David Kirkwood’s job history does not lack variety. Among a myriad of occupations, he has been a juvenile hall counselor, a launch crewman at a nuclear missile site and an actor in television and films.
But his most memorable work was performed on the world stage more than 30 years ago.
As an awe-struck competitor in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Kirkwood helped the U.S. win a silver medal in the modern pentathlon, an event with a long Olympic history but no future.
The modern pentathlon was eliminated from Olympic competition last year after the Atlanta Games, joining other discontinued events such as the standing broad jump, croquet, tug of war and live pigeon shooting on the Olympic junk heap. It will be replaced by the triathlon starting with the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.
Kirkwood, 61, of North Hills, mourns the passing of the modern pentathlon while acknowledging that the triathlon--which combines swimming, cycling and running--has become more popular than his former event, which combines five skills simulating the actions of a 19th-century military courier.
Every four years, Kirkwood enjoyed comparing his marks against those of subsequent Olympians in the modern pentathlon’s horseback riding, fencing, shooting, swimming and running competitions.
Now all he has are memories.
“I think it’s a tragedy,” Kirkwood said. "[The modern pentathlon] is the most exciting historical story of the whole Games. . . . Every other combination event grew out of this--the decathlon, the heptathlon, the three-day equestrian all took their cue from this event.”
The first prominent American to compete in the modern pentathlon was ol’ blood and guts himself, George S. Patton. The man who would rise to fame as a general in World War II took fifth place behind four Swedes in the individual competition at the 1912 Games in Stockholm and might have won the gold medal if not for a poor mark in, ironically, shooting.
That was the best finish for an American until 1932, when Richard Mayo won the bronze medal at the first Los Angeles Games. After that, Americans were consistently in the hunt for medals in individual and team competition, which was introduced at the 1952 Games in Helsinki.
But interest in the modern pentathlon, whose participants traditionally came from the military, waned over the last three decades, leading to its Olympic demise.
"[The modern pentathlon] has a marvelous history, but the reality of the need to sell tickets is more of an issue,” Kirkwood said. “The triathlon is more acceptable as a participatory and spectator sport. You have to yield to that.”
Born in Jackson, Miss., Kirkwood moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was a child. He competed in swimming at Dorsey High, where one of his classmates was former major league manager Sparky Anderson. Dorsey was a baseball power in the late 1940s and early ‘50s but the school did not have a pool and was weak in swimming.
“We had to drive over to L.A. High and we got to practice for 40 minutes in their pool,” Kirkwood recalled. “It was barely enough time to get in a workout.”
After graduating in 1952, Kirkwood enrolled at Pepperdine when the school was located in South Los Angeles. He pursued other sports in college because he was burned out--literally--on swimming.
“Goggles had not been invented yet and you burned your eyes out at every practice,” he said. “It was torture.”
Kirkwood tried football and basketball at Pepperdine but when they didn’t work out he became a cheerleader for two years. He also took acting classes while studying to become a high school teacher.
Graduate school followed his graduation from Pepperdine in 1956, as did a series of odd jobs. He worked as a pool lifeguard, a camp counselor at Griffith Park and a juvenile hall counselor.
Then, feeling the pressure of the draft, Kirkwood enlisted in the Air Force in 1958. A year later, he read a newspaper article about the modern pentathlon and became intrigued.
“I had never heard of such a thing,” he said. “It sounded like quite a swashbuckling thing, an Errol Flynn type of thing.”
While stationed in Topeka, Kansas, Kirkwood wrote to the Amateur Athletic Union and the Army expressing an interest in the modern pentathlon. Impressed with his athletic background, the Army invited him to a 30-day tryout at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where most of the U.S. candidates for the 1960 Games in Rome were training.
Kirkwood wasn’t a factor in the 1960 Olympics trials--he had little riding experience--but the Army coaches were impressed enough to arrange to have him permanently train at Ft. Sam Houston in preparation for the 1964 Games.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Kirkwood said.
That would depend on your taste for nonstop workouts. Kirkwood and his colleagues trained nearly every day for four years, starting with riding practice at 7:30 a.m. and finishing with running at 4:30 p.m. After dinner, Kirkwood and a few others would get in additional fencing.
“There was no time for regular military duties, except for an occasional spot job,” Kirkwood said. “Our purpose was to train. It was the tradition of the event. All the other nations that competed [in the modern pentathlon] were doing pretty much the same thing.”
The basic premise behind the modern pentathlon is that a soldier is ordered to deliver a message. He starts out on the back of an unfamiliar horse, but is forced to dismount and fight a duel with swords. He escapes, but is trapped and must shoot his way out with a pistol. Then he swims across a river before finishing his assignment by running through the woods.
In the 1964 Olympics, that translated to a timed riding competition which included jumps, fencing with an epee weapon in which a first touch determined the winner of a match, shooting at a moving target with a .22-caliber pistol, a 300-meter freestyle swim and a 1,500-meter run. The event is scored like the decathlon, with a set of charts assigning a point total to each performance.
With the event stretched over five nerve-racking days, Kirkwood said he tried to steady himself by diminishing the magnitude of the Olympics.
“I was not a seasoned, experienced competitor,” he said. “I needed to gird myself by denying it was a big meet. I wanted to do well, but I tried not to let it overwhelm me.
“If I was able to keep my concentration each day, I found I could do what I wanted to do. My big terror was how I was going to do tomorrow.”
Kirkwood was in control the first day, recording a perfect score in the riding competition and helping the U.S. to a third-place finish in the event, best among the leading three-man teams.
His success carried over to the next day in the fencing competition when he pulled a fast one on the Swedish team. Realizing he was being scouted in early matches, Kirkwood consciously fenced in one style but changed to another style when he faced the Swedes. He won all three matches.
The Americans’ fourth-place finish in fencing kept them near the top of the team standings and slightly ahead of the Soviet Union, the eventual gold medal winner. But their good fortune didn’t last.
Kirkwood “let the excitement get to me” in the pistol shooting and the U.S. finished a disappointing fifth, 400 points behind the first-place Soviets, who surged into the overall lead.
Discouraged by his performance in shooting, Kirkwood failed to live up to his expectations in the swimming and running competitions. But teammate James Moore turned in stellar performances in both events, carrying the U.S. to the silver medal.
During the medal ceremony, Kirkwood counted his blessings but didn’t get choked up.
“It was not emotional or tearful,” he recalled. “I considered it a rare blessing. It’s not all luck and it’s not all work. It’s a combination of work and luck. It was humbling to realize someone else could have been there instead of you.”
Unable to train with the same enthusiasm and intensity after the Olympics, Kirkwood married within two months after the Games and concentrated on his military career. After a year’s tour of duty in Vietnam before the heaviest fighting occurred, he was stationed at Air Force bases in Europe, accompanied by his wife and four children.
He returned stateside to finish a 20-year military career working as a launch crewman at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont., where he said 10 intercontinental ballistic missiles were poised underground in the event the Cold War escalated into a catastrophic crisis.
“The missiles did their duty by never having to be used,” Kirkwood said.
Retiring from the military in 1978, he stayed in Montana and worked as a substitute teacher while dabbling in community theater and local television. In 1990, after a divorce, Kirkwood returned to Southern California to pursue acting full time.
This time, he found the doors to the entertainment industry more inviting than he had as a young African American in the 1950s. He has worked in theatre, television and independent films, with retirement checks from the Air Force picking up the slack between jobs.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” he said.
As for the Olympic demise of the modern pentathlon, Kirkwood says he may have to become a fan of the triathlon.
“We’ll find other heroes,” he said. “Running, swimming and biking is still a marvelous combination.”