Modern Pentathlon

I’ll level with you: I had not heard of this week’s Olympic discipline prior to the London 2012 summer games. It was Inspire a Jen mega-supporter, my mate Stef, who brought it to my attention, describing it as “the mental one, where they swim, run, shoot, fence and SHOWJUMP. AND they only get the horse, like, FIVE MINUTES before they’re on”. What a bonkers discipline, I had thought, noting the apparent absence of any kind of link between the different components. As you’ve probably noticed over the course of this project, I’m pretty easily pleased, and that was enough for me – I was sold.

In fact, there is a link between those five sports. The discipline was invented by Baron Pierre De Coubertin – that’s the founder of the modern Olympic games to you and me, pal. These were deemed to be the requisite skills of a 19th Century cavalry soldier – hence the “modern” bit. And Stef was wrong, they get 20 minutes with the horse, apparently.

Competing in the different components, several months apart wouldn’t really work on a competitive basis and rules are rules. So even though I’d actually long ago tried all the individual components, to crack the discipline, I decided I would have to complete all the events over a day or two. I was pretty excited about the bit where the running is interspersed with pistol shooting, hand on hip like, and let’s keep this measured and proportionate, James Bond.

It did, however, occur to me that this might not be the easiest event to organise, which is where strong contender for NFO status, and Sydney Olympics Bronze medalist, Kate Allenby comes in. You guessed it, via the medium of Twitter.

I can’t for the life of me remember how this came about, but Kate had somehow heard about my challenge, which she had fantastically generous things to say about, and I just figured I chance my arm and ask if she wanted to help me out – doesn’t ask doesn’t get, right? Amazingly, Kate was up for it. Before I knew it, I’d been invited down to Pentathlon GB’s training centre at the University of Bath for a team competition with, not one, not two, but THREE ACTUAL OLYMPIANS, and a bunch of PROPER ATHLETES past and present. This was clearly the most exciting invitation I’d received thus far. Sorry Boris, but it really was.

2013-08-14 13.56.16

Team Win, especially me, for my hair

But we’re good at the “Athlons” (which means “contest”, in case you didn’t know. You’re welcome – you’ll use that in a pub quiz one day, you know) in Team GB: Tri, for instance, a gold and a bronze last year, thanks very much Brownlee Brothers; Hepta, well done Jess Ennis bringer of Super Saturday joy. So there was a little confusion among my peers regarding this event – it seems I wasn’t the only one who’d not heard of the Modern Pentathlon. As friends became excited at the prospect of me falling face first over some hurdles, I grew increasingly worried about our capacity for the language of basic maths. Hepta is seven, you daft bastards, Penta is five.

Turns out, we’re pretty good at the Modern Pentathlon, too. In fact, our women’s team have actually medalled in this discipline at every games since Sydney 2000, and I’d be competing with two of those medalists today- Kate and 2008 Silver medalist, Heather Fell. No pressure, then.

Heather Fell, winning a silver medal, like you do

Heather Fell, winning a silver medal, like you do

It’s very interesting to visit the regional centre at Bath – pretty nice digs. First stop is the pool, where, like most civilised folk, we head to the changing room. Mark Foster, on the other hand, just used to take his clothes off at the side of the pool, Kate casually drops into conversation, and not for the first time that day I’m pretty jealous of her life experiences. How did I eventually get that Tweet out of him, she asks? Honestly, I may never know how I eventually broke him, at a guess I’d say relentless pursuit, though historically, that’s not worked out so well for me.

I’m introduced to the rest of the team, alongside Kate and Heather, I’ll be joined by World Championship competitor, Sarah Langridge, 2008 Olympic Games competitor, Katy Livingston, and current GB squad member, Katie Burke. Not to mention two young hopefuls, Ioan Baxter and Ellie Gussey.

Pentathlon GB, past, present and maybe future...

Pentathlon GB, past, present and maybe future…

We’ll start with some lengths of the pool, Olympic sized, obviously. Everyone else will do four, but just two for me. On my second length, I decide to bust out my own very unique version of front crawl, and noticing that I basically swim like a cat, Kate stops me and throws me one of those foam float things. Pretty embarrassing for a 30 year old. But the good news is, Kate then re-teaches me front crawl, with the breathing and the arms and the head movement, and I can now swim slightly faster, so long as I don’t vomit from all the pool water I’m inhaling.

Then the contentious issue of diving raises its ugly head. I don’t want to do it from the side of the pool even, let alone a starting block, but I really want to learn from this ridiculously amazing, once in a lifetime opportunity, so I tell myself I must be game for anything. Noticing my reluctance, Kate eases me in with some bombing, and apparently my bomb is better than some of the ACTUAL OLYMPIANS. I do have a bit of a weight advantage in this respect, however. We build up slowly to the diving and before I know it, I’m chucking myself off the starting block and it’s not even that bad – Kate really is a tremendous coach.

