Nov. 1, 2012
By: Lauren Chval
Since beginning athletic competition, the University of Notre Dame has accumulated 27 national championships. To be a Fighting Irish student-athlete is to be an embodiment of combined elite athleticism and strong academics – a reason many student-athletes cite for choosing to attend Notre Dame.
It is no surprise then that this summer, 13 Notre Dame athletes (current and former) participated in the highest level of athletic competition in the world: the Olympics.
The United States won the hardware race with 104 medals–46 of them gold–and Notre Dame was front and center in the USA national team as fencer Mariel Zagunis carried the flag during Opening Ceremony. But the United States wasn’t the only country boasting Notre Dame athletes–three members of the Fighting Irish represented Canada and hurdler Selim Nurudeem ran for Nigeria.
Regardless of country or event, all of the athletes agreed that their time at Notre Dame proved essential to preparing them for playing on the world stage.
Carrying the Flag
At 28 years old, Mariel Zagunis is technically still a student at Notre Dame. Though she committed to the University 10 years ago, Zagunis hasn’t found time to complete her degree yet.
“That’s been put on hold for time-sensitive reasons,” Zagunis says.
She’s talking, of course, about the Olympics.
Although Zagunis committed at 18, she immediately delayed her freshman year at Notre Dame to train for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. It was the first year women’s sabre was an event at the Olympics, and Zagunis made the USA team as an alternate. At 19, she did not even expect to compete, but she could never have dreamed that when she gained a spot in the competition at the last minute, she would end up winning it all.
“To be the first women’s sabre Olympic champion and to be the first gold medal for United States fencing in the Olympics in 100 years…” she trails off. “There was just so much that happened in Athens that I didn’t even realize was happening until afterwards.”
Her experience at Beijing in 2008 was not any less special. She won her second gold medal, but this time the silver and bronze went to fellow USA teammates in sabre.
“That made it incredibly special to stand on the podium and see three American flags instead of just one being raised,” Zagunis says. “Also having competed on the first day of the Olympic Games, those three medals that we won were the first gold, silver, and bronze medals for the United States.”
London marked the third Olympic Games for Zagunis. It was her incredible story from her first two that made her a prime candidate to become the United States flag bearer. A representative from each sport can nominate a fellow athlete at a meeting a few days prior to the Opening Ceremony.
“You’re essentially selected by your fellow Team USA athletes to be that representative that leads the team in the Opening Ceremony,” says Zagunis. “So it’s actually a very meaningful and honorable position to be voted into.”
Zagunis knows a thing or two about what it means to be a part of a team. After winning her gold medal in Athens, she flew straight to Notre Dame to begin her freshman year and NCAA fencing career.
“My whole career up until college had been individual. Fencing is an individual sport so it’s all on you,” she says. “All of the wins are all your wins and all of the losses are all your losses, but when you fence NCAA, that completely changes because you’re fencing not only for yourself but for your team.”
In addition to developing that team mentality, Zagunis was also able to snag the highest NCAA honors during her time at Notre Dame. She won both a team and an individual national championship, achievements that she feels add to her success at the Olympic level.
“If you look at all the possible titles within fencing, those are two of the titles that you want to win,” Zagunis says. “I was fortunate to win both of those during my time at Notre Dame, so it feels complete now.”
What’s next for the three-time Olympian? Her season starts back up in January, and then she will be training full-force in preparation for another go-round in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at her fourth Olympics.
“I’m planning on winning that medal that eluded me in London.”
She pauses for a moment before blurting, “I’m also getting married. So that’s also very exciting.”
And somewhere in the middle of all this excitement, Zagunis intends to finish her Notre Dame degree. It seems like there is nothing she can’t accomplish.
Using Her Experience
Although Amanda Polk started rowing in high school, she credits her experience on the Notre Dame team with furthering her hopes in the sport.
“Notre Dame definitely helped me to kindle the fire, especially with the NCAA Championship that we participated in while I was there,” Polk says. “That was the first time that the Notre Dame rowing program made it to the NCAAs, and that was such an accomplishment.”
When she graduated in 2008, Polk left Notre Dame as a four-time All-American and the most decorated rower in the program’s history.
“Notre Dame helped me to get from high school rowing to elite level rowing,” she says. “I felt very prepared coming out of Notre Dame that I was equipped with the right tools physically and mentally. I just needed to continue to be myself, continue to listen and grow as an athlete and as a person.”
Polk says the London Olympics had been a goal for her ever since graduation, although getting there was another matter. According to Polk, women hit their rowing peak in their mid-to-early 30s, but she herself was only 25 at the start of the 2012 Olympic Games. At that young age, she made the team as an alternate.
Going forward, Polk says she is undecided as to whether or not she is going to pursue a spot on the national team in 2016. In four years, she would be closer to that “peak age,” but she might also be interested in putting her Notre Dame degree in biochemistry to use.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last four years, and if I do decide to train and go for Rio, I’ll definitely have the knowledge and use that as an advantage toward the next four years,” Polk says. “Rowing is the kind of sport where the more you do it, the better you get at it. A second Olympics is encouraged by the coach. In another four years, you can exceed the expectations that you had for yourself.”
Shannon Boxx, like Zagunis, is a three-time Olympian, but her time on the women’s soccer national team did not come until four years after her graduation from Notre Dame.
