NEW YORK (Reuters) - Already extraordinary, Italy's Valentina Vezzali and the United States' Mariel Zagunis will try to go one better at the London Olympic games and make deeper marks in the fencing record books.
Vezzali, 38, is the reigning queen of the piste, the most decorated female fencer in history and marking her fifth Olympics. The current world champion, she will carry Italy's flag into the Olympic stadium on July 27 before seeking her fourth successive gold medal in women's individual foil the next day.
"I am aware that I will be the athlete to beat. But this has been so for years and also gives me strength and motivation," Vezzali she told Reuters.
Ranked number one in the Federation Internationale d'Escrime (FIE) standings, she is at the heart of a deep Italian squad that includes current men's foil, epee, and sabre world champions.
Italian men's foilist Andrea Baldini gets a chance at Olympic glory after a failed drug test killed his Beijing dreams. Baldini protested his innocence and the FIE noted an Italian prosecutor deemed an unidentified third party was responsible for his unknowingly ingesting a banned substance. Sanctioned with ineligibility for six months, he returned to win the 2009 world title.
Mariel Zagunis, 27, the world number one in women's sabre, is the only U.S. fencer to earn Olympic gold - and has done it twice. Her triumphs in Athens and Beijing, where she led an American 1-2-3, helped elevate fencing's low profile in the country.
With six medals in 2008, the U.S. hopes to solidify top-tier status in London against dominant Europeans and Asian powers China and South Korea.
Russia seeks to regain their control of the men's sabre with a Frenchman's help.
In Athens, Christian Bauer coached Italy's Aldo Montano, currently world champion, to gold then coached China's Zhong Man to Beijing gold,
Zhong will try to repeat in London but his former coach will now be working with Russia's world number two Alexey Yakimenko and his team mates.
Foil is the lightest of the three weapons, with valid touches, or points, made with the blade's tip on an opponent's torso. In sabre, points are scored with the tip or slash of the blade from the waist up. Rules govern who has the right of way, or advantage, in foil and sabre. In epee, valid touches go to the first to hit with the tip anywhere on the body.
Fencing has been contested at every modern era games since the first in 1896. The 212 competitors will vie for 10 gold medals in individual and team events.
Reporting By Daniel Bases