EDITOR'S NOTE: As part of Page 2's series on Athleticism and Sports Degree of Difficulty, we assigned several of our writers to experience first-hand the difficulty -- or ease -- of competing with and against elite athletes in a number of sports. In this second installment, Jeff Merron tries the modern pentathlon.
- "The philosopher lacks in specialized sciences but is good in all other social functions and expressions, and that is why he is the best among the educated, as is the pentathlete the best amongst all other athletes."
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- It was 7:15 a.m. at the shooting center at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. I'd just fired my first shot ever, with the same type of air gun modern pentathletes use in competition. The target I aimed at was about six inches on each side. The target I hit was about 20 feet high and 150 feet long. Pentathletes refer to this as "hitting the wall."
I was determined to get better. I had to. I'd be working out with the U.S. Modern Pentathlon team, training with them in all five events -- shooting, fencing, swimming, show jumping, and running -- in one day, just as they do once or twice a week, and just as they do in an Olympic competition.
The pentathlon is simple. The day begins around 7 a.m. with target shooting and ends late in the afternoon with a 3,000-meter run,. The scoring for each event is based around 1,000 points, which serves as a sort of par. You beat par, you gain points. The gold medalist in the Olympics usually scores in the 5,500 point range. Par, or 5,000 points, usually puts you far back in the pack.
Event 1, in which I score genuine official pentathlon points
By about 7:30 a.m., I had the shooting routine down. Almost. Sill Lyra, the shooting coach, made many adjustments to my pistol and showed me how to line up the simple sights. He advised me to aim low. Still, after 20 shots, the small paper target remained pristine.
So Sill put me on the trainer target, an enormous sheet of white construction paper. He wanted to see which way I was missing.
I tried to follow instructions.
"Keep your arm straight and steady."
"Pull the trigger gently."
"Hold your breath."
"It's not a good idea to wave the gun around when you're talking to me. Put it down."
Finally, I started to hit the target. Ping. Ping. Ping. Each tiny hole was a triumph.
Then Sill gave me the bad news: "In competition, there are all kinds of distractions. You only get 40 seconds to take each shot. You shoot. You put your gun down. When it's time to shoot again, you pick it up, reload, aim, and fire. If you have a bad shot, it could put you out of competition for the rest of the day. But you can't think about that. Empty your mind."
|Patton's Pesky Pistol|
Chad Senior, who finished sixth in the Sydney Games after leading through the first three events, explained the difficulty of the first event:
"You have to deal with the nerves. And coming from a swimming background, that's very difficult because swimming, it's easy -- you're nervous, you're jumping around, the gun goes off, boom, you're not nervous anymore, you're going like a madman. Shooting, you have to carry that nervous energy throughout the event and control it. And coming from a sport like swimming or running, I'm used to having an outlet. Shooting you don't have an outlet. You have to pretend like it's not bothering you. But it's bothering you a lot. If people could see what's going on in your head for the shoot, that would be exciting. Usually mine's just kind of -- I don't know, I'm terrified."
Terrified because a couple of bad shots and you've dug yourself into a hole that's awfully hard to get out of, even with four events remaining.
George S. Patton understood this. The future general, then a lieutenant in the army, might have won the first Olympic pentathlon, in 1912. But he blew the shooting competition and finished fifth. One of the greatest military leaders in U.S. history was a lousy shot.
I'd have to fire 20 shots. Ten at one target. Ten more at a fresh target. You get 10 points for a bull's eye, only one for hitting the outermost ring.
When I was finished, I thought I'd done well. Sill added up the scores. The first 10 shots, I scored 66 points. The second 10, 56. My total score: 122.
There was more for me to learn.
"Look at these two scores. Which was your first?"
I pointed to the target with the higher score.
"Right. You know why."
"Because I got tired?"
"Exactly. The man who taught me, he'd have us do an exercise. We'd hold our pistols as if we were aiming. And hold it. And hold. Sometimes it would be minutes before he'd let us put our arms down. We'd do this for a long time. We never knew how long we'd have to hold that pistol in position. Our arms would be shaking."
In shooting, 172 out of a possible 200 is worth 1,000 points. Every point above or below 172 is worth plus or minus 12 points. The top shooter in the 2000 Olympics, Dovgal Pavel, scored 1168 points and eventually captured the bronze medal.
My base score -- 50 points under 172, multiplied times 12 -- means my total score after one event is 400 points.
* * * * *
At 9 a.m., Sill led me to the fencing training area, where most of the team was already assembled. Some of the guys were fooling around, shooting hoops. Others were fiddling with equipment, stretching a little, or talking. The fencing workout would be a little more casual than usual, because the team would be meeting with an exercise physiologist and then interviewed by a TV crew from Greece.
