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U.S. Women’s Saber Team Wins Bronze, Zagunis Becomes First U.S. Fencer to Medal at Three Olympic Games

08/14/2016, 1:00am CDT
By Nicole Jomantas

Team USA's Monica Aksamit, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Dagmara Wozniak and Mariel Zagunis on the podium in Rio. Photo Credit: Serge Timacheff / FIE / FencingPhotos.com

(Rio de Janeiro) – Eight years after women’s saber was last contested as a team event at the Olympic Games, Team USA ended the Rio Games with a bronze medal win on Saturday after a 45-30 final victory against Italy.

The win would be the fourth career podium finish for Mariel Zagunis (Beaverton, Ore.) who won individual golds in 2004 and 2008 and team bronze in 2008. With her fourth medal, Zagunis is now the only U.S. fencer to reach the podium at three different Olympic Games and the only U.S. woman to win four Olympic medals.

“I’m just really happy to end my fourth Olympics on a win. The individual event [in Rio] was disappointing and London was also disappointing,” said Zagunis who finished fourth in London and ninth in Rio individually. “In London, we didn’t have a team and we didn’t have this chance to kind of end up with a second chance. So I’m just happy that we all regrouped after Aug. 8 and we fought hard for our country, fought hard for each other … I’m just happy we ended on a win today.”

The win also puts the United States as the No. 2 nation in the overall medal count with four podium finishes – ahead of Italy and Hungary with three each and behind Russia who currently holds seven. Although the United States does not have an entry in the men’s team epee event on Sunday, Team USA will finish in second place in the overall medal count for this Games. The four medal win also is the third best finish for a U.S. Fencing Team in any Olympic Games since the sport was introduced at the first modern Games in 1896.

All three of Zagunis’s teammates were first-time Olympic medalists: Dagmara Wozniak (Avenel, N.J.), Ibtihaj Muhammad (Maplewood, N.J.) and Monica Aksamit (Matawan, N.J.)

Together, the U.S. Women’s Saber Team members have won medals at the last five Senior World Championships, including gold in 2014, but injuries kept the squad off the podium at each of the five World Cup events this season.

“This has been a long journey for us … We’ve worked so hard for this and to be able to compete at the level we’ve worked towards on the world’s biggest stage at the Olympic Games is truly a blessing for us,” Muhammad said. “I feel like we came in the underdogs. We hadn’t medaled all year. To be able to do that and go home with a medal is a phenomenal feat. I’ll never forget this moment.”

One of the teams that the Americans struggled with during the World Cup season was Poland – a team the U.S. squad trains with frequently and would draw in the quarter-finals in Rio.

The Polish team won three of the first eight bouts, but Team USA stayed ahead of its opponent with a 40-35 lead going into the anchor bout between Zagunis and 2003 Senior World medalist Aleksandra Socha.

Socha made up ground for Poland quickly, scoring eight touches against Zagunis to tie the bout at 43 before Zagunis took the two scores she needed to secure the win, 45-43.

In the semifinals, the United States fenced Russia – the reigning Senior World Champions whose lineup included both the champion and silver medalist in the individual event in Yana Egorian and Sofya Velikaya, respectively.

Russia won each of the first four bouts to take an eight-touch lead at 20-12 when Muhammad took the first bout for the Americans with a 6-5 win against Egorian. Zagunis followed with a 7-5 defeat of Velikaya.

It was the seventh bout, however, that would change the tone of the entire bout as Muhammad scored seven straight against two-time Senior World Team Champion Ekaterina Dyachenko and 10 total to put Team USA into a one-touch lead at 35-34.

“We discussed this earlier in the day that our plan was, no matter what happened, to focus on these four voices – not the ref, not even the coaches, not the fans. We only were listening to each other. I kept hearing ‘Just get one. Just get one,’” Muhammad said of her comeback run. “To be honest, I have no idea what the score was at the time. I knew that I had to execute our plan every single time and they fed me the confidence from the very beginning. They told me I knew how to fence Dyachenko and I believed and I feel like that’s all it took.”

In the eighth bout, however, Velikaya put on a commanding performance and scored five straight against Wozniak to cut the Americans’ lead to one at 40-39.

