The dream of the Olympics is something that every fencer and every fencing parent thinks of at some point. It is a big dream, maybe a romantic dream, and definitely a far away dream for most fencers and their parents.
Cathy Zagunis is the mother of the most decorated American fencer in the history of our sport, sabre fencer Mariel Zagunis. Mariel is a four-time Olympian, with individual gold in both Athens and Beijing, and team bronze in Beijing and Rio. She was the Olympic flag bearer at the Opening Ceremonies in London, though she just missed the podium with a fourth place finish. At the World Championships, Mariel has won four gold, five silver, and four bronze medals in the last twenty years. Recently, she was inducted into the FIE Hall of Fame. She is a fencer with longevity and vision, and when you talk to her mom you can see where she gets it from.
Since 1998, Cathy has been the Director of Programs at the Oregon Fencing Alliance in Portland. She herself is an Olympian, having competed in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal as a rower. She’s also a National Champion in rowing.
What we learned from powerhouse fencing mom Cathy Zagunis in this interview is that these things are not as far away as they feel. Cathy is a parent who is grounded in the support of her children and the unconditional love she has for them. We found her to be the opposite of a tiger mom. In this interview, you’ll get some refreshing parenting insight that might change the way you think about what it means to parent a champion. (Hint: the secret isn’t pushing your child harder).
AFM’s Interview with Cathy Zagunis
Irina – Hi there, Cathy! It is such an honor to meet you!
Igor – We appreciate your time.
Irina – First of all, how are you doing?
Cathy Zagunis – I’m fine. I run the club from home and I have a lot of free time on my hands without the other activities. Everyone is doing well. Mariel had the emotional rollercoaster as you can imagine. Making the Olympics. Maybe going, maybe not going. Postponing.
IG – I know that she said that going to the Olympics is her goal. Did this change anything?
CZ – No, no, that’s still her goal. She’s treating this as off season. You know what can you do? So she’s ramped back a little bit. Just doing mostly physical fitness stuff as you would off season.
IG – She went off season on a very high note.
CZ – She was getting back up there and peaking at the right moment. She was pretty pumped, but you know that’s what happens.
IR – We are parents of fencers ourselves, so we know how difficult it is as to be a fencing parent.
I read somewhere that behind every successful athlete, there is a mom.
CZ – I’ve heard that too.
IG – What is your role as a sports parent, what was it and what is it now?
CZ – I have to say that I think my role has evolved. It’s much different being a parent of a small child, a beginner fencer. All three of my children were fencers. Mariel is the middle child, she has an older brother, Marten, and a younger brother, Merrick. There’s about five years between them.
At first it was just a fun activity, not too serious. I was more frantic about driving everyone to their activities. Someone has soccer here, someone has fencing, somebody has basketball. Not focusing on a bunch of hours or intense lessons or that sort of thing. I think now parents have changed because the parents are much more focused early on in one sport and becoming very serious about it. My kids started fencing in a different era, a different culture. When they were young they did a lot of sports. I didn’t know anything about fencing. I didn’t push them in that direction or anything.
I felt my job was that if they made a commitment to join something and they didn’t want to go, my role as a parent was to remind them. You made this commitment, you are signed up for your lessons and you’re going to take your lesson today. As a parent, I felt that’s what I controlled – helping them keep their goals and their commitments. It wasn’t like they could join the basketball team and then after two games decide to quit. None of my kids would decide to do that anyway, they’re all very athletically competitive.
Then there was the era when they were all fencing. They were older and extremely competitive with each other, that’s when I was afraid they were going to kill each other on the strip. That created some interesting aftermaths in the car leaving the club. In Mariel’s case, she was a junior in high school and that’s when she decided to get serious. She started out doing foil. Then sabre sort of started, so she was doing two weapons. We’d go to a competition with all of those foils and all those sabres and that was pretty crazy. Then she shifted over to just sabre. She was the alternate for the Cadet team in foil in 1998. Then she was on her first national team in 1999 when women’s sabre came to have World Championships.
As she became more serious it was expensive. There’s a lot more funding available now. USA Fencing had no funding to help even their top fencers. To go to all these competitions around the nation and internationally to qualify, it’s financially very stressful. I’m not saying other sports aren’t. In tennis you’ve got to take a lot of private lessons and do a lot of travel, a lot of tournaments and competitions around. To be at the level and to get that experience you need to get, you need the international competitions and it’s expensive.
