Published July 26, 2012
LONDON – The mother of fencing star Mariel Zagunis pushed up her flight by two days and frantically packed her bags to make sure she gets to London in time.
After all, it's not every day her daughter leads the U.S. team in the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
So Cathy Zagunis threw her things together Thursday at her home near Portland, Ore., still overwhelmed with emotion a day after her daughter called with the news. The proud mom is intent on getting to Olympic Stadium to see the two-time gold medalist serve as flag-bearer Friday night — and the U.S. Olympic Committee swiftly secured her a hard-to-get ticket for an event that could draw an upward of 1 billion viewers worldwide.
"I'm speechless is the problem," Cathy Zagunis said by phone, fighting tears. "I'm still in quite a bit of shock. It's an incredible honor to represent your country, but to be the single person at the opening ceremony holding the American flag is an amazing thing — to be the flag-bearer is incredibly special. When she told me, I cried for an hour."
For one night, Mariel Zagunis will turn her laserlike fencing focus to another important task with the world watching.
"I'm just going to focus on not tripping, not letting the flag touch the ground and doing everything right," she said at a news conference Thursday.
The start of the Olympics will be far more somber for the Israeli delegation. This is a time of remembrance — the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Olympics, when 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed in Munich by Palestinian gunmen.
The IOC would not allow a moment of silence at the ceremony. NBC Sports broadcaster Bob Costas, however, planned an on-air minute of silence of his own.
All the while, Israeli swim coach Chanan Sterling tried to keep his athletes focused, given the constant coverage in London and beyond of that terrible day 40 years ago.
"It's keeping them in our hearts, that's the main thing," Sterling said. "Everybody knows about it, thinks about it. We have a memorial also in Israel, there's a place in Tel Aviv that we gather before the Olympics with all the people who are coming to the Olympics — coaches, athletes."
Efrain Zinger, chief of the Israeli Olympic delegation, said the team has no special plans for the opening ceremony. The national Olympic committee will hold its own tribute Aug. 6 as it has during recent Summer Olympics.
"The Israeli delegation will march in the opening ceremony according to IOC rules," Zinger said. "We don't have any intention to break any of their procedures or regulations. It's not the place to make a statement."
But it will be a place for heavy hearts.
"It's very hard for us," Sterling said as his team trained in the Olympic pool. "But those days there were so many things. One year later there was the war in Israel. Those days we were used to this kind of life, unfortunately. Today it's not like that."
Through it all, he remains optimistic that any step toward bringing the world together — like an Olympics — will serve a better cause.
"We are hoping for it every day," he said.
It was no easy thing for Zagunis to earn her spot at the front of the 530-member U.S. team — 269 women and 261 men. First, she made it as a finalist and then prevailed in five rounds of voting by team captains. After four rounds, Zagunis and another unidentified athlete were tied.
"To get that final vote, someone had to change their mind, and they changed their mind in my favor," she said. "For the decision to be for me, in my favor, it means a lot to me. I can't believe it's going to be me."
Few will question the spirit and resolve of the 27-year-old Zagunis, not to mention moxie. For the occasion, she has wrapped strands of her wavy blond hair with glitter.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Zagunis was a late replacement but went on to capture a stunning victory in sabre — the Americans' first fencing gold in 100 years. Then came more gold in Beijing four years later.
Now, in her third Olympics, she welcomes her moment on the world stage and the attention it will bring to her sport.
"This is going to be one of my best Olympic memories, definitely," she said.
NBC Friday Olympic Prime Time Schedule:
Coverage of opening ceremony from 7:30 p.m.-midnight EDT/PDT.