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Pentathletes sample sports buffet
There are some Olympic sports that Americans never pay attention to or may not even consider a sport unless it appears in our country’s medal count.
But we usually can recognize what the sports are.
Table tennis we recognize as that game we tend to play in our basements. Dressage has something to do with pretty horses doing precise movements. Curling is that silly thing on ice, pushing a giant rock with brooms leading the way. Even for the most obscure of the Olympic sports, we pretty much know their gist. Like synchronized swimming: underwater dancing!
Then there’s the sport that Margaux Isaksen, 20, of West Fork, Ark., has dedicated the past five years of her life to, since she moved at age 15 to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., some 800 miles from home:
“A lot of people think I’m on the track,” said Isaksen, who is America’s best hope to medal in the sport — yet is ranked only 44th in the world. “Or they think it’s like triathlon with a couple extra events added in.”
It’s an all-too-common reaction when American modern pentathletes explain the sport that’s sending them to the Olympics, where they’ll be among the elite athletes of the world. A blank stare often. Or excitement at the word “Olympics,” punctured by complete ignorance about what their sport even is.
Frankly, it can all be a little exasperating for your average American pentathlete. Especially when a country such as Russia lifts up these athletes – perhaps because Russia has four of the top five male pentathletes in the world.
“When I tell people I do pentathlon, they say, ‘Oh, that’s really cool,''' said Dennis Bowsher, 29, who is ranked 74th in the world in modern pentathlon, the highest-ranked male American.
“Some people are brave enough and ask me what that is. Some people just nod, and I get it out of them – I say, ‘Are you familiar with it?’ Sometimes they try to guess. ‘That’s swimming, biking, running …’ Or they throw in some track names: ‘Oh, you guys do javelin and hurdles.’ No, not quite.”
What these guys do is perhaps the most varied of the multisport events in the Olympic Games. There was a pentathlon in the ancient Olympics in Greece, and when Baron Pierre de Coubertin created the modern Games, he wanted a modern version of the pentathlon. And he modeled the five events on the five disciplines that a soldier needed to be proficient in at the time.
A soldier had to know how to ride a horse (show jumping). A soldier had to know how to shoot a gun (pistol shooting). If a soldier ran out of bullets, he had to know how to use his sword (fencing). If there was no horse, a soldier had to know how to cross land (3-kilometer run) or water (200-meter freestyle swim).
This year marks 100 years since the modern pentathlon was first seen in the Olympics. In the 1912 Summer Games, one of the men on the American team was named George S. Patton, later one of the most recognizable faces in American military history for his leadership during World War II. Which is a little piece of trivia that Bowsher finds pretty cool, since he joined the military in 2005 and is a member of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program.
The sport barely registers as a blip in America. That might explain why Isaksen, who was 14 when she first picked up the sport, made her first Olympic team in 2008, at age 16. She grew up running barefoot on the family farm and was a talented runner through junior high school. Her younger sister – who is now in training for modern pentathlon at the 2016 Games – decided she wanted to try fencing, and Isaksen’s mother signed both of them up. Isaksen was a natural, and her fencing coach suggested she try modern pentathlon.
So running and fencing are her two best events. She makes it through swimming and show jumping just fine, although she snapped her wrist during the show jumping portion of a competition in Russia last year when she fell off her horse. Shooting, though, is where she struggles. All her uncles hunt, but Isaksen had never shot a gun before she started competing in this sport. When she’s done with the sport, she swears she’ll never pick up a gun again.
“The biathlon is in the Winter Olympics, with the skiing and shooting,” she said with a smile. “I thought after 2012 I could give that a try. I’ve never skied before. So that could be interesting.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at email@example.com.