EN Today: Pentathlon

JER has briefed us on the ins and outs of pentathlon before, but it’s worth re-visiting the sport before this summer’s London Olympics. Many thanks to JER for sharing her knowledge of modern pentathlon, and for pointing out this weekend is the inaugural World Cup competition held in Charlotte, NC.  Go Pentathlon!
100% of Pentathlon Canada’s 2012 budget went to carrots and signageFrom JER:

Welcome to Pentathlon Nation!

Mid-January, sliding over ice, it’s 4WD-only on city streets.  The outside temperature is hovering at -14, and that’s -14 C.  C as in Canada.  Vancouver at its winter worst.

If I didn’t have the weather to remind me that I’m north of the 49th parallel, I’ve got CBC radio playing in my truck and the current program is a museum-quality piece of Canadiana.  The in-studio guest for this hour’s chat show is a gentleman who is identified as an ‘asexual activist.’   There’s not a lot to talk about, because although you can’t really talk to an asexual activist about sex, you can’t really not talk about sex either.  But every time the topic comes up, the asexual guy opines that everything ‘doesn’t really have to be about sex, does it?’  The ensuing dialogue is a model of Canadian politesse.  It’s the sound of one eye on the clock, pleading for the hands to make it to the top of the hour, while the other eye rolls back into the head.   The awkward silences are as loud as Don Cherry’s sport coat.

At this point, you’re thinking there must be a pony in this somewhere.  I’m thinking that, too, because I take a smart-ass shortcut that puts me on a street that’s no longer wide enough for my truck.

Actually, there are four.  Horses, not ponies, probably the only four horses in the greater Vancouver area out in this frigid weather.  Right now, they’re trotting around in the covered arena at Southlands Riding Club.  The banner out front, which is apparently brought to you, Sesame Street-style, by the number 5, says “2012 UIPM Riding Camp.”


UIPM, right.  Another one of those Frenchified acronyms for an international athletic governing body, this time for the Union International de Pentathlon Moderne.  Sport at its most obscure.  And moderne. 

Modern pentathlon, as we all know, is fencing, swimming, riding, shooting and running.  Modern pentathlon is one reason why you should never believe anyone who tells you that a sport (eventing, anyone?) will achieve worldwide popularity and shower vast riches upon its luminaries if it’s included in the Olympics.  Despite being invented for the Olympics and included in one hundred years’ worth of games, pentathlon has yet to emerge beyond WTF status.

Let’s put that in perspective.   Triathlon debuted as an Olympic sport in 2000, roughly one century after modern pentathlon.  In 2011, 2.3 million Americans entered a triathlon.  In that same year, a grand total of 30 individuals competed at the open-to-all USA Pentathlon National Championships.

2,300,000 vs. 30.  The math, any way you spin in, does not look good.  And even worse, triathlon is an unrelenting procession of suffering.  You don’t get to fence, shoot or ride a horse.

The UIPM Riding Camps came about as part of the sport’s attempt to raise the standard in riding in international competitions.  The television coverage from recent Olympics has shown the world some appalling horsemanship, and the sport is anxious to change that image in time for the London games.  To that end, the UIPM is funding week-long riding camps for qualified athletes.  The federation pays for everything – meals, hotels, airfare, instruction, horses – all the athlete has to do is show up.

Mysteriously, the two invited Americans don’t show up.  At a very late hour, their federation cancels on their behalf.  No one is sure why.  All I know is that if someone offered to pay for all my travel expenses and food, plus give me horses to ride all day, I’d be there even if I was in a coma, and I probably would be in a food coma if someone was footing the bill for my meals.

With a flurry of calls and emails, the crisis is averted.  The stars-and-stripes void gets filled by two more members of the Canadian women’s team, so now the camp roster is Canadians Melanie McCann, Donna Vakalis and Mathea Stevens, plus the 2011 Pan Am Games men’s champion, Oscar Soto.

Oscar just might be the bravest man in Mexico.  He’s also got an excellent chance at a medal in London.

Let’s meet our pentathletes:

Mathea Stevens;  Donna Vakalis;  Oscar Soto; and Melanie McCann.

Rick Maynard, also known as the father of eventer Tik Maynard, is the instructor for the week.  The camp is a lot like a regular showjumping clinic, except that the participants ride a new, unfamiliar horse for each twice-daily session.  Rick schools them on riding lines, choosing the correct canter, making accurate turns, and knowing your stride.  There’s a lot to think about, and there’s no blaming the horse.  The job is to get the job done.  You ride the horse you’re sitting on.  You have to fix it going forward.There’s no do-overs, no next week, no next lesson – it’s all right there in the moment.

Not bad, eh?

Especially not bad when you realize how hard these athletes train in five sports.  Five very different sports.  Unlike in eventing, there’s no professional career to be had in pentathlon.  For most athletes, there’s little, if any, money or sponsorship.  The Canadian girls are almost entirely self-funded; Oscar joined the army in Mexico to train with their team.  It’s not easy to stay competitive in the sport, and it’s tiresome to have to keep explaining your sport to everyone.

Pentathlon:  it’s not about the bike.  Really, it’s not.

This weekend, the first pentathlon World Cup of 2012 is taking place in Charlotte, NC.  The finals are on Saturday and Sunday; the riding phase will be in the afternoon on both days.  For more information, go to the Charlotte World Cup website.

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