This gave me plenty of time to talk with the team's head coach, Janusz Peciak, who won the Modern Pentathlon gold medal for Poland in 1976 and won the world championship eight times. Or, to be more accurate, listen to a short lecture about why pentathlon is the toughest sport. I'd hear it, with minor variations depending on who was doing the lecturing, throughout the day.
Janusz tells me that pentathlon is the hardest sport, and people in the U.S. don't realize it. It's hard because you have to work out in five sports all the time, and you have to be very, very good in all of them, consistently.
"A pentathlete must train at least 10 years -- minimum -- before he can do all this," Janusz says. "Every day. All the sports. Ten years."
Event 2: The cord and the sword
Samantha Harvey, Sill's wife, trains with the U.S. team, but competes for Brazil. She helps me into my fencing jacket. I'm left-handed, so an electrical cord is threaded through my left sleeve, and then I'm fitted with a thick glove.
I'm afraid to ask what the cord is for. Is some kind of shock administered when you make a mistake? Since the outfit is protective and the epee isn't sharp, is it a modern, bloodless simulation of the pain you'd feel if you speared by a real sword?
Of course not. One end of the cord is plugged into your epee, the other into a reel that's part of the scoring apparatus. This device registers touches -- when the tip of your sword touches any part of your opponent's body.
I get a short lesson in technique. Feet at a 90-degree angle, front foot pointing forward, Epee held just so, starting in a crouch like you're playing defense in basketball. You go back and forth with your opponent, advancing, retreating, and sometimes lunging. The latter is an attack move, but also leaves you vulnerable to being touched yourself.
In an Olympics or world championships, you fence, round-robin style, against each of 31 opponents. The first one to score a touch, within a one-minute time limit, wins the bout. Nobody touches, and you're both losers.
I'm given the honor of working out with Seth Kelsey, who just happens to be the best fencer in the U.S. He's not a pentathlete, but he regularly trains with the team. That he's even willing to don the gear with me is startling, like Joe Namath showing up at your house to toss you some passes.
Seth is 6-foot-4 and has the wing span of an eagle. I have the wing span of a chicken. We advance and retreat and parry and lunge. Seth moves with the grace of a gazelle and touches me at will. Inside the jacket and mask, I'm sweating profusely. My legs ache as I try to do the footwork properly. Back and forth we go. After each touch, I say, "OK, one more time, that's all I can do." But Seth is merciless. "Oh, c'mon, you can go again." After about 15 minutes, he lets down his guard on one of my lunges, and I score a touch.
For the next hour or so, I watch the team work out. I realize, without even consulting the scoring system, that in any fencing competition above absolute beginner, I would not register a touch.
My total score after two events: 400 points.
Event 3: In the pool, off the charts
Off to the pool. On alternate days, the team either swims hard or runs hard. This a hard swim day. I decide in advance I won't try what they're doing. But I will time myself in the 200, to register a score.
The day's practice schedule is displayed on a whiteboard at the end of the pool. Here's what it says:
Monday VO2 max w/Recovery HR (heart rate)
12 x 50 Fist/scull/FrontQuad./25SP @:10
5 x 100 VO2 max @6:00 Record Time
*Take HR@Finish/1 min/3 min
600 w/fins@ low Aerobic effort
12 x 50 w/fins Kick
200 Choice (No Equipment)
I don't understand some of it. But I can do the math. They're swimming 3200 meters, or about two miles. They'll finish in about 90 minutes.
|The French Connection|
The Modern Pentathlon is a totally artificial sport, created expressly for the Olympics by the father of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin. He was looking for the ideal all-around athlete and sportsman, and thought that the combination of swimming and running (physical), shooting (mental), fencing (intellectual), and riding (adaptability and self-control) would capture that ideal.
De Coubertin came up with an inspiring tale designed, it seems, to draw prospects to the new sport.
A member of the French cavalry is told to deliver a message, and takes off on a horse he's never ridden before. Along the way, he loses the horse when he dismounts to fight an enemy soldier in a sword duel. He gets out of that mess by shooting the soldier, takes off on a long run on foot, and finally delivers the crucial communiqué after swimming across a raging river.
Perhaps this story helps explain why so many pentathletes, from the first Olympic competition in 1912 to today, are military men and women.
Then I'm ready for my time trial.
Elaine Cheris is the pentathlon training coordinator who arranged my visit to Colorado Springs. She's there, standing at the edge of the pool, when I finish.
"How'd you do?" she asks.
I look up at the huge digital clock on the wall. "5:45," I reply. "How many points would that give me?"
She holds her fingers in the universal signal for zero.
"Zero? I didn't think that was possible."
