Modern pentathlon: Perfect sport for Suzanne Stettinius

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Like many Olympic athletes not named Michael Phelps, Suzanne Stettinius is both training and fundraising in these final weeks before the Summer Games. She's made appeals via Facebook and her blog and, next week, will host a party at a Baltimore County tavern where among the auction items will be a date with the athlete herself.

A risky proposition for a 24-year-old woman? Maybe, but perhaps not one whose sport involves shooting and fencing and, should flight rather than fight seem advisable, running, swimming and riding a horse.

Oh, and her father is a former Navy SEAL, too.

"We never brought boys home," Stettinius says with a good-natured groan about her dating life as a Hereford High School student.

Any dates now will have to wait at least until she returns from London in August. After an extended qualifying process in her sport of modern pentathlon, Stettinius is all but assured of one of the United States' two slots for women to compete in modern pentathlon in the Summer Games in London, which run from July 27 to Aug.12.

As archaic as it now seems, the modern pentathlon seems that it could find an audience in these attention-deficient times. And in fact, the multi-tasking is what attracted Stettinius, a lifelong athlete who, during overlapping times of her life, has competed in steeplechase, soccer, fencing, cross-country running and swimming.

"I don't know how other athletes stay fit with just one sport," Stettinius said. "I'm too ADHD for that."

She is the middle child of five, raised on her family's Parkton horse farm just below the Pennsylvania state line where she still lives with her parents and youngest sister. From childhood, her father, William, said, she has always "over-programmed" herself.

"I can remember when she was in middle school, she was fencing five times a week, playing soccer, indoor soccer, and she decided she wanted to add indoor lacrosse," William Stettinius said. "I said fine, what do you want to drop? She wouldn't talk to me for two weeks."

A recent training day began at 9:30 a.m. with a horse-jumping practice at the Monkton farm of her riding coaches, Joe Davies and Blythe Miller-Davies, and continued through to a 7 p.m. session in Columbia with her fencing coach, Bin Lu.

About the only sign that she had been through a particularly packed day — there was also running and shooting practice at home and swimming in the YMCA pool in Shrewsbury, Pa. — was a yellow mustard stain on her fencing pants from a hot dog she had scarfed down.

Modern pentathlon debuted 100 years ago at the 1912 Olympics as an updated version of the ancient pentathlon introduced at the 18th Olympiad in 708 BC. Then, competitors ran, swam, wrestled and threw spears and discuses.

Today's version was developed by the founder of the modern Olympics himself, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who based it on a Napoleonic-era military courier who had to deliver a message across rigorous, enemy-laden terrain. Along with the legendary Jim Thorpe, who won gold, competitors of the first modern pentathlon included the future World War II general, George S. Patton, who placed fifth.

And he was robbed, according to Stettinius, who agrees with what Patton always contended, that the shot he made that was declared a miss actually went through the hole made by the other four.

Stettinius, who graduated from McDaniel College last year, can practice three of her sport's disciplines at her family's farm, Mint Meadows. She can ride one of her nine horses, rescued from tracks after their racing careers ended, jumping over makeshift obstacles to simulate the 15 jumps on the Olympic course. She can run on a track that's been mowed through an overgrown patch on a hill, to an inverted plastic barrel where she's placed her gun, 10 meters in front of a target hung on the side of a shed.

"It's my ghetto track," she jokes of the makeshift accommodations.

Hardly — despite the rumble of the nearby I-83, the farm is peacefully rustic. "These are our soul-soothers," her mother, Avis, says as she follows her daughter into the horse barn, ready for a ride herself after working around the farm that morning.

As a rather gimpy old goat named Freddy watches, Suzanne readies a horse near a sign that warns, "No whining."

There's not much of that, it seems. Stettinius talks as casually about previous injuries such as a broken neck the way a weekend warrior might talk about a pulled muscle — a little bump in the road.

She broke her neck, in a non-paralyzing way, she notes, several years ago in a steeplechase race; more recently she broke her collarbone in another race. Neither will keep her from getting back in the saddle, literally or figuratively.

