(Reno, Nev.) – Two-time Olympic Champion Mariel Zagunis (Beaverton, Ore.) and Athens Olympian Soren Thompson (New York City, N.Y.) earned the first two gold medals of the week for Team USA at the Pan American Zonal Championships in Reno on Monday.
Taking titles in the women’s saber and men’s epee divisions, respectively, Zagunis and Thompson solidified their positions as the top Americans in the Adjusted Olympic Rankings with just over a year remaining until the start of the London Olympic Games.
Thompson went undefeated in his pool to earn a fifth seed in the tournament. As Thompson was one of four U.S. athletes to win all of their pool bouts, Team USA held four of the five top seeds with Seth Kelsey (Colorado Springs, Colo.), Ben Bratton (New York City, N.Y.) and Cody Mattern (Colorado Springs, Colo.) taking the first, third and fourth seeds.
In the first two rounds, Thompson earned quick wins against Andres Villalobos (PER), 15-3, and Athos Schwantes (BRA), 15-8, to advance to the quarter-finals against Mattern.
The 2004 Olympic Teammates fenced a close bout with the score tied at nine at the end of regulation. With the bout in overtime, Thompson scored the first touch and won, 10-9, in the final 30 seconds and Mattern placed sixth.
On the opposite side of the bracket, Bratton placed fifth overall after a 15-14 loss in the quarter-finals to Hugues Boisvert-Simard (CAN).
Thompson’s win set up an evening semifinal against Kelsey who entered the event as the top-ranked U.S. athlete in the world and Thompson’s 2004 Olympic teammate.
Thompson took an early lead that he held throughout the bout, ultimately creating a six-touch gap at 12-6. Kelsey made a comeback, however, and the two battled during the final touches with Thompson taking the win, 15-12.
“I did build a good lead, but Seth is incredibly good at coming back from deficits so I was never resting in the bout at all and, indeed, he did make a run at the end and it didn’t surprise me that he sharpened up and made some really good changes and he caught me on some actions, so I kind of hunkered down and made a winning touch at the end,” Thompson said. “I’ve fenced Seth many many times and it seems like in these situations he’s taken more of the ones recently, so I knew it was going to be a battle.”
With Kelsey winning bronze as the first medal of the week for Team USA, Thompson advanced to the gold medal bout against Ruben Limardo (VEN) – a fencer he defeated in May when Thompson won bronze at the Grand Prix in Stockholm. Although the score was close throughout the bout, Thompson pulled out the win, 15-12.
“I thought he’d be a little bit more passive initially than it was. Our match in May was a little less frenetic I guess. I think that he probably came in with a strategy based on that match where he wanted to rush and make a lot of hard, straight fleches and it took me a little while to get the timing and start being able to set him up so I could start getting touches instead of getting hit,” Thompson said. “It was a really really tight match and he controlled some aspects of it very well, but I made the right adjustments throughout and I managed to get the win.”
Thompson’s first Pan Am title will improve both his World Ranking as well as move him into the top spot in the Adjusted Olympic Rankings for an American.
“I had a number of goals along the way, but winning was obviously the biggest one and it sets up Olympic qualification really well, so it’s a great feeling,” Thompson said. “I started pretty late in the process. I was working full-time and fencing very little for the past couple of years, so I was at a little bit of a disadvantage which led to bad seeds, but I knew getting good points here may set me up really well. I think this may move me into the top 16 in the world and getting a bye at the World Championships would be a huge advantage and it may follow me through the qualification period. That, obviously, is a big benefit of winning and why I wanted to get all these points and win here.”
Although Thompson had not competed much since 2008, he chose to return to the international circuit this year in a bid to qualify for his second Olympic Team.
“I pretty much stopped fencing after ’08 when our team didn’t qualify, so I’ve been focusing on work and some other things for awhile, but I was feeling good physically and the little bit of fencing I was doing was also feeling good so I felt that, in some ways, I could be better than I ever was before if I really applied myself and I had good results before,” said Thompson who has now gone from working full-time for a construction technology company to consulting for his employer in order to work remotely while competing around the world. “I felt that I was able to set myself up in terms of my job and physically to have a decent crack at it and so far it’s going well.”
