By Daniel Bases
LONDON (Reuters) - Before stepping onto the fencing piste in London to defend her gold medal, Italy's Valentina Vezzali will spend several minutes in quiet reflection, say a prayer to feel her father close and sing.
In fencing, a particularly cerebral sport where tactics and strategy can sometimes overcome sheer athleticism, a focused mind can pay off handsomely.
Not particularly tall or muscular, Vezzali has already won an unprecedented three straight individual Olympic gold medals in foil.
Add in an individual silver, two team golds and a team bronze and Vezzali is a one shy of tying her countrywoman Giovanna Trillini's record haul of eight Olympic medals.
The 38-year-old, who will carry Italy's flag at the London Olympics opening ceremony on Friday, has won 28 Olympic and World Championship medals and has her sights on the record 39 Olympic and World Championship medals set by countryman Edoardo Mangiarotti, who died in May at 93. He had 13 Olympic medals between 1936-60.
"He was a legend for world fencing," Vezzali wrote of Mangiarotti. "We had agreed to meet in London!," she added in a reply to Reuters relayed through Italy's fencing federation.
In a nation where fencing is a mainstream sport, several fencers, including Trillini and Mangiarotti, have been Olympic flag bearers.
"Mangiarotti was proud of his world records and I remember that in Beijing after I won the gold medal, he encouraged me to catch up with him on the roll of honor of fencing. So, that will be my next goal," Vezzali wrote.
Like many fencers in Europe, Vezzali is officially employed as a policewoman.
She is married to the professional soccer player Domenico Giugliano. They have one son, Pietro, 7. A book author, she also appeared on Italy's version of "Dancing with the Stars".
Her toughest competition on July 28, the day after carrying the flag, will likely come from her own team mates.
Vezzali, coached by Giulio Tomassini since 1990, is the world champion, and ranked No. 1 coming into the Games on the Federation International d'Escrime (FIE) point standings.
However, her team mates Elisa Di Francisca and Arianna Errigo are ranked three and four, respectively.
South Korea's Nam Hyun-Hee, who settled for silver in Beijing, is ranked two while upstart Lee Kiefer, 18 and from the United States, claimed bronze at the 2011 World Championships and is ranked five.
"I am also aware about the fact that my opponents, whoever they are, always give something more, but this does not frighten me!," Vezzali wrote.
"I think that any opponent can beat me and I have to do my best not to make this happen."
She has fought her way back from adversity, overcoming a 2006 knee ligament injury to win the fifth of her six individual world titles in 2007.
In November 2011, while driving to a national team training session, she swerved to avoid an oncoming car and hit a tree.
"I occasionally feel some pain in the neck, but it is not grave," she wrote.
To watch her is to see a master tactician patiently wearing down opponents with precise footwork and a counter-attack technique.
In foil, the lightest of the three weapons contested, fencers try to score with the tips of their blades on their opponent's torso, which is covered by an electrified vest, or lame. Valid touches set off green or red lights. Off-target hits set off a white light.
Points come in the form of an attack whereby one fencer gains the advantage, or so-called 'right of way', by moving forward with or without blade contact toward their opponent.
If this attack is blocked, or parried, then the advantage is reversed, making for a constant back and forth that uninitiated spectators can only understand thanks to the advent of slow-motion video replay.
In Vezzali's case, she will often catch her adversary in the middle of their attacks, not allowing them to finish or forcing them to miss while she hits.
She often turns to the judge, who calls actions and awards points, screaming with a shaking fist.
While she has won everything there is in fencing multiple times, Vezzali shows no signs of letting up.
"If an athlete thinks 'I have already done enough', he/she has already concluded his/her career.... Now with a view on my fifth Olympic Games, I perfectly know what I want."
(Editing by Mark Meadows; firstname.lastname@example.org; Reuters Messaging:; email@example.com; +44 20 7542 7933; For all the latest; Olympic news go to http://www.reuters.com/london-olympics-2012)
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