"You have to be on the chart to score points."
"I'm not even on the chart?"
Elaine shakes her head in mock sadness.
Later, I do the math. Men get 1,000 points for swimming the 200 in 2:30; women get the same score for 2:40. Twelve points are added or subtracted for each second over or under. I'm 185 seconds over 2:40. Luckily, they don't give negative points.
My total score after three events: 400 points.
Event 4: One trick is enough, pony
S'mores is the kiddie pony, and I'm glad to be riding her. The last time I rode a horse -- more than three years ago -- I was thrown. My wife, Jackie, and I were airing out our two geriatric thoroughbreds, taking them for a slow walk through a wooded trail. Trav, our temperamental white female, decided she'd be spooked by a light rustle in the autumn leaves.
I flew in what felt like a high arc, landed on my side with a thud that reverberated from the waist up, but centered on my ribs. I'd had the wind knocked out of me, but I was whole.
For a few brief seconds, I was a Zen master, in the moment, at one with my fall. But I was still scared, and hadn't been back on a horse in years.
* * * * *
I'm riding with Anita Allen, the 2003 Pan Am Games gold medalist, and we start slow through the hills surrounding the Colorado Springs city barn. The riding ring is a mud pit following recent snows, so we're heading down the trail toward a little riding circle that has a few jumps. I haven't decided whether I'll jump or not -- I've never coaxed a horse into midair on purpose -- but that's the goal.
Jackie had taught me a few things about basic riding. I sat tall in S'mores' saddle. I composed myself, breathing easy. And I did my best to let the pony know I was in charge.
Anita's an Army Captain, and like Chad Senior, who finished sixth in Sydney, is in the Army's World Class Athlete Training Program, which enables her to train full time. She'll put in an occasional weekend of regular army duty, just to keep up to speed, but her job, for now, is the pentathlon.
Anita is average height, not bulked up, not marathoner-lean. She looks like an athlete. I could identify with her on a physical level, as I could with Chad, who is lean and muscular, but at 6-feet, 165 pounds or so, is close to an average-size man.
Anita has already qualified for the Olympics, so I ask, "What's your goal in Athens?"
I'm expecting "Gold." Or "I'd like to medal." Or the old cliché, "To do my best."
"I just want to absorb it all. I want to take it all in," she says, explaining that she's been training for three years straight, and, like Chad, hasn't taken a single break. "I've had to have such tunnel vision," she explains. Getting to go to the Olympics is the reward. For sure, the competition is no afterthought, and for sure, she wants to win.
But the pentathletes I've met have what seems to be a unique, controlled element to their competitiveness. The goal seems to be simply: no peaks, no valleys. They're jacks-of-all-trades.
As we talk, I'm trying to be as cool as possible guiding S'mores through the sandy, winding trails. When we arrive at the circle, Anita picks up her pace to a trot. I'm encouraged to do the same.
A couple of firm kicks to S'mores' flanks, and we're off. A trot is only one step above walking -- it's a horse jogging -- but I'm nervous. The animal is a little bit less in my control. I'm wearing sneakers, not riding boots, so it's hard for me to stand in the stirrups, as I should. I keep slipping down.
This is painful. Men have no business straddling a horse.
Elaine has come to watch our ride, and take photos. After about 15 minutes, she asks me how it's going.
"Pretty good," I reply. "But I don't think I'll be able to father any more children."
Anita tells a story about a man she used to ride with. His method for minimizing this problem was to wear a protective cup, under a large pair of padded bicycle riding shorts, under his riding pants.
She thinks it's funny, but it sounds entirely rational to me.
|The Toughest Thing|
"Perfection," Chad Senior says, is the most difficult thing to achieve in the pentathlon. Chad knows: he dropped to sixth in the Sydney Olympics after leading through the first three events, largely because of a disastrous riding performance on an uncooperative horse (riders don't know which horse they'll ride).
"Covering all the events to the best of your ability is the hardest, because it takes a little luck. Some days you feel great running, you feel great swimming, you feel great fencing, you got a good horse, and you don't succumb to the nerves in shooting."
Chad makes it clear that those days are extraordinarily rare. If any of the best in the world achieve this, they're likely to win. But if you can keep things even, balance out the slightly-below-average performances with the slightly above ones, and then hit a home run or two in the others, you've got a good chance at winning.
So this trait -- steadiness -- seems to be the key. You can learn it, a little. But it seems, largely, a character prerequisite.
"Tighten up on the reins," I'm told. "Aim her toward the middle of the log. When you're about to jump, stand up and lean forward and grab onto her mane."
On our first attempt, S'mores skirts the log.
"She knows she's being ridden by an amateur," I say.