Like most parents, we traveled with our kids. When they’re twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old you really don’t want to send them with someone else on a long trip, so you’ve got yourself and your coach and the child. I was working full time in order to help support this. At the time it was financially very challenging to have three children at the international level, going different places at different times, different weekends.
IR – Her brothers also competed internationally?
CZ – Her older brother Marten was on the National Team in 2000 and the World Championships were in South Bend, he was on the Junior Team. He started first. She, like your kids I’m sure, hung around the fencing gym and it’s more fun to join in than to sit on the bench and watch the other kids have fun.
IG – Why did he choose fencing? How did you find fencing?
CZ – He was seven years old and he said he wanted to do fencing. I said “What’s that? I don’t know what that is.” I kind of looked around, back in the dark ages when there was no Google. How do you find fencing? So I put him in taekwondo with a little fib. “You’re too young, you can’t do fencing until you’re nine years old.” I don’t know whether he saw a cartoon with fencing or the Three Musketeers, I don’t know if he saw something on TV that triggered him that he wanted to do fencing. When he got to his ninth birthday he reminded me,“Now that I’m nine I want to try fencing.” Then I had to make a better effort to try to find where he could learn fencing in Portland. Back then it was called the US Fencing Center Foundation and they practiced at the same gym where we are now. We changed the name from that to the Oregon Fencing Alliance in 1997.
IG – Was Ed Korfanty there back then?
CZ – When my kids first started they were fencing for Colleen Olney, who is Michael and Bob Marx’s mom. They started foil, and she was a foil coach. Ed was brought to OFA in 1994 from Notre Dame, he was assistant coach and then Colleen hired him.
IG – Now when you look back, obviously you can say that Mariel is an extremely talented woman. At what point of time did you realize that your daughter is talented?
CZ – I think at the moment that you’re living in it, it’s not like an “aha” moment. It’s not like all of a sudden she just won the World Championships. I can’t say that I’m living through her, but I’m happy when she’s winning and of course I’m stifling the tears too when she loses or she’s disappointed or when she’s injured. Having those different hurdles that she has to go through, you feel that as a mother. She has to get through it herself, I don’t push her. [Editor Note: compare these comments with those of Elena Grishina, mom of World #1 Epee fencer Sergey Bida]
I think right now, again it’s a different culture. I think so many parents live through their children. Too much. It’s the parent’s goal that the child be the Olympic Champion or the National Champion and to be the best fencer.
Growing up myself, I was a champion swimmer. My mom would just sit in the back row in the bleachers knitting the whole time or reading a book. I didn’t even feel like she was watching me. That made me more comfortable that she wasn’t one of the parents that was down on the side of the pool screaming and yelling, or screaming and yelling at their child when they lost. You go to any competition and you see the horrible parent behavior sometimes, it’s just embarrassing. For not performing, for misbehaving, for losing on the strip or crying on the strip when they do lose instead of letting them be a kid. I think I was fortunate in that, at the time, all of the incentive came from within Mariel. It’s like, I just dropped her off.
She has an incredible work ethic, obviously she always has. If you talk to her, her advice to the kids always is “All you have to do is to stay an extra ten minutes after the end of practice and work on your footwork, and that’s ten minutes that your opponent’s not doing.” That adds up. If that’s ten minutes five days a week, all of a sudden that’s almost an hour a week of extra work. She’s the one who would be the first one at the gym and the last one to leave because she’s so self motivated to perfect herself.
For her maybe that’s why she’s unique, maybe that’s why she was a champion. I didn’t have to motivate her at all. When she started excelling and getting more results, it sort of perpetuated itself. Once you win, you want to win again. You want to make the National Team again. You want to go to the World Championships again. She also loves what she does, she’s not burned out. Which is difficult for anybody. Whether you’re in your career, whether you’re a coach or you’re a businessperson in your corporation, to be able to be passionate about what you’re doing for twenty years, I give her a lot of credit for that. She just loves it. She loves fencing.
IG – She never had the feeling of, enough’s enough?
