Mariel Zagunis attends We Grew Wings Portland Premiere

By Jess Zutz


Our lives are filled with sacrifice.  On a daily basis, we make conscious decisions that impact the future events of our lives; for better or for worse.  We choose to put ourselves before others, to put others before ourselves, and sometimes, when we don’t choose, life just unrolls before us.  But very often, we don’t remember or even take notice of the sacrifices we put forth on the playing field.  As it turns out, We Grew Wings is a tale about sacrifice.  It’s a story about a group of people who made and continue to make sacrifices every day.


Take a look at Tom Heinonen.  Here’s a guy who pushed for his Women of Oregon during a time when women had a hard time even pushing for themselves.  He’s hailed as one of the greatest coaches in Oregon Track and Field history, yet it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that had he been a men’s coach, the acclaim he would have received would look much different.


Or English Gardner.  English ran the 100m during the 2011 NCAA Championships despite an energy-crippling baton drop during the earlier 4×100 and a body that felt like it had been hit by a Mack truck.  She knew her team needed points, so she ran.


Maybe Claudette Groenendaal’s current efforts aimed at breaking the women’s 50-54 world record in the 800m in a few years are another shining story of sacrifice.  Surely she’s given up certain things in her life so that she can get herself mentally and physically ready to break that barrier when the time comes.


What has been fun for the We Grew Wings team to see have been the stories that have come forward as a result of people connecting with the film.  At our most recent showing at the Hollywood Theater in Portland on September 23, we had the distinct privilege of having Mariel Zagunis join us.  Mariel has been dubbed the “greatest Olympic athlete you’ve probably never heard of.”  She is a three-time Olympian in fencing, two-time gold medalist, and one-time flag bearer for the United States at the London Olympics this past summer.  That’s quite an achievement list for someone who is in her mid-twenties.


As she stood next to her boyfriend Mike, who recently retired from the military where he completed a tour in Afghanistan, it was clear that Mariel was looking forward to her impending break from training.  She isn’t ready to lay down her sabre yet, and so her break will end and training for Rio will begin as the fencing calendar doesn’t seem to leave room for extended breaks; fencing is year-round.  But what also came out of our conversation was the fact that all of her success has come at the expense of completing her degree at Notre Dame.  She wants to finish, she says, and when that day comes, her sacrifices will seem trivial.


For what are these people making these sacrifices?  That’s a more difficult question to answer.


Maybe they’re making these sacrifices in the hopes that their future teammates aren’t faced with the same difficult decisions that they had to make.  Maybe they’re making it for themselves, or for the pride of their families.  Or maybe they aren’t even sacrifices.  Perhaps the word “sacrifice” is a label that can only be used by the outsider or the beholder.


No matter how you frame it, however, these athletes have done something impressive.  They’ve shown that for every abyss, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  For every dark cloud, there’s a silver lining.  And for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction that is sure to endure and make those “sacrifices” worth it.


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