Today in our Olympic countdown, a peek behind the curtain at one of the oldest and most obscure Olympic sports: fencing. But fear not. In the hands of two-time gold medalist fencing can be quite accessible.

Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: There are three weapons in fencing: Epee, foil and sabre. Mariel Zagunis is the best woman in sabre. She won Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008. To understand the world of Zagunis' weapon of choice, versus the others, you're probably expecting a wonky fencing historian rather than, the Sex Pistols.


SEX PISTOLS: (Singing) I am an anti-Christ. I am an anti-Christ. Don't know what I want but I know how to get it...

GOLDMAN: Saber fencers, says Zagunis, are the punk rockers of her sport.

MARIEL ZAGUNIS: You have to be like more aggressive and explosive and kind of crazy and stuff. So I think that kind of plays into our personalities.


GOLDMAN: It's early morning in Portland, Oregon and Zagunis looks more athlete-in-training than spiky punk. She's wearing blue running shorts, a gray T-shirt, and a fencer's traditional mask with metal mesh and a neck-protecting bib. She's moving along a fencing strip opposite her longtime coach Ed Korfanty.

One stutter-steps and lunges while the other retreats, then back the other way. It's part of Zagunis' daily lesson. Yes, two golds, countless other medals and trophies, plus a current world number-one ranking, and she still has a 45-minute to one-hour lesson each weekday.

ED KORFANTY: OK, three lunges and every time you count.

GOLDMAN: Sixty-year-old Korfanty was a national team member in his native Poland. He ended up training young fencers in Portland, where he met, and starting working with 12-year-old Mariel Zagunis. That was 14 years ago. She played competitive soccer then too, but ultimately gave it up for the more cerebral game; fencers call their sport chess on the strip.

Here Zagunis recounts her bout with fellow American Becca Ward during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

ZAGUNIS: It really came down to knowing what her tendencies were; knowing what she thinks that she can use against me and not letting her do that, while at the same time executing, you know, something different. Like, I had to mix it up. You know what I mean?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, play like double and triple thinking.

ZAGUNIS: It really is. You're four or five steps ahead

GOLDMAN: Four or five steps ahead in warp speed. Remember the punk rock, explosive, aggressive analogy? Sabre features fast footwork and often quicker bouts than in epee and foil. For Zagunis, the former left-midfielder, a successful move in sabre can be as much of a rush as a goal on the soccer field.

ZAGUNIS: If someone is attacking you and you're in defense, they finish their attack and you just block it and hit them - just like boom-boom.


ZAGUNIS: Like, that's always a good feeling.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is AP Olympic Minute. Seven gold medals have left the shelves on opening day of the games. Mariel Zagunis won the first gold for the U.S., leading an American sweep Saturday in women's saber fencing

ZAGUNIS: He'd like to see the - my medals.


ZAGUNIS: I don't know where it's at.


GOLDMAN: Absolutely I wanted to see Zagunis' Olympic hardware. Her mom, Kathy, a former Olympic rower, keeps the medals at her house. They were surprise gold medals. In 2004, Zagunis was added to the U.S. team at the last minute – hardly a favorite. In 2008, she didn't perform well in the lead-up to the Beijing Games.

London will be different. She's number one in the world and now the favorite. But Mariel Zagunis is ready to deal with that pressure and create a little anarchy in the U.K.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.


MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from