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How to become a modern pentathlete - and why

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Ollie Williams | 17:23 UK time, Monday, 12 April 2010

When politicians and leading lights bang on for the umpteenth time about their commitment to "grass-roots" sport, it always comes down to one thing: accessibility.

Jumpers for goalposts in every park. A cricket bat in each child's hand. Free swimming. Junior tennis. A way in as the beating heart of any sport.

The way into most sports is fairly obvious. Even the decathlon, with 10 disciplines to master, broadly involves events you might have tried at sports day growing up. (Though I've occasionally wondered how one tries pole vault for the first time - presumably you can't just grab a pole and declare, "I've seen it done.")

Modern pentathlon, on the other hand, demands five very different talents from its athletes, several of which Britain's youngsters are simply not exposed to on a regular basis.

You need to run and swim. Fine, we can tick those boxes, runners and swimmers abound. Show jumping is doable. Fencing and shooting? Trickier. All five? Come on, now.

Is it really that hard, though? How do you become a modern pentathlete, and could you be doing that instead of sitting and reading this?

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Highlights from the Modern Pentathlon World Cup in Kent

A one-line answer to that question isn't easy. Even Heather Fell, who won Olympic pentathlon silver for Britain at Beijing 2008, told me that routes into the sport remain hard to explain.

"I was at a school sports awards recently and three girls came up to me - they did three events each, with none of them doing fencing, and they were asking how to start pentathlon," she said.

"They asked: 'How do we know if we're good at shooting?' And I wasn't completely sure. Generally, I don't think there are many clubs in the country. Instead, you need to speak to Pentathlon GB via their website and go along to a mini-centre.

"But if I was in their situation I'd feel a little bit lost and not quite sure where to go."

The mini-centres Fell mentions are a chain of modern pentathlon performance centres. Medway Park, in Kent, where last weekend's World Cup event was held, is the latest to be unveiled.

With a series of Olympic medal-winning performances over the past decade and a home Games on the horizon, pentathlon now has the funding to ramp up its search for the next generation of multi-tasking athletes. Fell, though, reckons the sport still has more to do.

"You start with the Schools Biathlon (which involves running and swimming) and then it naturally progresses up - that's the 'pentathlon way' you're supposed to come into the sport," she said.

"That doesn't need to change, but it does need to widen. We need to make the shooting more accessible - kids can find somewhere to run, swimming is brought in at school level, but shooting is a big step up.

"You need specialist places to learn that, and riding takes the most time, so you need to know you're going to be good at the other sports before taking up the riding."

Russell North on the shooting rangeFancy yourself as a pentathlon hot-shot? Photo: PA

Peter Hart, once a pentathlete for Britain at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, is now the chief executive of the sport in the UK. He is the least chief-executivey chief executive I've met. When the BBC team needed a gazebo in which to house our kit near the World Cup finish line, Hart found one, and then helped put it up. When was the last time you saw Sepp Blatter with tent pegs and a hammer?

Hart does, indeed, adhere to what Fell calls the 'pentathlon way', but he says the big thing to remember is to take things slowly.

"The first steps are the running and swimming events," he explained. "We had 4,500 people doing Schools Biathlon this year. Then we look at the top 10 of each age group and suggest to them that they might want to do pentathlon - the next steps possibly being learning to shoot and fence. The funding has enabled us to do that in more local areas than we could before.

"It then depends on age. If you're under 16 then concentrate on running and swimming, and we'll slowly introduce the others. Because if you're doing five disciplines with all the other pressures of life - exams, boyfriends, girlfriends, physical development - it's too much at 15. So it's running and swimming, then shooting, then slowly fencing and riding.

"For most of our athletes, the riding comes last - and you don't need to own your own horse, which is something we have to impress on people very quickly."

What's the attraction, though? Let's face it, learning five different sports is a lot of hard work for a sport which barely scrapes onto the media radar (slightly undeservedly - the all-day finals are lengthy affairs, and they used to take five days, but then so does a Test match). And your reward for success is a shot at one Olympic medal every four years. That's a lot of disappointed pentathletes, right there.

Care must be taken phrasing this, but it seems the biggest thing going for pentathlon is that you don't have to be the best at anything. The fastest swimmers, quickest runners and best show jumpers are probably not the best pentathletes. You need a jack-of-all-trades mentality which the best, most dedicated single-sport athletes possibly don't possess.

"We're looking for county swimmers or runners who play a bit of rugby, hockey or netball," added Hart. "Multi-sports people who are coming fourth, fifth or sixth at swimming club - the triers and grafters.

"The profile of an Olympic medallist in pentathlon is 28 years of age, which is quite late in the day by Olympic standards. And it's those guys who try hard at county level and haven't trained flat out in one sport who adapt much easier."

And therein lies hope, surely, for a large number of junior athletes. If you're one of them, or a mum or dad, remember: perpetually finishing fourth doesn't mean that Olympic dream is dying - you just need to find room in the armoury for four more sports.

Get the running and swimming to a decent standard, enter the Schools Biathlon, and maybe the tap on the shoulder will come.

Becoming a modern pentathlete in five easy steps
(Probably best attempted while still young)

1. Get your running and swimming up to a good standard, but you don't have to be the best.

2. Enter a Schools Biathlon event to draw the attention of Pentathlon GB (there were races during the World Cup weekend, watched by coaches).