Although Russia held a 44-39 lead late in the bout and Egorian needed just one to close, Zagunis scored three straight to cut the Russian lead to 44-42. Egorian scored her fifth and final touch, however, to end the match, 45-42.

The Americans would spend an afternoon break regrouping to face Italy for bronze after the Italians lost to Ukraine, the 2013 Senior World Team Champions, in the semis.

“Our season actually works the exact same way as this, so if you lose to make the final you still have to fence on for bronze. So we’re very familiar with losing and bouncing back and getting ourselves together to end on a win,” Zagunis said.

Team USA dominated Italy from the start and, after six bouts, had nearly doubled Italy’s score with a 30-17 lead.

“They’re a strong team [and] you can’t underestimate anybody, especially with this high pressure situation. We’ve fenced Italy many times before, but you just never know, with an Olympic medal on the line, how people are going to come out swinging,” Zagunis said. “So we needed to come out swinging harder. That was our plan from the start was to shut it down early and kind of take the wind out of their sails.”

In the seventh period, Team USA subbed in Aksamit as the replacement athlete for Muhammad and Italy put in Ilaria Bianco for Loreta Gulotta.

“I definitely felt on fire,” said Aksamit who scored four touches quickly. “All of a sudden everything got locked up and it kind of hit me. Then I heard my teammates yell ‘Just one! Just one!’”

By the end of the bout, Aksamit kept Team USA ahead by a 10-touch margin as the Americans retained a 35-25 lead.

Wozniak made quick work of Irene Vecchi, a 2013 individual Senior World medalist, with a 5-2 win and Zagunis anchored Team USA against Rossella Gregorio for a 5-3 win.

“We were emotional, we were upset [after the loss to Russia], but we really pulled it together and I’m really proud of our performance,” Zagunis said. “We have an Olympic medal and that’s what matters it’s maybe not the color we want, but it’s a medal nonetheless and I’m really really really happy to not be going home empty handed.”

Wozniak was in tears after the win as she was hit by the emotions of the day and the reality that her medal dreams had finally come true.

“This is definitely really emotional. It’s the end of competition for us. It was the last day to put everything on the line and just go out there swinging,” she said. “I’m really glad my team was able to pull it together as well as myself and go home with a bronze medal.”

For Muhammad, who lost her table of 16 bout in the individual event, a team medal meant even more than an individual podium finish would have.

“I’ve had individual medals in the past at World Cups, but my World Championship medals are all team medals, so to be able to end my Olympic experience on such a high note and to be able to end with a group of girls that I literally have traveled with, it means a lot to me,” Muhammad said. “I wouldn’t trade this medal for anything in the world, not even an individual medal. It means a lot. I know that, as a squad, we’ve worked really hard and I’m happy that each of us gets to leave this experience with some hardware.”

Throughout the months leading up to the Games, much attention was made of the team’s diversity with Muhammad becoming the first U.S. woman to compete in a hijab at the Games and Wozniak coming to the United States as a child with her family from Poland.

“I’m actually glad that we have such a diverse team because we are America,” Wozniak said. “This is sport. It doesn’t matter what hair color you have or what religion you are. The point is to go out there and be the best athlete that you can be and I think we’re the best explanation of what America is – a mix of so many different cultures and races.”

While she embraces her team’s diversity, Wozniak said that the beauty of sport is that winning and losing comes down to who is the best on the strip regardless of anything else.

“We were able to go out there and just fence as hard as we could. Athletic performance has nothing to do with where you come from or who you are or what you eat or what religion you are or what hair color you have. It’s all irrelevant and you’re supposed to go out there and fight as hard as you can,” Wozniak said.

Muhammad said that the journey was a culmination of years of work together as a team on the international circuit.

“I feel like this moment is bigger than I am. I’ve worked so hard the last six years – I’ve been on the United States National Team for six years – and it’s been such a hard journey,” she said. “It’s been a lot of injuries. It’s been a lot of time away from my family. It’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into winning this medal with my team. I can’t think of a better group of girls to win this medal with. I’m just very appreciative. I’m just very grateful to be able to represent my country.”

Tag(s): Monica Aksamit