Dagmara Wozniak is exhausted, but enjoying her mini-vacation. It’s been a whirlwind few weeks for the 24-year-old from Avenel, who is getting ready to finish her degree in biology at St. John’s University.
Oh, and she’s also , three weeks removed from competing in the Women’s Individual Sabre Fencing competition at the London Olympic Games, where she advanced to the quarterfinals of the 32-woman tournament on a partially torn Achilles tendon.
One can understand why she’s enjoying the time off between the Closing Ceremonies and the first day of class in Queens.
“It’s a pretty amazing experience,” Wozniak ("Daga" to friends and family) said of the whirlwind two weeks in London. “It kind of feels like the highlight of my life right now.”
Wozniak, who was born in Wroclaw, Poland, emigrated to the United States with her parents Irena and Gregory and older sister Zuzanna when she was just a year old, the family settling in Avenel. “At that time the Soviet Union fell apart and my parents wanted to start anew, so they came to the U.S.,” Wozniak explained.
She first took up fencing at age 9, joining the Polish American Fencing School in Linden and learning from founder and head coach Janusz Mlynek, her coach for the next six years. “I tried gymnastics and karate, but fencing just stuck,” said Wozniak. “I thought it was interesting. I thought it was different. It helped that I could be exposed to a lot of Polish kids – the friends that I made when I first started, I still talk to them to this day, thirteen years later.”
When she decided she wanted to get into competitive fencing while attending school at Colonia High School (she graduated in 2006), Wozniak moved on to training in New York at the Manhattan Fencing Club. “School would finish at 2:30 and I would be on the next train at 3:00, eating my lunch, trying to study on the train.” Wozniak would then spend the rest of the afternoon and evening honing her craft.
“My mom would come pick me up in Manhattan around 10 and I would study in the car or sleep in the car and get home and study,” said Wozniak.
Wozniak’s family naturally played a large role in her rise as a world-class fencer. Both of her parents were able to make it to London to watch her compete (“We used pretty much all of my miles to get them over,” she noted with a laugh.)
“My parents have worked hard and continue to support me in any way that they can, I owe basically everything to them,” Wozniak said. It was Wozniak’s mother’s battle with cancer that instilled a never-give-up attitude that she takes to the fencing strip. “She never cracked, she never fell apart, she never cried,” said Wozniak of her mother’s battle. “She kept a fighting face no matter how much pain she was going through with all the chemo and radiation treatment. That’s why whenever I get hurt in practice, I always try to push through, because I don’t want to give up or show that I am in pain.”
Fighting through pain is something Wozniak is familiar with. Shortly after the Olympics, she revealed she had been fencing with a partially torn Achilles tendon that she likely had been dealing with since last winter. “I had one day in London, I had this moment where it was a lot to take in and I thought it wasn’t going to happen,” she said, referencing whether the injury could have kept her from competing. “But on the day of the competition – through what miracle, I don’t know – I didn’t feel any pain,” noting that surgery may not even be necessary.
Wozniak was named a substitute for the women’s sabre competition in Beijing in 2008, but never got a chance to compete. The individual women’s sabre event was swept by Woziak’s teammates, with Mariel Zagunis taking gold, Sada Jacobson bringing home silver, and Becca Ward capturing the bronze. While Wozniak was thrilled for her teammates, not getting a chance to compete was difficult, though she made the best of it.
“As painful as it was not getting the chance to compete, I understand the situation,” said Wozniak. “I was grateful for the experience, for meeting people I could keep in contact with for the next four years. I met a lot of athletes who were in the same position I was. It was amazing, but when I was trying to qualify [for London] I was telling myself, ‘You did the whole sitting on the sidelines thing,’ and I didn’t want that to happen again.”
After getting a taste of the Olympic experience in 2008, Wozniak was ready to take in everything the 2012 Games had to offer. “The Opening Ceremonies was incredible, walking out, having so many people cheer for you,” said Wozniak. “You felt like you were part of something much bigger than yourself, or the sport. A lot of us felt like ambassadors for the country. You have to represent yourself well but you’ve worked hard and you’ve earned the position to be there.”
