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US Wins Gold Fencing Medal - 2004-08-18

The withdrawal of an African athlete turned into Olympic gold for a United States fencer.

Women's fencing became an Olympic sport in 1924 and after 80 long years the United States finally has its first medals in the event.

Both came in women's saber, which was added to the Olympic program for the 2004 games.

Saber is the fastest of fencing's three weapons. The target area is the entire body above the bend in the hips, including the head. Unlike foil and epee, saber fencers can score with either the tip or the edge of the blade.

Mariel Zagunis, 19, won the gold medal Tuesday night, defeating China's Tan Xue, 15-9.

"I can't put into words really how I feel, it's just so incredible. It's awesome," she said. "It's really cool. I'm going to go down in the books, so that's pretty cool."

Mariel Zagunis would not have had a chance to go into the Olympic history books were it not for a decision by fencing's international governing body two months after the original U.S. squad was named. Nigeria declined to send its qualified fencer Jacqueline Esimaje, who was not ranked in the world's top 100. Since no other African fencers had world rankings in women's saber, the vacated spot went to the highest ranked athlete who had not previously qualified for the Athens games. That was Zagunis. So it allowed the United States to become the only country with three athletes in the event.

Zagunis had lost a one-point decision to Sada Jacobson - ranked number one in the world - in the final U.S. Olympic qualifier.

The 21-year-old Jacobson won the bronze medal here by defeating Romanian Catalina Gheorghitoaia,15-7.

Jacobson had lost to silver medalist Tan in the semifinals. She took that loss hard, and her coach helped her regroup for the bronze medal match.

"I kind of forced myself to pick myself up and go fence the last bout. It really did feel good," she said. "It was kind of a redeeming feeling to be about to win your last bout, even though the end result was not exactly what I wanted. I was so happy to have a medal."

The United States had not won any fencing medals since a men's bronze in Los Angeles 20 years ago. It's the first time an American team has won multiple medals in a fencing event since the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.