For someone who lunges to glory swathed in a get-up resembling a bee-keeper's outfit, French fencer Laura Flessel-Colovic has had no problem establishing herself as one of France's most chic and photogenic sports personalities. Since first grabbing attention with a pair of gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, she has wowed sports fans with graceful and tenacious swordswomanship, adding three world championship titles to a list of international laurels. Away from her foils, the stunning 28-year-old has enhanced her celebrity status with flourishes of wit and charm that have made her a star with a larger French public that doesn't know an epee from its elbow.
"What I don't want people forgetting is that I'm first and foremost a fencer," stresses Flessel-Colovic, whose wedding in 1996 to a French journalist generated wider media coverage than most of her competitions enjoy. "After all, if people know who I am at all, it's thanks to my sport. All the rest — the attention, the fame — is fleeting."
What brought the native of Guadeloupe to the summit of the fencing world was an unrelenting drive and competitive ferocity that early on earned her the sobriquet la Guêpe — the Wasp. Flessel-Colovic latched onto fencing at age seven after seeing French legend Jean-François Lamour on television. She abandoned dance lessons for the local fencing club — and soon began a victorious ascent through local and regional ranks. The promising southpaw didn't leave home for Paris, and intensive training, until 1990, when — at 19, far from family, friends and acquaintances — she fought off loneliness by pouring all her attention and time into fencing.
Her focus and hunger to win paid swift dividends, as she won the Pan American championships in 1991, 1992 and 1994 and finished third in the 1995 world championships in her event, the epee. (Fencing has three events with slightly different blades and rules. In epee, you score by jabbing your opponent anywhere with the point of the weapon; in foil, you score only by touching point to torso; in saber, you score with any part of the blade but only above the waist.) The following year in Atlanta she won the gold in the inaugural epee category — and another gold with the French team — and followed that up with a trio of world titles in 1998 and 1999.
Flessel-Colovic's fencing successes turned her into a sports-page heroine. As a black woman from the Caribbean excelling in a sport usually associated with white European men, she joined the high-profile members of France's world and European champion soccer team as a positive icon of the country's changing, multiethnic face.
Flessel-Colovic points out that unlike soccer, "fencing doesn't feed you" — a fact that obliges her to juggle a career promoting business travel for Paris' office of tourism. She welcomes the work obligations because they help her budget her time better and remain focused on the task — or combat — before her. In Sydney, Flessel-Colovic will need to turn her attention to Hungary's Ildiko Mincza and Italy's Cristina Cascioli, her probable rivals for the gold.
Then her commitments to family will doubtless increase, since she plans to add a little swashbuckler after the Sydney Games. Confidants suggest that she and her husband may try to conceive an "Olympic baby" before leaving Australia. She is adamant, however, about adding a missing European championship crown to her collection of titles. She is also eager to front the French team that will be host to the world championship competition in 2001 — a full fencing agenda that should leave Flessel-Colovic's fans plenty of time to savor her personality and watch la Guêpe continue to sting her way to the top.