Valentina Vezzali: Olympic fencer turned political jouster

(CNN)With a balletic grace married to razor-sharp reflexes, it's easy to see why Valentina Vezzali has earned the nickname "Cobra."

The Italian fencer's darting assaults have inflicted many a mortal wound on her competitors during a glittering 20-year career in which she has collected a record six Olympic titles and 15 world championship gold medals.
At the age of 41, one might expect the swashbuckling swordswoman to be slowing down, but Vezzali has never been busier juggling her sporting commitments with a political career -- in 2013 she was elected to the Italian Parliament's Chamber of Deputies as part of the Scelta Civica party.
Politics and sport don't always mix well, but Vezzali thinks competing parties -- not only in her country's often tumultuous system of elections -- could benefit from adopting a more sporting attitude.
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    "From my point of view, if all the politicians were a bit more sporty, every country in the world would be much better off," Vezzali told CNN's Human to Hero series.
    "(In sport) you respect your opponent, who isn't seen as an enemy who you have to defeat at all costs but someone similar to us with whom we can challenge and compare ourselves -- he is always respected.
    "What drove me to take on this new challenge is the will to give a voice to sport. I think Italy could do a lot for sport and that sport could give so much back in return. In politics, sport is regarded as a minor topic and I really believe we could do so much, so I am working for this to happen."
    As if her time wasn't stretched enough, Vezzali also has two young sons, Pietro, 10 and Andrea, who turns two in May, to look after with husband Domenico Giugliano, a former lower-league footballer. But like most women, she takes it all in her stride.
    "Us women, we really have the ability to do so many things. Maybe because of our nature that leads us to clean the house, have kids and work -- we maybe manage to do more things than men. And when we do something and we really put ourselves into something, we do great."

    'Chess played at lightning speed'

    Fencing was historically practiced in preparation for dueling with swords and developed as a sport in the late 19th century. It was included in the program at the first modern Olympics revived by Pierre de Coubertin in 1896, although a women's event didn't start until 1924.
    Competition is split into categories named after the three types of sword -- foil, epee or saber -- which differ in weight, length and flexibility.
    The rules of combat also vary. Competitors in saber are free to strike an opponent above the waist with both the blade and tip. In epee and foil, fighters score points by striking a rival's body -- any part of it in epee, only the torso in foil -- with the tip.
    Contested over a narrow 14-meter long platform called a piste, fencing is often described as chess played at lightning speed, requiring an agile mind as well as a nimble body.
    "Fencing is made of seconds, of fractions of seconds," explains Vezzali, whose successes have all come in foil.
    "The second you find yourself thinking, 'Now I'll do this rather than that,' your opponent has already started to make their move.
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    "It's vital to manage to find the right second and the way in which to put the action into place, which means combining time, measure and speed -- these are the three ingredients that, mixed together and done in the right and balanced way, allow you to win the attack."
    Vezzali started fencing at the age of six under the tutelage of Italian coaching legend Ezio Triccoli, who set up a school in her hometown of Jesi in northeast Italy in the 1940s after learning the sport from English army officers when he was interned during World War II.
    "When he came to Jesi at the end of the war he started to teach fencing in a new way. His talent was his charisma -- he managed to (get the best out of) each one of us athletes. If it wasn't for him I wouldn't have had such a fantastic career," Vezzali says.
    The old master's commitment soon paid dividends as a fiercely determined Vezzali claimed her first junior national title at the age of 10.
    "When I was a kid, I remember that if rather than winning a match 5-0, I won 5-1, it was a tragedy. I would cry because I wanted to win 5-0. And when I managed to achieve a goal, to win a match, I was happy but I would think right away about the following match, that I had to win at all costs. Life for me has always been made of goals."
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    From goals to golds

    That focus on goals soon led to a golden senior career, starting at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta where Italy's women won the team foil event.
    Three years later, Vezzali claimed her first individual world title -- she has won six to date -- before realizing her childhood ambition of winning the women's individual foil at the 2000 Olympics.
    It was a feat she would replicate at the following two Summer Games, first at Athens in 2004 and then Beijing in 2008, cementing her status as the world's premier female fencer and a national hero at home.
    "The Beijing Olympics was beautiful because it was my first Olympics as a mother ... It is beautiful to show that it is possible to combine family and work," she says.
    Two more medals (an individual bronze and a team gold) at London 2012 brought her Olympic tally to nine, making her the sport's most decorated female, overtaking her fellow Jesi native Giovanna Trillini.
    There may be more to come as well, as Vezzali eyes a golden swansong at Rio next year in what would be her sixth consecutive Olympics.
    "I hope I will manage to train properly and get there in the best physical and psychological condition possible. If I manage to do this there is no competition -- I am not afraid of anyone," she says.
    "I've never been to Brazil and I'd like to close my career with a beautiful medal and dance some samba with my sons."
    When she finally does choose to step off the sporting stage, she won't be very far away -- Vezzali is determined to make sure children get the sporting chances she had when she was growing up.
    "I'd like to do so many things to make the sports world better. It's a world that gave me so much and I'd like to give something back."