3. Get shooting and fencing instruction with the help of Pentathlon GB.

4. If you're good at those, get on a horse and try show jumping.

5. Still with us? Then, my child, you are a modern pentathlete.

Alternatively: Several pentathletes, Heather Fell included, are veterans of an initiative called Pony Club Tetrathlon. This turns the above on its head by adding in riding and shooting at quite an early age, with fencing coming last.


  • Comment number 1.

    Pole vault is just long jump with a stick. Run fast, jump high; to begin with, the pole will take care of the rest.

  • Comment number 2.

    Check out this link to see how Natasha Hunt is doing just what you describe ... going from your average gym goer to Olympic Pentathlete (hopefully) in the space of 4 years ...

  • Comment number 3.

    Good blog Ollie. Total respect for pentathletes - a serious amount of work for not much recognition.

  • Comment number 4.

    Pole vault is just long jump with a stick. Run fast, jump high; to begin with, the pole will take care of the rest.


    Hhmmmmmmm I'm sure technique plays a part somewhere in there. Try it out, and let us know how you got on (or not, if they don't have web access in the hospital) ;)

  • Comment number 5.

    Whilst having the upmost respect for these athelets, you perhaps wonder why this sporting event isn't as popular as say the triathlon. More promotion could prove a winner, in terms of finding the odd bit of tv coverage apart from the regular Olympic showings.

    As for the events, I wouldn't know where to start in terms of shooting. I did some fencing as part of my PE GCSE many years ago, and really enjoyed it. I wish I'd perhaps carried on with it, not that I was any good, but it was enjoyable.

  • Comment number 6.

    Thanks for all the comments. At the risk of drawing the ire of actual pentathletes, leia27, I'd say the shooting isn't particularly tough in itself. You can pick up the basics fairly quickly. I had 20 minutes of tuition before last summer's Worlds in Crystal Palace and I was hitting the target frequently enough to be pretty happy about it.

    It's adding in the running which makes it tough. The idea is you have to control your heart rate when you run, otherwise your heart pumps so much on the shooting range that your hand goes everywhere. When I tried running 500m (half the usual distance) first and then shooting, I didn't have a prayer. Video evidence.

  • Comment number 7.

    Interesting Blog Ollie, have always found Modern Pentathlon very watchable the few times it has been on the box, ie. Olympics. Done plenty of running and riding and some swimming and shooting, but never fenced, think I would have been too lumbering and ponderous. Can understand the difficulty of trying to aim a gun after running too, very tricky.

    However, not sure if it is strictly in the rules, but reference the second photo in the blog, is the british competitor breaking the rules by threatening the rest with his pistol? :-)

  • Comment number 8.

    OK as far as it goes, Ollie but the reality is in your last para. Fact: All of the 4 female Olympic medals (Sydney, Athens and Beijing) have come through athletes who came up through the Pony Club Tetrathlon competition. Also the current leading male GB Pentathlete was ex Pony Club. Pony Club starts children shooting at the age of 8. By this time most are Riding regularly. The Pony Club is a training organisation. It is a Charity and is the largest association of riders in the world. Apart from teaching children how to manage ponies/horses, it teaches the skills of horsemanship so that young people learn to ride with balance while giving the horse confidence to follow the riders' directions coming from the legs and hands. It is very difficult for people to learn to ride effectively when they start at the age of say 15. You would not expect an Olympic skier to start skiing at the age of 15.
    Tetrathlon gives Pony Club competitors the skills of Shooting, Riding, Running and Swimming. The only phase that they need to learn at the age of say 15 is fencing. There is a message here! If you want to give yourself a really good opportunity of success in Modern Pentathlon, try joining the P--- C---. It will also give you a really good grounding in Horsemanship - a hobby for life.

  • Comment number 9.

    Comment from holmenic re Natasha Hunt average gym goer to pentathlete. She has made a very valiant effort at trying to become a top pentathlete in 4 years however I believe she has not managed to achieve her goal. I am sure she would be the first to admit it is much harder than you might imagine and she worked very hard to try to achieve it. Becoming a pentathlon takes years of training. You need to be driven, love sports, have loads of self motivation and desire to do it. An ambition to be the best. It is a sport that you build up to. You don't start with five events. You might start in any one then add in another till you build up to the five events. I don't think it matters which one is first but i know swimming and running are often the events most people start with and are the most desired because consistant points can be achieved. Some people start with riding. Personally i think learning to ride younger is better as the pentathlon ride tests the rider skill at leading an unknown horse over a course which is not an easy feet as horses are all different. Horsemanship takes a long time to learn. Horses are animals which should be respected and treated properly. I agree with countylandrover pony club is a great starting point if you want to become a pentathlete as you can take up riding, running, swimming and shooting but its not the only way in. There are lots of petathone clubs in England and only a couple in Scotland. I have great respect for all athletes and especially endurance athletes as i know the amount of training and sacrafice that is required to achieve their goal. If you want to become a top athlete be prepared to; train hard, be organized, balance your life around you sport, travel, spend money and love what you do. There are many rewards but it tough and not for the faint hearted.


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