CZ – I think her only moments of discouragement were her moments when she’s injured. She never verbalized that she just wanted to quit, that she was tired or that this injury made her not want to get back. I think it just motivated her more to do her PT and get healthy and get back, to make up for her time off and get back. Her motivation came from within. I didn’t have to do anything except drive her to PT or drive her to practice or wherever.
IR – Please tell us about how your role of mom was evolving with your daughter’s progression as an athlete. Until what age did you travel with her?
CZ – I traveled with her all the time until she had her baby.
IR – Amazing.
CZ – I went to every World Cup. So I am a world renowned mother because all the fencers know me, I’m always there at every single event. After she had the baby I had to stay home because someone had to babysit.
Highs and lows in Olympic parenting
IG – You were on the bleachers in 2004 in Athens?
CZ – Oh yes. Well before that. Her first World Championships were in 1999.
IG – What was the feeling in Athens in 2004?
CZ – In Athens, I think I was in shock. She’s fencing the Gold Medal bout, and I’d never won a medal at the Olympics. Wes Glon beside me was saying “She’s gonna win, she’s gonna win.” I think she was ahead something like thirteen to ten or something. I kept saying “No, no, no, I’ve seen her lose five straight touches. So don’t think it.” Then she won and I was in shock. I was happy for her, but it was more or less two or three days later with all of the media before I realized what her accomplishment was. When she actually won, I was more or less just being happy for her. It took a while to realize what it meant.
Beijing was completely different because she had the bullseye on her back. She wanted to win again and everybody else wanted to win too. It was sort of a surreal experience because the three Americans were in the finals and she had to fence first Becca and then she had to fence Sada. It was actually very hard as you know as Tina and I sat next to each other and watched our girls fence for the Gold Medal because we loved both girls as if they were both our daughters. It was like, the best person is going to win but internally as a parent you want your child to win. She won, but the amount of celebration was toned down even for Mariel as far as she just beat her teammate. Mentally it was an extremely tough match.
The girls back then, they fenced each other for World Championship medals and World Cup Gold Medals all the time. When they’re on the strip they’re fighting to win. That opponent is no longer their friend. It’s just an opponent. Afterwards you go to dinner, you train together, and that friendship is still there. When you’re behind that mask on the strip, it doesn’t matter whether you’re fencing a sibling, your best friend, a club mate, anything. The best woman wins.
IG – Let’s talk about siblings a little bit. In your family you have three fencers. I believe only Mariel is fencing now.
CZ – Mariel’s success came while Marten was already off in college in 2002. He was already doing his NCAA collegiate experience and was All-American. He was happy for his sister and of course he was in Athens. Her biggest supporter, but he had already adjusted his fencing goals. My younger son also fenced well enough to be selected to travel internationally. He played tennis instead. I think he realized he wanted to do something for himself that was different.
I can’t put thoughts into his head or words into his mouth, because it was something that he never really talked about. He had an injury when he fell at JOs fencing, he was in the top four and broke his back on the concrete. He fell backwards and landed on the concrete floor. He had to take a good six months off of fencing and it was sort of after that when he resumed that he said he wanted to try other sports.
IG – When was the lowest point in your parenting? The highest I believe was the Olympics.
CZ – I think the lowest point was when she did not make the 2004 Olympic team. It was down to the very last world cup in Italy and she had to get at least second place at that World Cup in order to get enough points. There was no team, so it was just whoever was ranked in the FIE top eight, but no more than two for each country. Mariel, Sada, and Emily Jacobson were all in the top eight but Sada was like number one and Emily was probably around number six and Mariel was number eight. Emily lost and didn’t make it to the second day so it kind of opened the window if Mariel got second place she would pass Emily in the point standings. She fenced Sada in the semifnals and lost so took Bronze. There was a lot on the table and there were a lot of tears. We both went back to the hotel room and hugged each other and cried all night because she didn’t make the Olympic team. Then as it all came about, she ended the season ranked number four in the world and then the Nigerian who had a slot didn’t get sent by the Nigerian Olympic Committee. That opened it up and Mariel got to go to Athens.
IG – And history was made.
CZ – And history was made.
IG – Frankly, I would expect that you would say the lowest point was the 2012 Olympics.
