Nigerian Olympic Committee pulls its fencer

Updated: June 15, 2004, 3:07 AM ET
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- After months of waiting, Mariel Zagunis heard the good news not at home, and not at a tournament, but on an airport bus.

After just missing the cut at the end of March, Zagunis, 19, earned a spot on the U.S. fencing team for the Athens Olympics when the Nigerian Olympic Committee declined to have its fencer participate in the competition.

"That was pretty much two months of just waiting around for any word," Zagunis said.

She won a World Cup saber event in Germany on June 6, then traveled back to her home in Portland, Ore., along with her coach and her mother. They were on a jammed bus heading to the airport terminal when her coach, Ed Korfanty, phoned home to ask his wife to pick him up. She relayed the Olympic news to Korfanty, who was sitting at the front of the bus with Zagunis' mother, Cathy.

"He told my mom, and then my mom kind of screamed it to the back of the bus," Mariel Zagunis said. "I turned around and heard her and was like, 'Really?' I couldn't get to them because it was so crowded, so I just turned around and smiled. ... That whole afternoon I was all smiles."

The cutoff date for qualifying for the Olympics via the world rankings was April 1. At the last tournament at the end of March in Italy, Zagunis reached the semifinals before losing to countrywoman Sada Jacobson on the final touch of the bout.

"If I had beat her, then I would have made it," Zagunis said.

Instead, when the world rankings were tabulated on April 1, Sada Jacobson was No. 1, while her sister Emily was No. 10 and Zagunis No. 11. Under the complex qualifying system, both Jacobsons earned spots in Athens, but Zagunis missed out.

However, U.S. fencing officials realized there might be a back door for Zagunis to go to Athens. Nigeria's Jacqueline Esimaje was the only African women's saber fencer listed in the world standings. Because there were no other ranked Africans, if for some reason the Nigerians declined her spot, then Zagunis would make it as the highest-rated woman in saber in the April 1 rankings who had not already qualified for the Olympics.

"I still kept training and kept my fingers crossed and just waited and hoped for the best," Zagunis said.

When the Nigerian Olympic Committee declined Esimaje's spot, Zagunis earned a berth in Athens. The U.S. Fencing Association posted the news on its Web site on the morning of June 7. After she got home, Zagunis helped spread the word -- both about her first-ever World Cup gold medal, and the Olympics.

When her friends asked her how the tournament in Germany went, Zagunis said, "'I won, and by the way, I made the Olympic team on top of it."'

"It was a pretty good weekend and I just went through my phone book and called everybody," she added.

Zagunis graduated from high school in 2003 and was accepted at Notre Dame, but she deferred her enrollment for a year so she could train fulltime to try to make the Olympics.

"I wish, sometimes, that I could always be a professional fencer, because that's kind of what it was like," she said. "Not professional, because I wasn't getting paid, but I was focusing everything on it. It was kind of like a job. I was practicing twice a day and doing all this cross-training."

At last week's New York Grand Prix of Fencing, Zagunis helped the U.S. women's saber team win the silver medal. In the final of the event, which served as the world championship, Zagunis took the initiative in the opening encounter to give the Americans a 5-2 lead. She swept her next opponent 5-0 and then tied her last opponent 5-5.

"She's a great team player," said Sada Jacobson, who noted the U.S. coaches like to use Zagunis in the second-to-last rotation to give the team a boost heading into the final matchup.

The World Cup victory in Germany, combined with some other top 10 finishes, has boosted Zagunis to No. 6 in the world. After spending a couple months in limbo, she is adjusting to being an Olympian.

"By now, it's starting to sink in," she said. "It's a good feeling. I like it."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press