Mariel Zagunis at head of the line

Mariel Zagunis won Olympic gold in fencing at the Athens Games and will lead the U.S. delegation at Friday night's opening ceremony. AP Photo/Christophe Ena

LONDON -- Mariel Zagunis is more than capable of fighting her own battles. She has two individual Olympic gold medals in sabre, fencing's most aggressive event, to prove it.

But late Wednesday, Zagunis was involved in a different kind of competition -- one that pitted her against prominent U.S. athletes in other sports and is as selective as they come: the election of a flagbearer for Friday night's opening ceremony.

Once nominated, Zagunis needed a teammate who had her back.

Enter the outgoing, dynamic Tim Morehouse, who helped the men's sabre team win its first medal in 60 years, a silver in Beijing four years ago. Morehouse, as the old saying goes, can charm birds out of trees. He's an author, an instructor, an event promoter, a passionate advocate for his sport and a big Zagunis fan.

"I was at the Athens Games when she won gold and let the whole U.S. team know we could do it, too,'' Morehouse said Thursday. "Even though she's the greatest fencer in U.S. history, it was almost like I was presenting her to the [captains'] group.

"All the stories in that room were amazing. There were any number of great athletes who would have represented our country amazingly. I thought Mariel would be a great representative for all those untold stories that get overlooked.''

And so, in a sweetly symmetrical gesture in this 40th anniversary year for Title IX -- and the first Summer Games in which the U.S. women outnumber the men -- a male athlete made a successful pitch for a woman to be chosen to lead the U.S. delegation.

It wasn't a cakewalk. After a couple of rounds of voting whittled the nominees to two, the athletes deadlocked on four consecutive votes. (Morehouse didn't want to disclose who the other candidate was, but Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune reported it was 400-meter runner Bryshon Nellum, who survived gunshot wounds from a gang attack to become an Olympian.) The captains were asked to speak again. Morehouse made his appeal. Someone changed a vote and broke the tie.

Morehouse -- under strict orders from the U.S. Olympic Committee not to tell anyone except Zagunis herself until a formal news release went out -- went to her room in the Olympic village and burst through her door. She came out of the shower, and he told her.

"No way!" she said.

"Yes,'' Morehouse replied.

"No way!'' she repeated, incredulous.

Zagunis, the daughter of two Olympic rowers, glowed as she talked about the honor at a USOC news conference Thursday. "It means the world to me,'' she said. "I didn't get to walk in the opening ceremony in 2004 ... this is a cherry on top of a pile of cherries that are already there.''

Not only did Zagunis miss the opening gala in Athens (her competition was the next day, and like many athletes in that position, she opted to rest) -- she very nearly didn't make it onto the fencing strip in Greece. She didn't qualify for the Games, a setback she has described as devastating, and was named as a replacement athlete at the last minute when another country gave up its slot in the draw. Sword in hand, she captured the first U.S. gold medal in fencing in a century and has stayed atop her sport ever since.

A former NCAA champion from Notre Dame, the articulate Zagunis -- read more about her here and in Hersh's recent profile -- emanates strength and grace. Her duties Friday would appear to be simple, but she said she would take rehearsal very seriously and focus on "not tripping and not letting the flag touch the ground.''

Morehouse has no doubt she'll acquit herself well. "I wanted to get her story out to the world,'' he said.