POSTED: Monday December 6th 2010

Pentathlon Feature: Samantha Murray - London Calling

AN insight of Young Modern Pentathlete Samantha Murray chasing her Olympic Dream.

Murray with her new French Training Partners
Murray with her new French Training Partners

Murray pushing at the World Junior Championships
Murray pushing at the World Junior Championships

So close to her first World Cup Medal
So close to her first World Cup Medal

Take the course in your stride. It’s just you and the horse. Keep in rhythm, execute the jumps. Keep it clean.

It’s 6AM. Most of the world’s still asleep or fumbling for their work clothes, weary eyed and coffee pots boiling. A strange focus and mental detachment descends. Where most people would be dreading the cold and the stigma attached to anything early-morning, for you it’s time to train. You are a modern pentathlon competitor - a master of five disciplines, running, swimming, shooting, fencing and horse-riding. The modern-day gladiator, the events reflect the attributes required to be the ultimate soldier. How do you expect to compete? Wing it?

It probably started with some swimming classes. Maybe someone at swimming club said you’d do well in a biathlon and you realised you loved the running. A talent spotter makes a comment; you’re Grandmother owns horses, you have been riding forever, why don’t you try pentathlon? Soon you’re taking classes on the weekends, learning to fence and shoot. From a young age, you take the training in your stride. It’s no problem with copious amounts of energy to burn.

How young? Thirteen. Your name’s Samantha Murray. In the next five years you hone your talents and finish your youth career with an impressive trophy bag full of Nationals, Internationals and European Championships. You take some time out to take your final exams. The goal is to attend the University of Bath. You want the best coaches, the best facilities and Bath is the best. Self admittedly, there are easier subjects to try and study, you want to get in for Politics and French. It’s a goal that requires stern commitment. Why not? According to Samantha’s philosophy, it was never something she really thought about, she just did it.

Come on. Stretch it out. Keep the rhythm up. Four more strokes, keep the tumble-turn tight. Head down, focus on the black line. Hit it, only fifty to go.

To put it in perspective; there are two Olympic qualifying spots, four places available on the Great Britain senior women’s team and nine women train competitively at the University of Bath. Samantha trains thirty hours a week, while studying. The team is highly competitive. By Samantha’s own admission pentathlon isn’t a big money sport, she is helped largely by a government funding program for professional athletes. The realisation that she may never make money off pentathlon doesn’t concern her nearly as much as the drive to win Olympic medals. Perhaps others would be daunted by the five sport training regime, Samantha is nonchalant. A swimmer hits the same line, or a runner runs the same miles, week in, week out. Who wouldn’t love the freedom of getting to train in so many different disciplines?

It’s no surprise, really. Samantha says that from a young age she was always a fan of Georgina Harland, the Great Britain native who won bronze in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Watching Georgina, she recognized early that participating in the Olympics was a strong personal ambition. As she grew, Samantha was always a top youth contender, the aspiration was cemented further watching the Beijing Olympics at the age of seventeen and realising the dream was so close, yet so far. Qualifying for the Olympics is incredibly tough, testament to the two spots up for grabs. These girls all had full-time training regimes, the best coaches and facilities. Obviously, moving to senior ranks was going to require a better training environment.

It all sounds so frenetic, the proverbial candle burning at both ends. However, when talking to Samantha it’s as though she wouldn’t have it any other way and the outcome wasn’t ever in question. Focus in abundance. True to her goals, Samantha has just completed her first year of senior international competitions and her first year of study at Bath. Currently fifteenth on the world rankings for International Women’s Pentathlon, the standing is a ramification of a solid season. The last year has seen her compete in multiple continents - from Mexico, to China, in front of a home crowd in Britain to competitions across Europe. Samantha loves all of it, the travel, the competitions and the social life.

Personal organisation is achieved by the use of diaries and timetables. The variation is actually a bonus. Enjoying the flexibility - if it’s not an ideal day for swimming, her routine can be adapted to a day of shooting instead. This jack of all trades mentality is obviously crucial to success in the sport, where it is necessary to place well in all five areas to compete at an international level.

Pentathlon can appear a big task for the average amateur. How do you start practicing five sports? Samantha points out that for her, it started with swimming and running which are common across the world. The remaining sports were picked up through community based groups. She explains these grassroots organisations are essential for keeping young people involved in the sport, particularly in Britain. Without the ability to borrow swords or guns for fencing, or to get involved in riding, the costs can be quite prohibitive. Samantha says this might be hard in some countries, particularly ones with the lack of financial or community support. On the positive, international competitions are always helping to push the sport further into the public eye, opening up more opportunities for new competitors.

In terms of her place on the World Cup circuit, Samantha concedes she is extremely lucky and is glad she has made the transition to professional athlete. It allows her to compete on a level that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. She admits that it hasn’t always been easy, particularly during a period where she fell out with a talent recruitment program in her youth.