CZ – London was high because she was the flag bearer, that was so cool. You sit there and you watch as she’s winning, but then she lost all those touches, which happens in sport. She either lost her focus or was thinking about her next match or something. We all thought for sure she had a clear way to make another medal in London but it didn’t happen. That’s sport.
IG – What was your reaction to this? You obviously were the most experienced medaling mom.
CZ – To have her not make a medal? It was sport. It’s not my fault. I can’t say it was her fault. It’s what happens. You’ve all seen it happen. You can be ahead fourteen/eight and whatever, the pressure to get that last point and you can’t do it. You lose the bout. That’s what’s amazing about fencing. It’s unique.
Once you win those big medals, those big events, your motivation to do it again and again and again kicks in. Maybe losing in London was good. If she’d won her third medal, maybe she would have retired. Instead, it’s like motivation. I’m going to train another four years. I’m going to go to Rio. I’m going to try to do it. I have to say, not winning a medal and having a pretty poor result in Rio individually, that drove her. That’s the silver lining. [Editor Note: Compare this motivation after losing to that of another great sabre fencer, Olympic Gold Medalist, Sofya Velikaya]
One of my proudest moments too was her being awarded the Chevalier Trophy by the FIE. She is the only American to receive it (was awarded in 2009) and I think many people in the US are not aware of the award, let alone that she received it.
IR – I wanted to ask you about your Olympic experience. Was this a topic that you discussed or that influenced your children?
CZ – I don’t think that it did. Our kids know that we went to the Olympics. We didn’t have a shiny medal to show them or anything. We talked about it. Very early on Mariel did say to us “I want to go to the Olympics.” She didn’t say in what sport. Rowing is something that you can’t start as a young child, you have to be pretty much a teenager physically to be able to start rowing. She didn’t even have a rowing exposure. She was tapped to go to the Olympic development program for soccer. I can’t recall the exact age, but I would say by age thirteen or fourteen she was talking about “I’m going to go to the Olympics.” There wasn’t even a women’s sabre event in the Olympics. She was fencing women’s sabre but there wasn’t fencing in the Olympics.
IG – Why did she pick fencing over soccer?
CZ – I think because of the challenge that it presented and because of her personality. She had the great feeling of a team sport and teammates and cheering altogether and yet she had to rely on herself and had the challenge.
Champions come from within
IR – Did you try to influence the mental side of your children?
CZ – Her motivation did come from inside. Honestly I’m not the mother who’s picking her up and who’s in the car asking who did you bout and did you beat them and what’s the score. It just wasn’t the conversation. We’d come home. We’d have dinner, very late after training. The question is more “Well, what homework do you have to do tonight? What can I do, can I get you ready for tomorrow. Do I need to go buy poster paper to make your poster?” Maybe that’s also helpful for the decompression. She’d just spent three hours fencing, why talk about it? The last thing you want to do when you come home is rehash the bout that you lost or that you won. That’s the coach’s role. Ed would do the video review or talk about what she did wrong or what she did right. I felt like I was the nurturing mother in other ways. More or less I need to focus on what I can do to help you so that you can do what you have to do.
I think the champions come from within. I think the kids that are going to be champions are the ones who are self driven. They’re not going to be the ones whose parents are forcing them or wanting them to be the champions.
IG – There were a lot of forks in the road for her. Were there moments when she had to rely more on you for wisdom or somebody to lean on?
CZ – I know that we had the discussions about whether to take the gap year or not to take the gap year. I think a lot of that came from her coach, Ed Korfanty, who had great faith in her. He told her that she was on a good trajectory, if she off to college her level would drop. I know in Mariel’s case, that question was more with her coach than with her parents. I said “Ok, how do we do that? Who do I notify? What’s the logistical process to notify a college that you’re going to take a gap year after you just signed a full scholarship?”
IG – Was it a difficult decision or did you just go along with it?
CZ – I just went along with it. The pros and cons. She was in the top rankings and why not give it a try.
IR – For sabre, she had the same coach all the way up until today. What is your relation with the coach as a mom?
CZ – Earlier on it was his advice what tournaments she should go to or what she shouldn’t go to. I think in today’s age parents hardly consult. I see that as a club manager. Parents are kind of doing their own thing. For us it’s always been a team effort and whatever Ed suggests or says, that’s what we do.
IR – I agree with you, it’s a very important point to trust your coach as a parent.