Wozniak’s teammate and friend Mariel Zagunis was chosen to be the flag bearer for the United States Olympic Team, an honor not lost on Wozniak. “Being right behind her and watching her walk, you feel like it’s surreal. You almost feel like you’re not really there,” she said of walking into the Opening Ceremony behind Zagunis.
Five days after the Opening Ceremony, it was time for Wozniak to get to work, stepping up to the strip to represent the United States in the Women’s Individual Sabre competition.
“Everything was like, ‘Is this really happening? Is this really going on right now?’” said Wozniak. “People dream of being at the Olympics. I’ve worked so hard, I’ve dreamt about this. I’ve replayed these actions so many times in my head. Now it’s just a matter of putting it into play.”
Wozniak noted it was the first bout – against Egyptian Salma Mahran – that she was most nervous about. “The first bout I had, I knew I was much higher ranked than her but I had never fenced her before, so you know statistically you should be the one who comes out on top, but financially maybe she be able to travel to World Championships or she could be a hidden star. So I knew no matter what the rank, I can’t underestimate anybody and just fence the bout of my life every time.”
Wozniak knew she had to keep her emotions in check or it’d be a quick competition. “The first half of the bout, it was pretty even. I told myself I really need to buckle down and just finish it, or else I’m going to be in trouble,” Wozniak said. Buckle down she did, defeating Mahran by a score of 15-6 to move on to the Round of 16 against Azza Besbes of Tunisia.
“I knew that was going to be a hard bout,” said Wozniak, who had a match with Besbes earlier in her career. “At the World Cup in London, I was up about 12-8 [against Besbes] and I lost 15-13, so I knew the same thing could happen and I had to keep fighting for the next touch.”
With the score 13-13 in the match against Besbes in London, Wozniak said she took the time to again buckle down and fight for the next two points – which she scored, advancing to the quarterfinals.
“As much as you’re fencing someone else, you’re also having a personal battle with yourself,” Wozniak explained. “It was a whirlwind of emotion. To see that victory and that it was in my direction, it was amazing.” The moment she notched the win is captured in one of the enduring images from the London Olympic games – Wozniak, with her sword in her left and hand her mask in her right, letting out a scream, the intensity of the moment apparent and captured in a single photograph. “It was an emotional hump, and I got over it and finished the bout – that’s why I kind of cried a little at the end.”
The victory over Besbes bought Wozniak into the quarterfinals of the tournament, where she faced Sophia Velikaia of Russia. “I knew if I had to upset anybody in the competition, it was going to be her,” said Wozniak of the 2nd-ranked women’s sabre fencer in the world. “Usually when she fences me, the score is 15-5, 15-6 – she just destroys me.”
The match was a lot closer than their previous battles, however, and Wozniak was able to push the eventual silver medalist to the limit before falling, 15-13. “I knew all I could do is put up as good a fight as I can. I think I made a lot of technical mistakes,” said Wozniak of the bout. “She was fencing very well.”
With the London Olympic Games now a memory, Wozniak is looking forward to making her mark on the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. And while there wasn’t a team event in the Olympics this year (Wozniak and her teammates won a bronze medal in the Women’s Team Sabre Competition at the Fencing World Championships in Kiev – their second consecutive bronze), there will be a team event for her to compete in come 2016, in addition to the individual competition. “I’m really looking forward to hopefully my girls will stick around, because I’ve never been more comfortable,” said Wozniak of teammates Zagunis, Daria Schneider, and Ibtihaj Muhammad. “I know as a team we can definitely win a medal.”
In between now and then, there are numerous competitions to participate in and a biology degree to earn. Those interested in keeping up can follow Wozniak on Twitter or “like” her fan page on Facebook, both of which she updates regularly with photos and information, including photos from the Olympics.
And when the Olympic Games in Rio finally do come around, Wozniak has one clear goal.
“I definitely want to become a world champion,” she said. “I have three years to do that, so I’m going to try my best. What happened in London has really rekindled my passion for fencing. It was the first time that I felt like I actually deserve to be on that strip.”