Taking it on the chin, Samantha took a two year break from the sport to focus on her study ambitions and made sure she received the marks required to attend University of Bath. She admits it was the closest she has ever been to wanting to leave the sport, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the training workload or competition. Lucky for the same organisations that may have alienated her, Samantha held strong and now showcases the talents that attract more youth to the sport and the punters to watch.

Read your opponent. Watch the sword. Balance, choose the strike. Take your time. Control yourself. You don’t want to drop it here, keep your guard up.

Currently living in France, Samantha’s study requires a six month stay in the country to develop her language skills. She was lucky to qualify to stay at the Institute of Sport for France, a special campus for elite athletes in Paris. She says the experience has been very worthwhile as the French are regarded highly for their fencing skills. Admittedly, fencing being one of her weaker areas, Samantha is appreciative of the opportunity to focus on her swordplay. The fencing clubs operate with a much higher level of skill in France, as the sport is much bigger in stature comparative to the UK. She is currently training with the French pentathlon team. All this is giving her an edge in future competitions, all while studying the same language that will set her up for a career past pentathlon.

This is typical of pentathlon - there is a strong contradiction, while running and swimming often peak earlier in the lifespan of an athlete, shooting, riding and fencing are all skill-orientated events that tend to be enhanced by age and experience. Last season’s World Cup results were capped by a fourth placing in Budapest, where she was running third until the last two hundred metres of the competition. Slightly disappointed to slip by such slim margins out of the medal positions, Samantha is still largely optimistic. There is a lot of room for improvement in her weaker events, and she is cherishing the challenges.

Poom, poom, poom, poom. Inhale, nose. Poom, poom, poom, poom. Exhale, mouth. Check the rhythm, stride it out. Don’t burn too much. Keep some for the last couple of kilometres.

Samantha’s story is typical of many athletes on the verge of major success. Many sports don’t lend themselves to million dollar matches, international advertising campaigns, massive gambling money or huge organising bodies. Athletes in these environments often require more drive than the people leading the converse fast-car lifestyle of the modern, high-profile athlete. There is no big pay out at the end of the tunnel, just a lot of hard work and intense training. The competitions themselves are continuously pushing towards a higher competitive level.

This function often creates dichotomy, the athletes with the money operate at these levels without much personal loss while the ones without suffer greatly. Olympic medals, or strong international results, are the only way to find any form of sponsorship dollar without the help of government incentives or community clubs and funding. Samantha is part of the lucky group that has managed to achieve the results required from a young age to engage the sport at the highest level. In other countries where the funding is non-existent, it would’ve been so easy for talent like this to slip through the cracks. A positive result comes down to personal determination and a dogged attitude to get it all done, the rigours of pentathlon competition lending itself to high-achievers around the globe.

Breathe. Settle your burning muscles. Hold the gun steady. Eye the target, unleash the rounds. Breathe. Don’t miss. So close.

It is often hard juggling the intense work ethic and fitness standards of pentathlon with continual travel for competitions. Two weeks of travel can really take a toll on the body when you are trying to operate at peak condition. It is just part of the game, operating in different climates and under different conditions. Athletes like in most sports operate on a cycle, the off-season occurring over a few months at the end of each year. Training works through modes of intensity depending on the date of the next competition and the time of the year.

Fortunately for those that persist, the rewards to the lifestyle are substantial; the companions, the competitions and the travel. Samantha has competed in as many continents and visited more foreign countries than many people ever will in their lives. This has all been off the back of international competitions, where athletes are treated with respect and as consummate professionals. Many young people would kill for the opportunity to make it on the world stage in their respective industries.

All that’s left is you and a five hundred metres run. Suck it in. Dig deep. You’re coming third in Budapest and your first podium finish on the World Cup circuit is in your sights. The crowd’s chanting someone’s name, for a second you think it’s you but the footsteps behind you are getting closer. You’re energy reserves are depleted, this happens to coincide simultaneously with your competitor’s surge of adrenalin. The chanting gets louder, you realise the girl who has just taken third spot is hometown hero Leila Gyenesei.

You cross the finish line in fourth place. You’re proud but you can’t help but think what might’ve been. You wonder what would’ve been with a few extra kilometres worth of running training, a little less travel time or that hometown buzz pushing you across the line. Who cares? It is what it is. You understand the resilience needed is the same resilience that gets you through the gruelling training. You understand the long-term nature of the sport. As a rookie, you know you’re results will only improve. The Olympics are only two years off and you have everything to prove and more time to train.

2010© Daniel Foskey

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Keywords · Samantha Murray · Modern Pentathlon · UIPM · Daniel Foskey

Name: Matt Pound
Organization: Union Internationale De Pentathlon Moderne - UIPM
Phone: +377 9777 8555

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