CZ – From the financial perspective, why go to a tournament if you don’t need to? You’d be better to sign up for an extra five lessons instead of spending that money on that travel. Even to a regional tournament that they’re not prepared for or don’t need to go to. Maybe it was a different era. Maybe it was because I was naive. I don’t know fencing, I’m not a fencer. I didn’t know what it takes to be a top fencer and so I relied more on the coach telling me or advising me what Mariel should be going to. If Mariel had been a rower, I might have been more critical. I would say “I used to bench press a hundred and fifty pounds, what’s wrong with you?” I still don’t know very much about fencing. I look at the lights to tell whether she’s scored or not. It’s too fast for me.
IG – Even now?
CZ – Even now. It’s fast.
IG – Now you are the manager of a fencing club. How did this transition happen?
CZ – Colleen Olney was the club manager. It’s a not for profit so she wasn’t the owner. She had cancer and knew that her prognosis was not good. She said “Why don’t you come to the Junior Olympics with me? And I’ll show you how it happens.” It was Mariel’s first Junior Olympics and she was just ten or eleven years old. She was showing me how the national tournaments worked and very soon showing me how things happened at the club. It was sort of a gradual introduction. It was kind of her wish to me. She said “You’re smart, you understand things when I’m no longer here. I want you to help run it.”
Parenting for college fencing
IG – Did the college perspective ever play a role in your parenting?
CZ – No. Not at all.
IG – But you knew early on that they would probably get a full ride?
CZ – Nope.
IG – You didn’t know this. When did you start learning about colleges?
CZ – When Marten started to be a junior in high school. I really was clueless about it. It was the college coaches coming to me and saying “We’d like Marten to apply and we can offer you a scholarship in this amount.” It was like “Oh, ok.” A scholarship is nice, but we had the means to send him to any college he wanted to go to. It wasn’t our ulterior motive to get him into a school so that he could get a scholarship. Now college is twice as expensive as it was twenty years ago. Mariel of course had all the coaches knocking at the door.
IG – Why Notre Dame?
CZ – I think she just liked it when she went there for her visit, her college visit. There were other incredible options, but one in particular said it’ll be the end of her international fencing career if she goes here because she’ll fence every weekend and she won’t be allowed to travel. They’re not going to allow her to miss classes to travel. It was like ok, that’s off the list. Not off my list, but Mariel said she wanted to continue doing international fencing. That school’s off the list.
IR – I think it’s actually a very important point for decision making and nothing wrong with this
CZ – It’s interesting and I’m sure you see it too that it’s a little frustrating as a coach. You’ve worked so long with a student and then they get to college and then they either stop fencing after two years or they just do collegiate fencing and their level drops. They don’t go to the national tournaments anymore and they don’t come home at vacation time and train. They’ve obviously used fencing as a stepping stone to get to college and their next career. Honestly because there’s no such thing really as a professional fencer, you call Mariel a professional fencer but there’s no such thing as a professional fencer. No, you’re going to have to have a career in IT or a doctor or a lawyer or whatever your interests are. Yeah, fencing helped you get there and fencing teaches you a lot of life skills, but in reality you’ve gotta move on. There’s no professional fencers in the US.
IG – At least for now.
CZ – Yeah.
IR – The last thing that I wanted to ask you is what you would say to fencers about training in these difficult times?
CZ – It is so important it is to continue training. If you take two months off, it’s going to take you six months to get you back to that level. We’re trying to promote the virtual classes. It’s so intense that coaches get exhausted. The kids too, they’re not taking the break to go put the gear on and to go to the water cooler. So that class is very productive because it’s very intense. As well as the virtual private lessons. If they don’t keep training, they’re going to be really, really behind their peers when they come back to class. Especially those young kids, they just don’t retain those skills. Again fencing is repetition. Again and again and again .Doing that same footwork, doing that same action is so necessary.
IR – We are really grateful for your and for sharing your insight with us. You are great.
CZ – Hopefully I answered some questions and this can be of good use. Thank you.
This interview has been edited down to keep it at a readable length, as Cathy was generous with her time. It is published with her approval on this blog.
AFM is incredibly thankful to Cathy Zagunis for her time. Her honesty and openness as a fencing parent is a blessing for our readers. Thank you Cathy!