Responding to Mike Wise


The 2012 London Olympic Games have featured two stories that have riled up the Fencing Community. There was of course, the Shin A Lam controversy. And then, there was Mariel Zagunis’s shocking defeat to Korea’s Kim Jyeon and Washington Post columnist Mike Wise’s scathing editorial after her defeat that…well…pissed off every fencer, forced some to open Twitter accounts just to berate him.

I tip my hat to Wise, who has defended his editorial tooth-and-nail and responded to many emails to him. I might disagree with the content and tone of his article, but as his invitation, I chose to email him my thoughts. You can see what I said below. I eagerly await his reply.

Mr. Wise,
My name is Damien Lehfeldt, I have been exchanging tweets with you from my @TheFencingCoach account. A couple of things I wanted to discuss with regards to your article on Mariel Zagunis:

I understand that when one competes in the Olympics, they are scrutinized closely by both the media and the public eye. With the success of Mariel in holding two previous gold medals, she is held to an increasingly higher standard by both the fencing community and the media alike. While I agree with your criticism that Mariel’s comments in the wake of her match were ungracious to her opponent, I wanted to provide you a few points to think about, which I don’t think you considered in your article:

  1. Fencing is an Olympic Sport that embodies the true values of amateurism- There aren’t big endorsement deals for fencers. We don’t have a professional fencing league to pay us money. People like Mariel Zagunis train full time because they love the sport. As you said it yourself: “…no one but fencers care about fencing after the Olympics are over. And nothing is as over as when the Olympics are over…” Fencing is rarely in the limelight. You have to remember that fencers like Mariel Zagunis (and Tim Morehouse) have given the last 8 years of their lives to the sport, not holding any jobs and just training. Why? Simply because they love it. And playing a sport for the love of it is amateurism in its purest form. Nobody is more devastated from Kim’s comeback than Mariel herself. Roger Federer has a couple hundred million dollars and a comfortable lifestyle to go back to after losing to Andy Murray. All Mariel has is a lost dream and the resounding question of “what if?” to think about.
  2. Blown leads happen in fencing. And it’s devastating for the person who blows it- Do you ever watch an NBA game and notice that when a team has a 20 point lead in say— the 2nd quarter that they never seem to maintain it? This is largely because the coach will change tactics. Maybe add an extra guy to cover the perimeter. Maybe change the personnel and add more three-point shooters. Maybe it’s a defensive issue. My point is, you never see these leads extended or maintained. Slowly, the lead is whittled away because when you’re playing Basketball at an elite level, the difference between the best and the very best is very narrow. This is true in fencing as well. We have a saying in the sport, “One touch at a time.” You can set a goal at the beginning of the day to say “I want to win this tournament,” but then you’re looking beyond the building blocks that will get you there, which is each individual touch. Legendary foilist Sergei once held something like a 11-3 lead in the 1997 World Championship final over Korea’s Young Ho-Kim. Kim simply changed his tactics, kept his optimism high, and tied the bout at 14-14. Golubitsky dodged a bullet and ended up winning 15-14. My point is, “one touch at a time” is the nature of our sport. And when Mariel blew that lead to Kim Jyeon, it was tough for everyone to watch our hero go down, but we understood that this happens in Fencing.
  3. Mariel didn’t talk to the media and shut down for a reason- As a media member, I understand how you would be irked that Mariel wasn’t talkative throughout her event. Allow me to explain why: As a coach, I tell my students competing in elite competitions to put on noise cancelling headphones, pull a hoodie over their head, and talk to no one throughout the duration of their tournament. They are to focus on fencing and fencing alone. Fencing is often called “physical chess.” It’s a cerebral game, and while we are a tight knit, close community and mostly friends with one another off the strip; come competition time, it’s only about competition. I can understand why Mariel blew off the media. Look into her eyes when she’s on the strip, and you see a determined woman with iron focus who is simply in it to win it. Coaches hope their students can match that level of focus. Don’t take it as a slight that she tuned you out. That’s how we have to operate at that level.
  4. You didn’t get what Mariel is for Fencing- Think LeBron James. Think Peyton Manning. Think Rafa Nadal, and that’s what Mariel Zagunis is for fencing. She has gone out of her way with kindness to others in the sport, signing autographs, being gracious to her admirers, and overall being one of the classiest athletes there is. Fencing is a sport of a lot of egos at the elite levels. Not Mariel. I believe you presented her as self-important, lackluster, and care-free about her performance. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I urge you to go to a tournament and see how she interacts with her fans when she’s NOT in competition mode, and you will see why our community was so quick to come to her defense.

Anyhow Mr. Wise, sorry to bombard you as I’m sure many have. I just wanted to explain my disagreement with your article. I will be in London this week as a pentathlon coach. Perhaps we could meet up for a beer.

Will keep you posted on what he has to say.

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