- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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Mariel Zagunis was in a hurry.
It had been a long day. She had already contested three bouts before most of her friends and family at home in Oregon had climbed out of bed. Then, at half-past 6 London time, she stepped onto the fencing strip for her semifinal match. Win there, and Zagunis would find herself in a place she knew all too well: fencing for gold in women's sabre at the Olympics.
But something happened on her walk toward the inevitable. Zagunis faltered, and when she stood up and dusted herself off, she found herself in a place she had never been, at the end of an Olympic tournament without a medal around her neck.
Zagunis had been dominant in the day's early bouts, surrendering no more than nine touches (a bout ends when one fencer reaches 15) in any of her three wins. After each match, she walked off the floor and through the mix zone with an expressionless gaze, not making so much as eye contact with the members of the media drawn to the ExCel Center to watch America's golden girl of fencing attempt to win her third consecutive gold medal.
For the first half of the day, Zagunis moved through the building, and her bouts, with the stride and confidence of an athlete who had been there before. Zagunis lives her life repeating quadrennials, a sporting version of "Groundhog Day," and so, like Bill Murray, she came to expect the same ending. She was biding her time until the inevitable.
"She came here only to win," said her coach, Ed Korfanty.
At the start of her semifinal bout against Kim Jiyeon of South Korea, Zagunis looked on track to do exactly that, lunging to a fast 3-0 start. Whether she was on the attack or defense, Zagunis seemed in control, and quickly the boards showed a lopsided score of 12-5 in favor of Zagunis. But her touches stopped coming, her trademark squeal and fist pump were replaced by silence. Her timing seemed off; her rhythm changed.
12-9 12-10 12-12 12-13 12-14 12-15.
Before she knew what happened, Zagunis surrendered 10 touches and found herself in unfamiliar territory: shaking hands with an opponent after losing at the Olympics.
Fencing is a tactical sport where a mental edge is worth more than physical gifts. On Wednesday, it was Kim Jiyeon of South Korea who had that edge, beating two-time champ Zagunis in the way great champions are beaten -- by drawing them off balance and into the unknown, by getting into their heads and making them uncomfortable.
Zagunis was willing to give little credit to her opponent, saying only, "I beat myself. When I am 100-percent focused, no one can beat me." But was she not unfocused because her opponent saw a weakness and took advantage of it, because Kim stole her focus from her? "I'm just saying, on most nights, I beat her," Zagunis said.
But this wasn't most nights.
"I was impatient," Zagunis said. "I wanted to finish too quickly because I just wanted it to end. At 12-6, I thought I had it. I should have slowed down my attack. I should have slowed down the entire bout. I made a lot of tactical errors.
"I wish I could turn back the clock and go back to 12-6, refocus myself and do it all over."
In a way, that's exactly what she was asked to do. Less than two hours after losing her semifinal match, Zagunis competed in the bronze-medal match. She had come to London to win gold, and now she needed to summon the desire to compete for third place. Zagunis tried to compose herself. She regained her stone-faced gaze and walked through the media area, betraying no emotion. But behind closed doors and in the arms of her coach, she broke down.
"She was sad," Korfanti said. "She was distracted. She was crying. It was going to be very difficult to win the bronze-medal match."
That's the thing about having been there before. It's a saying tossed around a lot in sports. "Act like you've been there." It's a visualization tool, a way to shrink supersized moments into manageable bites. A feeling of familiarity can make an Olympic venue feel like a hometown gym. The best athletes do this well. They don't visualize competing at the Olympics. They visualize standing on the medal podium, bending to accept their medal. They imagine what ring they will pick out to commemorate their win.
At 12-6, Zagunis was doing that. She had been there before. She didn't need to manufacture confidence or a belief that she was going to win. And so, she was in a hurry. When her mind should have been focused on rattling off three touches and finishing her opponent, it was at the medal ceremony. It was out in King's Cross, partying and celebrating with her family and friends. In the end, it was not her talent that betrayed her. It was her mind. It was her impatience. It was her confidence.
In the end, having been there before landed Zagunis in a place she had never been.
"It's difficult to pull yourself together after losing," Zagunis said. "This is a learning experience. The only thing I can look forward to now is Rio. It would mean a lot, after having two very successful Olympics and one in between that wasn't, to win a third gold medal there."
And that, too, will be a place she's never been.
Mariel Zagunis expected to win another gold medal and had already assumed victory. That led to defeat.