Kate, re-teaching me to swim

Kate, re-teaching me to swim

Just before lunch, we split into two teams. On my team, Kate, Katy, and Ellie, and a fair handicap is incorporated to account for my participation – they must beat us by two lengths if they are to win. But they don’t. Even after the handicap score is revised down on the second attempt, in a nail-biting final length, we win again and take the point.

After a quick change and some complicated exchanges at the salad bar, we sit down for lunch and are joined by ACTUAL OLYMPIAN and, at that time, reigning WORLD CHAMPION, Mhairi Spence. 2012 Silver medallist, Samantha Murray, pops over to say hi and to inform her team mates that Nick from Coronation Street is in the gym (he’s not that tall, apparently).

There are so many angles I could take, writing about this sport, and the obvious comradery I’m witnessing today is one of them. They natter away about various trips to world championships and other contests. Despite the fact that most of them would have been training with the elite squad at different times and that though they are friends, ultimately they are also competing against each other too, they are obviously a team and it’s really nice to see. This social element of sport extends far beyond the athletes here at Bath, today, and is just one of the myriad benefits I’m seeing through my participation in sport over the last year.

After lunch it’s fencing, and we start with some drills – jumping over a skipping rope and scuttling away using some fencing footwork, which baffles me. Not because it doesn’t make sense from a timing and agility perspective, but because I just can’t get my head around when I’m supposed to run in for the jump. It’s one of those moments when I feel daft for not being able to master something so seemingly simple. Again, in the drill where we either mirror Katy’s movement or go the other way, my tiny brain just can’t take it all in. Co-ordination has never been a strong point for me.

Basically Mr Miyage

Basically Mr Miyage

Then Kate gives me some one-to-one tuition of her favourite of all the mod pen events. I warn her that last time I tried this sport, I spent the whole time screaming whenever the sword came near me, though it’s not scary this time and Kate even reckons I’m ok at it. A natural defender, apparently. When I tell a friend about this later, he asks “but do you think she was just being kind?”.

So we split into teams again and I compete first against Ioan, who is under strict instructions from Kate not to beat me too easily. Ioan hangs back a bit and I seem to match him reasonably well, though sensing his frustration, Kate lifts the handicap conditions and he easily beats me. Just so we’re clear on this, Ioan is 12 years old. So I’m not holding out much hope in my next duel, with my fencing spirit guide, Kate, who I suspect his holding back, but still easily beats me. In fact I’m not even sure I got a point in this one. Finally I take on Katie, the only competitor who is currently in the GB Squad.  I think I manage to get one point, but suffice to say, she wipes the floor with me pretty quickly. There are a couple of points in it, but ultimately, my team loses in this event. Sorry guys.

Though I enjoy fencing much better this time round, as I enjoyed the swimming, and it highlights the enormous difference a good coach and a bit of encouragement can make. Everything about this experience should really be geared to make my 14 year old self as miserable as she can be, but no one’s making me feel bad for not being good at sport, and it’s just good fun.

Next is the combined run and shoot. I’m very excited about using a laser gun and I was surprisingly good when I tried rifle shooting with Surbiton Postal Rifle Club, so I’m feeling optimistic about this. Oh how wrong I am. Apparently pistol shooting is a world apart from rifle shooting. For a start, you don’t get to use your shoulder to steady the gun and worse still, you have to do it one handed. It’s not going very well for me, though Kate tells me encouraging things about the groupings of my shots, in that there are some groupings, so I just need to adjust the position of the gun a bit, but I am hopeless with one hand and, indeed, standing up, so I am to kneel down and rest my arms on the desk. I am still rubbish.

Kneeling is cheating

Kneeling is cheating

So imagine how well this works between runs around the car park outside, which is the next part of the contest. We will start with shooting – you need to hit the target 5 times in 50 seconds – then run a lap outside, come back in, shoot again, run another lap and finish with another round of shooting. The running does not go well for me, as I’m a little out of practice, and the further into it I get, the shakier my shot becomes – it’s really hard to manage the adrenaline you need for running fast with the calm you need for a good shot. Fortunately, I have Katy on my team, who seems to be the runner among us. She certainly closes the gap between our teams considerably, and in the end there are only 10 seconds between us, instead of the 30 or so accrued by my feeble efforts.