“That very first one, obviously, when you’re going through you’re thinking this is going to be your one and only,” Boxx says. “The way I made the team–I made it when I was 26 years old–I kind of thought my career was done the year before I made the Olympic team. The fact that I had such a big turnaround, I was just super excited about making the Olympic team.”
Boxx remembers how special the dynamic of that team was. She played alongside veterans like Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, and knowing that it was their last year, she wanted to win the gold for them.
“It felt like you were playing for your country but it also felt like you were playing for those teammates,” Boxx says. “You wanted them to go out on top for what they had done for US Soccer and women’s soccer.”
Not only did Boxx help the 2004 team to a gold medal, but she repeated the performance in 2008 as well. With two gold medals under her belt, the midfielder entered the London Olympics as a veteran and leader of the team. She was looking to win a third gold medal when she went down in the team’s first game against Colombia with a hamstring injury.
“To be injured that first game and be thinking it could have been my last Olympics, I was pretty emotional after it happened,” she says.
Determined to be able to play again, Boxx worked with her coaches, teammates, and trainers. Originally she intended to be back in time for the quarterfinals but soon realized that was perhaps too ambitious. She was still sidelined and cheering on her teammates during the United States’ thrilling victory over Canada in the semifinals.
But Boxx wouldn’t be kept off the field forever. Her rehabilitation allowed her get back in the game for the finals against Japan.
“To actually step on the field during the finals was amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a better story,” she says. “To come back in the finals and to help the team win gold was a great way to end the Olympics.”
Overcoming such adversity is something Boxx says she learned during her time at Notre Dame. In her 1995 season, her team won Notre Dame’s first-ever women’s soccer national championship.
“I will never forget that team,” Boxx says. “I will never forget how we won that year. We fought through a lot. There were a lot of moments where we didn’t think we were doing very well and our coach was yelling at us and then we kind of found a way to win. If I hadn’t dealt with those hardships in college, I don’t think I would have been as good as I am now on the national team. Those are two different experiences that I will always remember.”
Becoming a Veteran
Junior Natalie Achonwa may be an upperclassman on the Irish women’s basketball team now, but she was the baby at the 2012 Olympics. Not only was she the youngest member of Canada’s national team, but she was also the second youngest women’s basketball player in all of the Olympics.
“I think the youngest was younger than me by 40 days or something like that,” Achonwa says with a laugh.
The forward says she’s used to it, as she has been the youngest on the Canadian team since she began playing with them in 2009.
“The players are obviously a lot older–a lot more experienced,” she says. “They’ve played a lot longer and picked up a lot more than I have. It’s a great learning experience for me. Every time I play for Canada I’m surrounded by a lot of players that have been through the ropes.”
Achonwa–nicknamed “Ace” by her teammates–is no stranger to playing under pressure, however. In her first two years of NCAA competition, she has been to the championship game both times. The bar has been set for this year and Notre Dame has the same goal: to win a national championship.
“We’re trying to get back to the championship game for a third year in a row,” Achonwa says. “It’s going to be a challenge but we’re definitely looking forward to it. I think I grew a lot as an individual and as a player this summer. We all grew this summer. We’re ready to bring it on the court during the season.”
Certainly, her experience at the Olympics has Achonwa better prepared for the pressures of NCAA play. She recalls that the Canadian team was the last to even receive an Olympic bid, and the anticipation leading up to that bid left her feeling “pure excitement” at the announcement. She may have been the baby at the Olympics, but she’s going into this season as a veteran for the Irish.
“I just get to learn from amazing women and amazing athletes,” she says. “I’m very grateful that I get to bring that back from playing with the best in the world and try to bring back what I’ve learned to my teammates.”
A Notre Dame Affair
Zagunis was not the only Notre Dame fencer on Team USA. She was joined by Lee Kiefer, Gerek Meinhardt, and sisters Courtney and Kelley Hurley. Zagunis claims that the Olympics–as long as she has been around–have always been a Notre Dame affair.
“It’s always been like that actually,” she says in regard to the number of Irish fencers participating in this year’s Olympics. “In 2008 I had two Notre Dame fencers on the team with me, and this year we have even more. It’s incredible to share that experience with your United States teammates but it narrows down to an even smaller and more special group who go to Notre Dame or who have gone to Notre Dame.”
The two teammates Zagunis refers to in Beijing are actually Meinhardt and Kelley Hurley. In London, the three returned to compete together, this time bringing along even more Notre Dame blood, including Kelley’s sister, Courtney.
“Fencing has brought our family as close as it can be,” says Courtney. “You fight so much more when you’re fighting for your family. Emotionally, you definitely fight more. Also the pleasure afterward is doubled because you have two medals.”
Meinhardt, too, knows a thing or two about fighting hard. In 2010, after bringing home the bronze for men’s foil in the Fencing World Championships, he tore his meniscus for the third time and needed to have surgery. He was out of training for nearly half a year right before the year of Olympic-qualifying tournaments, but Meinhardt was determined to get back to the Games.
“I was looking forward to getting there again and maybe appreciating it a little more than I had in 2008,” he says. “Back then I had just turned 18, and I feel like I didn’t really absorb or soak in as much as what was going on as I could have. It was sort of all happening around me, but I didn’t really let it sink in.”
Participating in the 2016 Olympics is a possibility for both Courtney Hurley and Meinhardt–Hurley makes it sound more inevitable. But as Kiefer has just entered Notre Dame as a freshman (not unlike Zagunis a decade ago), the Irish will almost certainly have fencers competing at the highest level for years to come.