Winning an Olympic gold medal before your freshman year of college? Sounds like something out of a Hollywood movie. Winning the first Olympic medal for your country in last 100 years?  Pure fantasy.

For Mariel Zagunis, this was her reality.

Zagunis, who attended Notre Dame 2004 through the spring of 2007, boasts an award list worthy of its own website. Her achievements would include another Olympic gold medal in 2008, a bronze medal in the team sabre competition in 2008, NCAA champion in the sabre in 2006, three-time junior world champion (2001, 2004, 2005)  and two-time senior world champion in 2009-10. 

Zagunis is among the elite-level athletes to excel in the NCAA championships, which celebrate a 25th edition this year. She largely dominated the fencing vernacular for over a decade, and rightfully so, since bringing home the first fencing gold medal in 100 years.

Before Zagunis there was Olga Kalinovskaya, who helped pave the way for the younger generation of women who were drawn to fencing.

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Jeff Holt | NCAA Photos
Kalinovskaya of Penn State would become the first woman to win four consecutive NCAA titles from 1993-96. Kalinovskaya’s specialty was foil and she dominated her competition. 

Kalinovskaya has been called “a snot” by opposing players.  A small price to pay for a huge place in fencing history.

Since Kalinovskaya, no man or woman has been able to match her record, leaving her spot in the record book safe. For now.

However, a few fencers have made a solid run at her place in history. Boaz Ellis of Ohio State would win the title from 2004-06 while Slava Zingerman of Wayne State would bring home the title in 2006-08 and come painfully close in 2009.  

Each of these history-making fencers hailed from institutions with a rich history in fencing.

Since the NCAA began awarding titles in combined men’s and women’s fencing in 1990, Penn State has led all schools with 12 championships.

Penn State would be home to one of the best fencing coaches, Emmanuil Kaidanov, for more than three decades.  Coaching them to title after title.  Kaidanov was also known for having an eye for talent.  He would recruit the best of the best for the Penn State program, developing it into the national powerhouse it is today.

And when you are the best you tend to bring out the best in your opponent. And one of Penn State’s stiffest opponents during the past 25 years has been Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish have won the second most titles, bringing home four championships in the last 20 years. In that two-decade span, Notre Dame has been a runner up eight times, including six Penn State championship years. Smell a rivalry?

The history of the fencing program at Notre Dame is just as great as that of Penn State’s, even if it was by chance.

Pedro DeLandero, a Mexican native, attended Notre Dame and would find his way back to Mexico and back again to Notre Dame.  After returning to South Bend to be a Spanish professor, DeLandero would be involved in a car accident.

The prescription? Rehabilitation.  The treatment? Swimming. 

DeLandero would have none of it and suggested fencing in the place of swimming.

And as the say, the rest is history.

Fencing would go on to become Notre Dame’s eighth varsity sport and the school would develop one of the best fencing programs in the country.

Many fencers have gone on to coach, to be motivational speakers, or in the case of Slava Zingerman, a Wayne State prodigy who almost caught up with Olga Kalinovskaya’s four-time NCAA title record, you not only coach professionally but you donate your time willingly.

Zingerman spends time with U.S. veterans helping them to stay active and healthy by teaching them to fence. This is all a part of the Veterans on Guard! Fencing program that is held at New York’s Fencing Club.

Leadership on and off the mat, or court, or field. This is the challenge for each NCAA student-athlete, past and present. The rewards continue long after trophies gather dust and winning seasons are a distant, pleasant memory.