When she walks into the arena, you will notice the flag in her hands and the smile on her face.
Not that long ago, you might have noticed the sword in her hands and the tears in her eyes.
The best Olympic stories always begin at the bottom, when an athlete’s insides are twisting in agony. That’s where the golden journeys usually begin, on the wrong side of a scoreboard.
And so it was with Mariel Zagunis, who will serve as flag bearer when the United States marches into the Olympic Stadium tonight. Once, she was as upset as any athlete you could imagine, and then she won in one of the biggest upsets of them all. Because of that, the finest athletes her country can offer will walk in her footsteps.
Here, in the year of the female athlete, who could be better?
This, after all, is the 40th year of Title IX, the legislation that has made the women of the United States such a force in the Olympics.
For the first time, more women are on the United States team (268) than men (261).
For the first time, every nation in the Olympics has a female athlete. Here’s the thing they have in common: None of them wants to get into a sword fight with Zagunis, not on a castle wall and not in competition.
Ah, but back to the tears. It was March of 2004, and Zagunis had just lost a 15-14 decision to Sada Jacobson in saber at the United States Olympic trials. She left the arena weeping. Her Olympic chance was over. She had taken a year away from college to train for it, and now she was destined to be haunted by that one-point difference forever.
Until Zaire exited, that is.
Weeks before the Games, Zaire decided not to send its saber fencer to the Games in Athens. That meant a slot was open for the highest-ranked women who had been left out. Zagunis had fresh mettle.
Weeks later, she won the gold, the first fencing gold for the United States in 100 years. As far as upsets in the Summer Olympics go, you can put that one up with Rulon Gardner and the ’72 Russian basketball team.
Four years later in Beijing, Zagunis did it again, this time beating Jacobson in the final.
Evidently, her teammates were paying attention. It took four tries to break a tie in the voting for the 2012 flag bearer, but the flag ended up in the hands of Zagunis. Now, as she says, all she has to worry about is “not tripping and not letting the flag touch the ground.”
In the history of the Summer Olympics, only five other women have carried the flag for the United States. Before 1972, the year Title IX was enacted, there had been one.
None of that is lost on Zagunis, 27.
“I am where I am today because of the women who paved the way for me, basically,” Zagunis said. “They were the ones who fought for our rights.”
Four decades later, Title IX is the law that changed everything, the legislation that allowed American women to be among the best in the world.
Tamika Catchings, the U.S. basketball player, can recite all the names: Wilma Rudolph and Althea Gibson and Billie Jean King and Cheryl Miller, who had to struggle for everything they got along the way. Then she mentions another name: Wanda Catchings.
“My mother and I used to go to the playground, and then we would race home, and she would always win,” said Catchings, 33. “She was fast. She could have run track or played tennis or competed in anything she wanted to compete in, but she never had the opportunity.”
“Sports are important. You learn a lot of things about working with others that you use in whatever job you end up with,” said Catchings’ teammate and Seattle Storm All-Star Sue Bird, 31.
Things like resiliency when things seem hopeless. Things like success when no one expects it. Things like the achieving of dreams.
For Zagunis, and for the rest of the United States women, that’s sort of the point.