Colorado Competes: Denver’s Aspiring Pentathletes

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When the 2012 Olympic Games wrap up this weekend, they’ll end with perhaps the most Olympic sport of all: pentathlon. This mindbending mix of five different skills was actually created specifically for the Olympic games, and celebrates its 100 anniversary this year. For our series Colorado Competes, CPR’s Megan Verlee visited one of the major training centers in the country, hidden behind an old storefront in east Denver.

Listen to all of our Colorado Competes Olympic coverage here [scroll down]

Reporter Megan Verlee: So here’s the myth behind the modern pentathlon: it’s supposed to train you in every skill a 19th century courier might need to deliver a message through hostile territory.

Elaine Cheris: "They would start out perhaps running." [sound of running footsteps]

Reporter: This is Elaine Cheris, who runs the Cheyenne Fencing Society and Modern Pentathlon Center in east Denver.

Cheris: "They run into a river or lake, they have to swim across it." [sound of swimming]

Reporter: Cheris has been training students in pentathlon for decades.

Cheris: "He finds a horse, he jumps on the horse and rides the horse." [Sound of hoofbeats]

Reporter: During competition pentathletes pick their horses by lottery, so the animal is always a stranger to them.

Cheris: "...And then he encounters some issue, pulls out his sword, has a sword fight." [sound of clashing swords]

Reporter: And then, just as all looks safe, he runs into more trouble.

Cheris: "He has to shoot [sound of gunshot] to get his way clear to get through to the king to carry the message."

Reporter: How can you not love a sport that comes with such a dramatic narrative? Except of course, plenty of people in the United States haven’t even heard of pentathlon. It’s one of those events that’s always under threat of being dropped from the Olympics. And the kids who train with Cheris are used to blank looks when they try to tell people what they’re doing.

Naomi Ross: “I don’t know anybody else at my school who does pentathlon.”

Paige Witter: “A lot of them think it’s one of the track and field events cause it’s like decathlon or heptathlon.”

John Kerner: “So when they find out we’re doing these unusual sports, they’re eyes get all wide and it’s like 'what?'”

Noah Logan: “My friends just think that sword fighting and shooting is just really cool.”

Reporter: Really cool, and apparently a bit addicting. Paige Witter went to her first pentathlon competition just a few weeks after starting fencing classes. Now she’s nationally ranked with Olympic ambitions.

Paige Witter: "I’ve done a lot of sports over the years and they just get boring after a while. So doing five together, everything is different every time, and even training everything every day, it means you’re doing something new every couple of hours."

Reporter: But while constantly switching activities may keep students interested, it’s also what makes pentathlon so hard. One minute you’re running flat out, the next you need a calm, steady hand to aim your pistol. Swimming takes long, sturdy muscles, fencing requires quick, precise movements. And then there’s that horse to deal with. Coach Cheris has two words for the sport she loves: totally nuts.

Cheris: "The whole pentathlon is just a nightmare, I mean it is, it’s just a nightmare for athletes."

[sound of fencing]

Cheris: "Push him, push him back and forth. That’s good. Push push push..."

Reporter: Cheris’ students spread out along training strips that run the length of the fencing studio. Sensors in their foils emit a loud electric beep each time they score a hit. The club has a lived-in, homey feel. Cheris holds her baby granddaughter on her hip as she coaches the kids. A couple of dogs wander around, avoiding the flashing blades. Between classes students make microwave popcorn or beg to go down to the basement pistol range. Cheris says people who start in the shooting sports are usually too mellow to take up pentathlon, but she’s got a new source for marksmen.

Cheris: "We had one kid who came in who could just, from nowhere, could just hit dead center, just hit time after time. I eventually said, “Brandon, what, did you shoot all your life or what?” He goes no, I just do videogames. And their shooting has improved so much from the video games. I hate the video games, though. But..."

[sound of gunshot]

Reporter: Down in the shooting range, 13-year-old Naomi Ross runs around the room between each shot, getting her adrenaline up. A lot of the students here end up going down to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where they get to work with current stars, and develop gold medal dreams of their own. Cheris says having the OTC down the road has also helped raise the profile of her own school.

Cheris: "It’ s a dream come true. It’s absolutely, no one designed it, it just happened correctly."

Reporter: This weekend the students from Cheyenne Fencing Society will all be watching the competition closely. If they can stay awake. 17-year-old Paige Witter.

Witter: "It’s televised at one in the morning, so we’re either going to have to get up really early, or find it online."

Reporter: Three Americans are competing in Olympic pentathlon this year. Many of these kids in Denver are hoping it won’t be too long before its their turn to run, ride, swim, fence, and shoot their way to the gold.

[photo: MVerlee/CPR]