LONDON — In her 17-year fencing career, Mariel Zagunis has experienced every high that an athlete can achieve. She has three Olympic medals, two of them gold, and eight World Championship medals, including three gold.
Now she can add a new high to this lengthy list.
At a meeting of U.S. team captains on Wednesday night, the 27-year-old fencer was selected to lead the 529-member 2012 U.S. Olympic Team into Friday’s Opening Ceremony as flag bearer.
“It’s such a great honor,” said Zagunis, her smile as big as her blue eyes and tinsel glittering in her blonde hair. “It means a lot to be picked by my fellow athletes. It’s not some random committee thinking that someone is deserving. The athletes are actually picking who is leading them into the opening ceremony. I can’t believe that I’m going to be the one who has that opportunity.”
Zagunis is particularly honored to represent the U.S. delegation at the Opening Ceremony because this is the first time ever that women outnumber men on the U.S. team.
“It’s amazing,” she said, “by leaps and bounds.”
When Zagunis walks into the Olympic Stadium carrying Old Glory on Friday night, it will be a long way from her first trip to the Olympic Games eight years ago. At age 19, she did not make the cut when the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team was selected that April — a “huge devastating moment,” she said. She only earned a berth in June after Nigeria opted out of women’s individual saber, an event that made its Olympic debut in Athens.
Two months later, she became the first U.S. fencer to win gold at an Olympic Games in a hundred years. She did not have long to savor the moment though. She left Athens early to return to Notre Dame to start her freshman year in college.
Four years later at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, Zagunis successfully defended her gold medal in women’s saber. But she missed the Opening Ceremony because her event was scheduled for the next day.
Now in London, she is the top ranked women’s saber fencer and hopes to become a three-time Olympic gold medalist.
Then earlier this week, she learned this Olympics would be special no matter what happens. Teammate Tim Morehouse told Zagunis that he was going to nominate her as flag bearer. Morehouse is U.S. Fencing’s team captain and a silver medalist in team saber at the 2008 Olympics. On Wednesday evening, he met with 22 other U.S. team captains, who each nominated an athlete to be flag bearer.
In the first round of voting, team captains are not allowed to vote for their nominee. After that initial round, they may vote for whomever they choose.
The 2012 U.S. flag bearer vote went to four rounds — with Morehouse advocating hard for Zagunis. Each time, it was a dead tie — Zagunis and another unnamed athlete. Finally, in the fifth voting round, Morehouse’s lobbying prevailed. Zagunis took the majority of votes.
“Tim is a big advocate of fencing,” said Zagunis of her fellow saber fencer. “He has been doing so much for our sport getting our names out there, promoting fencing. He was really pulling for me.”
After the vote, Morehouse burst into Zagunis’s room at the Olympic Village and gave her the news.
She has yet to rehearse and does not know if she will dip the flag in front of Queen Elizabeth or not. The U.S. has a history of not dipping the stars and stripes in front of the host country’s head of state, a tradition that begin in 1908, when U.S. flag bearer Ralph Rose, a shot putter, did not dip the flag in front of King Edward VII. The 1908 Olympics were also held in London.
Even without rehearsal, she knows this: “I’m going to focus on not tripping and not letting the flag touch the ground and doing it all right.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.