"No, you've got to aim her right down the middle. Try it again."
I do. And she jumps. And, much to my surprise, it barely seems like we left the ground.
I jump a few more times, just to prove to myself the first time was no fluke. I'm having a good time, riding easily in circles. But when Anita suggests we head back to the barn, I'm ready to go. I've lost track of the time, but it's getting to be late afternoon.
In the pentathlon, a flawless ride over multiple obstacles within the standard time (between 60 and 77 seconds) scores 1,200 points. There are deductions for falling, for knocking down parts of obstacles, for not jumping obstacles at all, and a huge deduction for not completing the course in the maximum time (one minute over the standard time allowed).
Because I jumped over a small obstacle three times, I arbitrarily award myself 100 points for the equestrian segment.
Total score after four events: 500.
Event 5: The little engine that could, but just barely
I thought I was gonna die.
As I'm chugging uphill, I just can't catch my breath. I feel like I'm sprinting, I'm way into oxygen deficit, lactic-acid buildup mode, but we're probably running at 10-minute mile pace, at best.
And all I can think of Roseanne Roseannadanna's famous SNL line.
It's about 5 p.m., more than 10 hours after my simulated pentathlon began, and I'm doing the running segment. Anita has gracefully sacrificed what would be a decent workout for her, in order to "run" with me.
"I go for 45 minutes," she says. "This is an easy day."
"Running's my sport," I say. "When I do a hard distance run it's about 8-minute pace for seven miles."
I think I'm bragging, but I'm just embarrassing myself.
"I just run for 45 minutes. I don't know how far."
After some pressing, she agrees that she probably does her "easy" run at 7:30 or 8-minute pace.
I take advantage of my inability to talk to ask short, open-ended questions.
"How (gasp) did (gasp) I've got to walk this part (gasp) you get (gasp) into (gasp) pentathlon?"
Anita tells her story. She was a middle distance runner at West Point, and she could swim, and someone suggested she try the sport.
This part of her story is fairly common. Most pentathletes are plucked from the ranks of runners and swimmers, with the theory being that if they're good at these two sports, they can learn the others, over time.
Anita is a pentathlon newbie. She's only been at it for three years. But she won the gold at the Pan Am Games last August, and is one of the top 20 female pentathletes in the world.
I'll spare you the details of the rest of the run, but suffice it to say it didn't go well. I had told Anita that I'm a runner, sometimes phrasing it in the past tense, because although I run for exercise, it's been years since I competed. I was good in high school, a decent enough marathoner at age 19 to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
Now I'm older, and fatter. I manage to finish the entire 45 minutes, and Anita tries to make me feel better, saying the altitude does everyone in when they first get to Colorado Springs.
I have no way of knowing how far we've gone. Probably half the distance Anita would cover on a normal day. So I'm going to cheat on this part.
A couple of times during the past year, I've timed myself for two miles on a treadmill, and ran about 13:55. Add the adrenaline of competition, take away the major fatigue factor that would come after four events, and it probably all evens out.
At this point in my life, on a good day, on a flat, windless course, I could cover 3,000 meters in about 13:03.
In Anita's triumph at the Pan Am Games, she ran 10:44. At the same competition, Chad, who won silver on the men's side, ran 9:46.
In the men's table, you get 1,000 points for running 10:00. Each second under that time adds four points, each over subtracts points. I'm 183 seconds over.
My score for running: 268 points.
Total score after five events: 768 points.
Postscript: Your (very) humble scribe
For comparison's sake, I check out how Chad did in his first (and worst) official pentathlon competition. This was in March 1999. He scored 3,859 points, which included a "0" in the ride. Two months later, in the Baltic Cup, a major international event, he won with a score of 5,592 points. Fifteen months later, at Sydney, he scored 5,256, and is now consistently in the 5300-5500 range. If he has a good day in Athens at the end of August, he could win gold.
Anita scored 5,268 to win the Pan Am competition, and is consistently around 5,000 points. On a good day she, too, can beat the best in the world.
* * * * *
At 5:30, our run completed, I'm both exhausted and wracked with guilt.
As we stand outside the barn, I make a confession: "Before I came here I thought the pentathlon wasn't as hard as other sports. That it was for athletes who weren't good enough to make it in an individual sport. That it was all ... well ..."
My foot approaches my mouth.
"I mean, when your sport doesn't get any media attention, when you come across people who think the way I did until today, what's your response?"
"I don't know," Anita says. "People back home (in rural Indiana) don't understand what I do. Even when I explain they don't really get it. I guess I just think they don't understand."
"At least you came out here and tried it."
She's being kind.
I should have paid attention to Plato.
Jeff Merron is a staff writer for ESPN.com.