USA sabre fencer Mariel Zagunis had always known that she was going to become an Olympian.
"It never really crossed my mind that I wouldn't eventually become an Olympian," she told the International Fencing Federation last week.
In her 25-year career as a fencer, she has participated in four Olympics and has become a two-time champion in individual sabre (Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008) whilst also winning bronze medals in team events in both Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016. She also holds 14 World Championship medals.
Still considered as one of the top sabre fencers in the world, she credits her parents for paving the path to her formidable Olympic career.
"They were rowers in the 1976 team and they went to Montreal. Just having them to look up to was really a big part of my success."
Zagunis recalled what it was like to win her first Olympic medal - a historic achievement for Team USA who hasn't won a gold medal in fencing in 100 years. It was also in Athens 2004 where the first Women's sabre team had been part of the Olympic programme.
"To win in Athens at the age of 19, I was still pretty naive. However, winning didn't really sink in until years later."
But after Athens, she had to face mounting pressure to repeat her former glory in Beijing 2008. In addition, she had to face her fellow teammate Sada Jacobson in the final, But eventually, Zagunis dominated the event and won, scoring the second gold medal for her country.
"Even now, a decade later [after Beijing 2008], that day when I defended my Olympic title from the Athens Games remains one of the best performances of my fencing career. And let me tell you, it had to be. The women’s sabre field was incredibly strong in 2008 and my path to the gold medal was no exception," Zagunis wrote a blog post in TeamUSA.org in 2018.
"By the end of the day, I had made history and become an Olympic champion. Again."
"And when you stand on the top of the podium at the Olympics there is no greater feeling like all of your hard work and years of sacrifices come to fruition. And what the world sees is an accomplished, relieved, ecstatic, usually weeping athlete."
"What the world doesn’t see is the team behind that athlete – because no one becomes an Olympic champion on their own or by luck. To this day, I am so incredibly thankful for my support system of coaches, family, friends and teammates who help make it all possible."
Taking a break for motherhood
Zagunis took a break right after Rio 2016 to become a mother. Putting her career on hold was not an easy decision but Zagunis was grateful that her fencing federation allows high-level athletes like her to fulfil their dream of becoming a mother.
"We have made some positive changes in our federation to support women who choose to have a baby and want to come," she told @FIE_fencing.
In 2017, her daughter Sunday Noelle was born.
"Having her, I've never felt more proud of myself than when I gave birth to her."
"She is my greatest achievement."
Now 35, Zagunis remains to be one of the most decorated sabre fencers in the world. She will be competing in her fifth Olympics in Tokyo next year, 17 years later after she first competed in Athens 2004.
It will be her first Olympic Games as a mother.
"Ten days before everything was cancelled and postponed, I won the World Cup in Athens. I felt amazing in that competition."
At first, she was disappointed about the postponement of the Games, but she now views it with a positive attitude.
"Right now I am going to take it one day at a time. Slowly get back into when it's safe to and hope that everything clears up and the world can get past all this."
Her target remains the same.
"Gold in Tokyo is the goal."