. Louis. No U.S. fencer has medaled since Peter Westbrook took the bronze in 1984.

Zagunis' jubilant teammates hoisted her up in the air with an American flag -- a moment she proclaimed to be "really fun."

She very nearly didn't come here at all.

As the third-ranked American, she only made it to the Olympics when Nigeria's team did not send its woman sabre fencer. With no other African country able to send a fencer, the sport's international governing federation chose Zagunis, as the next highest-ranking woman in the world, to compete.

"I felt like the underdog coming into this competition, and it just goes to show you that hard work really pays off," she said.

As the No. 1 seed going into the games, Jacobson, 21, was the gold favorite. She faltered against Tan, who won 15-12, then went up against Romanian Catalina Gheorghitoain, whom Jacobson easily defeated, 15-7.

"I'm very happy with the bronze, but it's tough losing the chance for the gold," Jacobson said. "But I was very honored to be given a second chance. I wanted to show people what I can do."

An ecstatic Zagunis explained that her evaluation of Tan led to her tactics: "Tan is aggressive, and so am I. You need to take your opponent's strength and turn it around and use it against them."

Zagunis followed her brother to begin fencing at age 10. She is the daughter of Robert and Cathy Zagunis, both Olympic rowers in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal.

She will start classes at the University of Notre Dame this fall, while Jacobson will return to Yale. "Maybe my teacher will now understand why I'm not there," Zagunis joked.

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