In the women’s saber competition, Zagunis emerged from the pools as the top seed in the tables and one of U.S. three athletes to earn byes into the table of 16 along with teammates Ibtihaj Muhammad (Maplewood, N.J.) and Daria Schneider (New York City, N.Y.)
Dagmara Wozniak (Avenel, N.J.) dropped a single pool bout and entered the table as a #7 seed.
After a 15-9 win over Nulexis Gonzalez (VEN) in the table of 32, Wozniak lost 15-9 to Sandra Sassine (CAN) and placed 12th. Muhammad also lost in the table of 16 to Maria Belen Perez Maurice (ARG), 15-14, and finished ninth.
Zagunis and Schneider each earned wins in both the table of 16 and the quarter-finals to qualify for the semis where they would face each other while Sassine and Maurice met on the other side of the bracket.
Schneider kept the bout close during the first half as she trailed Zagunis by two, 8-6, but Zagunis held her teammate to just two touches in the second half to win the bout, 15-10.
“Especially when you’re fencing a teammate, you kind of use the first half of the bout to get into the groove, get into the swing of things and feel each other out,” Zagunis said. “The first half was a little bit close, but it happens like that. That’s why it’s important to get that early lead. I wasn’t ahead by too much at the break, but it definitely helps to get warmed up in that first part of the bout. As long as you’re ahead, that’s good and then you can close out strongly. It’s a great result for Daria, so congratulations to her. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t have met in the gold medal bout, but either way, it was a good bout.”
In the final, Zagunis ousted Sassine, 15-4, to win gold.
“Sandra and I have come up against each other a lot of times and I knew I just had to get out to an early lead and not give her any breathing room and no easy touches and that’s what I did,” Zagunis said.
Like Thompson’s win, the victory also means Zagunis will hold on to her position as the top U.S. athlete in the Adjusted Olympic Rankings while Schneider’s bronze moves her into the #2 position for Team USA in the AOR.
“It feels good to win a third time in a row. At the Pan Ams usually my biggest competition is my teammates and I was hoping we’d have all four of us in the top four, but I only came up against Daria today,” Zagunis said. “It feels good to end the season on a win and be one step closer to qualifying for the Olympics. Now we get a break and I can get ready to be fresh for next season.”
Competition continues on Tuesday at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center when the following athletes compete in the men’s foil and women’s epee events:
Kelley Hurley (San Antonio, Texas), 2010 Pan Am silver medalist
Courtney Hurley (San Antonio, Texas), 2010 Pan Am bronze medalist
Maya Lawrence (Tea Neck, N.J.)
Lindsay Campbell (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Miles Chamley-Watson (Philadelphia, Pa.), 2010 Pan Am silver medalist
Alexander Massialas (San Francisco, Calif.), 2010 Pan Am bronze medalist
Gerek Meinhardt (San Francisco, Calif.)
Race Imboden (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Top eight and U.S. results are as follows:
Women’s Individual Saber Pan American Zonal Championships
1. Mariel Zagunis (Beaverton, Ore.)
2. Sandra Sassine (CAN)
3. Daria Schneider (New York City, N.Y.)
3. Maria Belen Perez Maurice (ARG)
5. Eileen Spencer (PAN)
6. Alejandra Benitez (VEN)
7. Angeliac Larios (MEX)
8. Fatima (Tobar)
9. Ibtihaj Muhammad (Maplewood, N.J.)
12. Dagmara Wozniak (Avenel, N.J.)
Men’s Individual Epee Pan American Zonal Championships
1. Soren Thompson (New York City, N.Y.)
2. Ruben Limardo (VEN)
3. Hugues Boisvert-Simard (CAN)
3. Seth Kelsey (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
5. Ben Bratton (New York City, N.Y.)
6. Cody Mattern (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
7. Silvio Fernandez (VEN)
8. Francisco Limardo (VEN)
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