American Mariel Zagunis looks on in disbelief after getting beat in the bronze medal match Wednesday.
LONDON — Mariel Zagunis was stunned.
She couldn't explain how a big lead in the semifinals turned into an even-bigger collapse. She couldn't avoid a similar fate in the bronze-medal match, either. And afterward, it even took her a few moments to remember that she was in London.
"I guess I'm just in disbelief," Zagunis said.
With good reason — the face of U.S. fencing and the flag bearer for the entire American contingent at the Olympic opening ceremony last week not only was denied a third straight gold medal, but she's going home without any medal at all.
Zagunis dropped her last two matches in the women's sabre event on Wednesday, after seeing a 12-5 edge over Kim Jiyeon of South Korea get wasted in what became a 15-13 semifinal loss. Not long afterward, and still reeling, Zagunis lost nine of the final 11 points to fall 15-10 to Olga Kharlan of Ukraine in the bronze bout.
For Zagunis, it was an unimaginable fate.
"Even now, it's all pretty surreal," Zagunis said.
It was a double-dose of coming close for the Americans, who won six medals in fencing in Beijing. Seth Kelsey lost the bronze-medal match in men's epee to South Korea's Jung Jinsun, 12-11 in extra time.
Kelsey walked away from the piste with no regrets, after never before winning an Olympic individual match. Zagunis left in a far different mindset.
"And now I don't have a medal, which is really strange," Zagunis said. "I've never been in this position before at the Olympics. So, yeah, I guess I'm in disbelief."
South Korea's Kim went on to win the women's sabre gold over Russia's Sofya Velikaya, while Ruben Limardo of Venezuela took the men's epee gold-medal matchup over Bartosz Piasecki of Norway.
Kelsey — who was bidding to deliver the first individual epee medal to the U.S. since 1928 — nearly beat Limardo in the semifinals, falling 6-5 and just like in the bronze match, it came in extra time.
With the score locked at 11-11 and time running out in the third period, Kelsey asked Jung if he wanted to simply go into overtime. One touch, one point, for a bronze medal, and Jung agreed.
It was a gamble, and for Kelsey, it didn't pay off.
"I've always been disappointed in my previous Olympic performances," said Kelsey, who lost his opening fight at both the Athens Games in 2004 and the Beijing Games in 2008, but helped the U.S. win the team epee gold at the world championships earlier this year and beat 2010 world champion Nikolai Novosjolov of Estonia in the second round on Wednesday. "And today, I beat three great guys. ... I gave myself the best possible shot."
Zagunis simply could not say the same.
Just about every element of Zagunis' Olympic history had been charmed — until now.
Zagunis' world ranking was not high enough for her to qualify as part of the U.S. team for the 2004 Athens Games, which she gained entry into only after Nigeria refused to allow its top-ranked athlete — about 100 spots below Zagunis on the world list at the time — to compete at those Olympics, a move that freed up a spot that eventually went to Zagunis.
She made the most of the chance, becoming the first American to win a fencing gold medal in 100 years.
Four years later in Beijing, Zagunis did it again, leading a 1-2-3 medal sweep for the Americans in sabre. The bronze-medal loss wasn't what stung Zagunis afterward — it was letting that huge lead against Kim get away.
"Things started happening really quickly and I wasn't landing my attacks," Zagunis said. "All of a sudden it was 12-10, 13-10, 13-13. So, things just happened way too fast. I should have slowed down with my attacks. I should have slowed down the entire bout.
"It really was like I pretty much handed it to her. It was all my mistakes that cost me the bout."
Dagmara Wozniak of the U.S. was ousted in the women's sabre quarterfinals, losing to Velikaya 15-13. Within minutes of that match ending, Wozniak turned her attention toward Rio in 2016.
"I can't wait," Wozniak said.
Moments later, she began to cry — and the tears really started to fall when talking about Zagunis, her close friend and teammate.
"She's an amazing person," Wozniak said. "She's a hard worker. Her passion for the sport is amazing. She's out there fighting really hard for not only defending her title, but defending her country."
Only this time, unlike in Beijing, the defense wasn't successful.
"The only thing I can really look forward to now is Rio," Zagunis said. "My chances here are done and now I can enjoy the rest of my time in — where am I, London? — and, you know, go on from there. There's nothing I can do about what happened here today now."