Pretty bold wearing a Team GB T Shirt to compete with, er, Team GB. Especially when you look as unfit as I do in this picture

Pretty bold wearing a Team GB T Shirt to compete with, er, Team GB. Especially when you look as unfit as I do in this picture

What is interesting about the Modern Pentathlon and disparity between the sports of which it comprises is something that hadn’t occurred to me, previously. Pentathletes come to the sport in a variety of ways, often by seeing that they are pretty good at both running and swimming, for example – Katy hadn’t even ridden a horse until she was 17, she tells me. So you would expect that Pentathletes to have favourite events, but many of them will have a physical predisposition to certain sports. For example, the body of a runner is completely different to the body of a swimmer. This revelation is the point at which I realise that these athletes are basically superhuman. Sure, you don’t have to be at the Mo Farah level of running ability and the Rebecca Adlington level of swimming to be an elite pentathlete, but you have to be very good at a sport that your body might not actually be built for.

This is what a swimmer's body looks like, FYI

For strictly educational purposes, this is what a swimmer’s body looks like, FYI

So the team part of the day is over, and sadly my team has lost, though only by a small margin in the end, and we are rewarded with Jelly Babies before Kate and I head over to Widbrook Riding School where I will be trying my hand at Showjumping, the final event of the day.

In the car I ask Kate the obvious question – what does it feel like to win an Olympic Medal? As a 6 year old, like many others, Kate remembers watching Seb Coe on the TV, as he collected his Gold medal in the 1500m at the Moscow Games, and thought “that’s what I want to do”. Unlike many others, Kate embarked on a 20 year journey, sometimes a brutally hard one, and she actually did it. Standing on the podium in Sydney, she says, it wasn’t really her – it was the same 6 year old child. Maybe I’m a hormonal mess, or maybe I’m thinking about the journey I’ve been on this last year – my very own (admittedly less impressive) Olympics, but I’m not ashamed to say that I actually just wept typing that last sentence.

At Widbrook first of all, I come to discover that my left calf muscle is about two inches bigger than my right, as I squeeze into Kate’s boots. Apparently this is normal; I’m just left-legged. After this discovery, I limp round to meet centre manager Karen, who introduces me to Dolly, a Bay mare who will be my trusty steed for today’s lesson. I’m nervous, as I have been on every occasion that I’ve been required to sit on a horse over the last 11 months, but not cripplingly so. Dolly is a nice horse, but she needs a bit of encouragement, apparently. This usually means “she will refuse to move”, but she’s not that bad actually. She seems to pick up a pretty reasonable pace and before I know it, we’re cantering and I’m not soiling myself, which is unexpected but most welcome. Not least because I’m borrowing Kate’s jodhpurs, and that really would be awkward. Perhaps most impressive is that I’ve remembered the concept of trot diagonals and how to put them into practice – learning is fun.

Onward, and whilst Karen is very understanding about my nervousness, she wastes no time in getting me over some trot poles, then some bigger jumps. In fact we start with jumps that are as high as the biggest I’d tried during my recent jumping lesson, and we end with something that is probably about 2 feet. Ok, this isn’t massive, but it certainly feels significant AND I canter over every single jump. Kate is impressed, and actually, so am I. There. I said it.

Despite my facial expression, not soiling myself

Despite my facial expression, not soiling myself

The day is over and I sit on the train home knackered from my final challenge – a dash to the train, but absolutely elated by the experience I’ve had. What an amazing day and what an inspiring bunch of people. I must say an enormous thank you to Pentathlon GB for making this possible and to Katy, Sarah, Katie, Heather, Ioan and Ellie for being part of it, it was genuinely a real privilege to learn from you all. But most of all, I must say thank you to Kate for organising it, and though she has a real medal so she doesn’t need a hypothetical one, she definitely deserves gold in this case. You are quite right, Kate, sport really does change lives.

Gold Silver Bronze Total
Jen 15 17 2 34
Gemma 3 3
Jade 2 1 3
Nick 2 2
Stef 2 2
Uncle Becky 1 2 3
Pete 1 1 2
Harriet 1 1 2
John D 1 1 2
Simon L 1 1 2
Adam 1 1
Aliki 1 1
Ashcombe Volleyball 1 1
Chloe Rogers 1 1
Colin 1 1
Dalston Dunkers 1 1
Daniel 1 1
GB Handball 1 1
Grant 1 1
John T 1 1
Kate Allenby 1 1
Naomi 1 1
Otter Water Polo 1 1
Pentathlon GB 1 1
Romford HC 1 1
Ruislip Eagles 1 1
Simon L’s Mum & Dad 1 1
Steve 1 1
Su 1 1
Vera 1 1
Simon M 2 2
Nic 1 1 2
Ali 1 1
Clare 1 1
James 1 1
My Mum 1 1
Nancy 1 1
Joss 1 1
Olly  1  1

All pictures of the competition belong to Pentathlon GB, so ask them if you want to use them, innit. The ones of Mark Foster and Heather Fell, I found on the internet…

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