"I'm just so game," she said.

She was injured in April during a World Cup match in Hungary, which could have derailed her Olympic hopes. During a fencing bout, she slipped during a lunge and landed almost in a split, badly pulling her hamstring. That forced her out of the competition early, and complicated her ability to make the Olympics.

Despite her setbacks, though, she has soldiered on, displaying a resilience that her father, whose Navy SEAL days included a stint in Somalia during the "Black Hawk Down" days, notes with pride.

"It's water off a duck's back," her father says. "She doesn't blink."

The upshot of her injury was that she had to wait until the end of other competitions to see how rivals did and whether her ranking was high enough to make the cut — only 36 women and 36 men will compete, and countries can have no more than two of each gender.

After a sleepless night last month in which she kept getting out of bed to check a livestream of a competition, she was in, at least unofficially. Pentathlon officials say that while official notification is still pending, no matter how they crunch the ranking numbers, Stettinius makes the U.S. team.

"The sky is the limit for her in London," says Rob Stull, managing director of USA Pentathlon, himself a former Olympic pentathlete and fencer. Stull said that while Stettinius' international ranking may be toward the bottom of the 36 Olympic competitors, each event begins with a clean slate, with competitors rising and falling with each sport.

"It makes the sport particularly interesting," William Stettinius said. "You can't predict where the pack will end up."

All sorts of wild cards enter into the competition. During fencing, each competitor has to duel every other one. Horses are assigned by random, with entrants getting just 20 minutes to warm the animal up before starting the obstacle course.

While the event used to sprawl over four or five days, it was compressed into a single day starting in 1996. Women competed for the first time in the 2000 Games. And, after the 2008 Olympics, the running and shooting components were mashed into one event, with athletes firing at targets and running one kilometer, three times. And the guns now shoot lasers rather than bullets or pellets.

These days, Stettinius' time is filled with practices and competitions — on a recent weekend, she had both a swim meet at the Meadowbook pool in Baltimore and a fencing match in Washington. Soon, she'll head to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado.

Her supporters are thrilled to see her heading to London.

"I think this is a unique opportunity for her, given her unique athleticism," said Davies, her riding coach. "It would be a waste to just ride horses."

Stettinius has been training for pentathlon full-time since graduating from McDaniel. She had joined the school's swim team to help with what she considers the weakest of the five events, and McDaniel's swim coach, Jeff Hiestand, still works with her.

He is among the coaches she hopes to send to London to see the fruits of what in most of their cases has been free labor. Her running coach, for example, is the father of a girl she had coached in riding; her massage therapist saw her Facebook page and volunteered her services.

She's trying to raise $60,000 through fundraising events such as a toga party on June 24 at the Manor Tavern in Monkton.

"You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child?" says Avis Stettinius, who is stitching up a toga for her Olympian to wear that night. "It takes a village to send her to the Olympics."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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2012 Summer Olympics

When: July 27-Aug. 12 (Opening ceremony is July 27, with women's soccer starting competition on July 25).

Where: London

TV: Every competition will be streamed live online at nbcolympics.com or telecast by NBC and its affiliated cable networks.

Number of countries: 205

Number of events: 302

Official website: http://www.london2012.com

About modern pentathlon

The events:

Fencing: A round-robin series of matches in which each competitor has a one-minute bout with epee swords against every other, with the winner the first to score a hit.

Swimming: A 200-meter freestyle race with athletes seeded in heats according to their personal best times.

Riding-Equestrian Show Jumping: Athletes ride randomly assigned horses over a course with 15 jumps over obstacles up to 120 centimeters in height.

Combined Shooting/Running: With a handicap start, athletes run to a shooting range, where they have to hit five targets 10 meters away in under 1 minute 10 seconds, then run for 1,000 meters. They repeat this two more times.

When to watch: Modern pentathlon is scheduled for the final two days of Olympic competition, the men on Aug. 11 and the women on Aug. 12.

Source: USA Pentathlon

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