What female jocks learn — and Olympic athletes know

As millions of us tune into the Olympics today in London, Mariel Zagunis, a saber fencer from Beaverton, Oregon, who won the U.S.’s first gold medal in fencing since 1904 in 2004 was chosen to lead the 529 American athletes into the opening ceremonies. Her parents, Kathy and Robert, were rowers, who met when they competed in the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

FedZag6 (Photo credit: Kashmera)

When I moved to New York, and was eager for a new athletic challenge, I trained with a two-time Olympian, saber fencer Steve Mormando, and was nationally ranked in the mid 1990s in that sport for four years.

Fencing rocks!

Competing in sports, especially when you’re aiming for the top, teaches many powerful lessons, some of them of special value to women, in whom unshakable confidence and physical aggression can be seen as ugly, “unfeminine” or worse.

Some of the lessons saber fencing competition taught me:

— Saber (one of three weapons used in the sport), requires aggression and a sort of boldness that’s totally unfamiliar to many girls and women in real life. If you hesitate or pause, you can easily lose to the opponent prepared to start the attack. Go!

— In saber, you “pull distance” and create space between you and your opponent by withdrawing backwards down the strip and extending your blade. This buys you time, and safe space, in which to make a smarter or more strategic move. I’ve often slowed down in life when it looked like I should speed up or jump in quick. Fencing taught me the value of doing the opposite.

— Anger is wasted energy. I hate losing! But stressing out when I did lose, which is inevitable in sports, as in life, only messed with my focus and concentration. Move on.

— Pain will happen. Keep going. I was once hit, hard, early in a day-long regional competition and my elbow really hurt. But I had many more opponents to face and didn’t want to just drop out. Life often throws us sudden and unexpected pain — financial, emotional, physical. Having the ability to power through it will separate you from the weaker pack.

When I fenced at nationals, the first group of American women to do so, there was no option to compete in saber at the Olympic level, let alone world competition. It was frustrating indeed to work and train so hard, traveling often and far, competing regionally and locally, but never have the chance to go for the ultimate challenge, trying for an Olympic team position.

The sport was dominated by European men, and its organizing body, The Federation International d’Escrime, decreed that saber was (of course) too dangerous for women.

Now the U.S. has Zagunis, a young woman of 27, who dominates the sport.

This year, a new sport (which I truthfully find horrifying, but that feels hypocritical, doesn’t it?) — women’s boxing — has been added to the Olympics.

As we watch and cheer and cry and shout over the next few weeks, remember all the women along the way, their efforts often initially dismissed or derided, whose hard work and tenacity break down these barriers.

I Am Olympic'ed Out! No More Whiners (Hello, Plushenko) Or On-Podium Air Guitar (Yes, Shaun White)

WANAKA, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 26:  Shaun White ...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

I’m done. One more week to go. Feh.

No more Bob Costas — nestled so deep into that plush armchair of his he looks like Pee Wee Herman, no more weepy/fist-pumping athletes (it’s binary, kids, you will win or you will lose,) no more tight close-ups of athletes and their coaches indulging in last-minute whatevers.

I’ve loved what I’ve seen. As someone who’s competed at the national level and who knows a few Olympians, (and one who missed making his team by one spot), I get it. I deeply value and believe in the challenge, joy, pain and tremendous focus it takes to achieve Olympic-level athletic excellence. Today’s Wall Street Journal profiles a bob-sledder who lost his home due to the financial strain of getting to the 2010 Games.

The hype, the lack of helpful commentary or insight on most of it, is leaving me disengaged and bored right now.

If I have to watch 14 men skate their 5-minute programs [or however long it is] how about something as basic as — what music did they choose? How hard would it be to sub-title it or announce at the beginning what each of them has chosen to skate to? I recognized some of the warhorses, the theme from ‘Out of Africa’ and the much-beloved Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. But stuff like that is much more relatable and interesting to me, and I bet to thousands of other non figure-skaters, than “OMG, he blew the triple salchow!” muttered for the umpteenth time by Scott Hamilton.

I found the Lycasek-Plushenko drama tedious and rude. The American won. He beat a gold medalist without a quadruple jump. Get over it! Pardon the mixed metaphor, but this is inside baseball, endless petty bickering over points of style and content that very, very few spectators even give a damn about.

Nor was I impressed by Shaun White playing air guitar on the podium. Ho-hum, another gold medal. Rude. You’re 24, dude, not 14.

So, tonight, it’s back to Netflix for me. What about you?