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August 17, 2004 7:02 pm

Oregon fencer wins gold after late invitation to Games

By MIKE PRATER

Gannett News Service

ATHENS, Greece Oregon fencer Mariel Zagunis wasn't supposed to be on the U.S. Olympic team. Now she has a gold medal and a huge slice of history.

In what might be the biggest underdog story of these Summer Games, the 19-year-old Beaverton resident won the women's individual saber Tuesday night inside a jam-packed Helliniko Fencing Hall.

She is the first American to win a fencing gold in 100 years and joined teammate Sada Jacobson as the first U.S. woman fencers to win any Olympic medal. Jacobson won bronze as USA Fencing celebrated the biggest night in the history of the organization.

With American flags waving everywhere, Zagunis beat Xue Tan of China 15-9 in the final of the one-day, single-elimination tournament. Zagunis joins swimmer Natalie Coughlin as the only American women to win gold so far in Athens.

In May, Zagunis was an Olympic alternate, not even part of the two-woman U.S. team. It wasn't until a Nigerian fencer dropped out that she was invited to Athens.

Jacobson came into the Olympics ranked No. 1 in the world; Zagunis was No. 2.

Zagunis was seeded third for the Olympic tournament, behind Jacobson and Anne-Lise Touya of France.

Notice a trend?

"I've been the underdog this entire time," Zagunis said, smiling wide and clutching a green "Oregon" T-shirt that her brother, Marten, tossed from the stands as his sister won gold.

"This is great, just fantastic. It's my sister and I believe in her so much, but I can't believe it happened," Marten said.

The brother, along with Zagunis' fencing teammates, rushed onto the stage after she nailed Tan with her final successful strike. They tossed Zagunis into the air, and she started running around the stage with an American flag flying behind her head.

"There's no better feeling than being thrown up into the air after becoming a champion of anything," said Zagunis, who's off to college later this month as a fencer at Notre Dame. "This feels great. I don't even know what to say. I'm just so happy right now."

You should have seen the look on her face in March.

That's when Jacobson and Zagunis met in the semifinals of a World Cup event and Olympic qualifier in Italy. The Olympic selection process worked this way: Jacobson had already made the team and Zagunis would do the same with a victory. If Zagunis lost, though, the second American spot would go to Jacobson's sister, Emily.

Jacobson won 15-14.

"Mariel missed the Olympic team by one touch," said Jeff Bukantz, team captain of USA Fencing.

The next month, when fencers gathered in Atlanta for the U.S. Nationals, USA Fencing gathered its athletes for official team photos. When it came time to shoot the Olympic team the two Jacobson sisters Zagunis was asked to step out of the photo.

"We felt terrible," Bukantz said, "because we looked at her face and she looked like dead-woman walking."

"I did get all sad," said Zagunis, who is of Lithuanian heritage.

But when the Nigerian fencer opted out, Zagunis was added to the field by virtue of being the highest ranked fencer in the world without a spot in the Olympics.

"For her, it was like, `Oh my gosh, I have a second life. I'm playing with the casino's money,' " Bukantz said.

Zagunis beat Catalina Gheorghitoaia of Romania 15-10 in the semifinals before the gold-medal victory over Tan, who had defeated Sada Jacobson in the semifinals. She had a bye in the first round and then beat Madoka Hisagae of Japan 15-13 and Elena Jemayeva of Azerbaijan 15-11.

Zagunis, a former soccer player at Valley Catholic High School in Beaverton, jumped on Tan for a quick 9-2 lead. Despite giving up four consecutive touches that made things interesting at 9-6, Zagunis dominated the bout with attack after attack.

"I felt so good today. I felt in a zone, and I knew I was going to win this. ... There was no stopping me," she said.

"It's a great story, an absolutely great story, but this is the bottom line: Mariel had the most complete game tonight. She was the best fencer out there. She deserved to win a gold medal," Bukantz said.

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COMMENTARY AND PERSPECTIVE

MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service

Olympics 2004 were games of education, enlightenment

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IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Biggest winner of 2004 Olympics: Greece

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CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY

Athens scores satisfying win

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DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic

Some U.S. women's teams put on best show in Athens

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LYNN HENNING | The Detroit News

U.S. basketball team has gone from stars to targets

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BOB KRAVITZ | The Indianapolis Star

It was Black Friday for U.S.

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