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Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Updated: January 18, 3:19 PM ET

By By Kathryn Bertine
Special to

Editor's Note: Maybe you can identify with this. Some editors were sitting around watching the two-man luge event during the 2006 Winter Olympics. "Hey, I could do that," one of us said. "Anybody halfway athletic could do that." At that moment, an idea was born: What would happen if a better-than-average-but-not-great athlete, who also happened to be able to write, tried to make the U.S. Olympic team in the Summer Games' equivalent of the two-man luge?

So, we posed the idea to Kathryn Bertine, a former ice skater, professional triathlete and accomplished author. Bertine, who was struggling along on a four-figure annual income from her triathlon competitions, happily agreed to donate the next two years of her life to pursuing a longtime dream, a dream shared by tens of thousands of Americans trapped in the everyday demands of their lives. You know, little obstacles like jobs, kids, lack of talent.

For the next two years, Bertine will chronicle her Olympic quest for E-ticket. While finding a spot on the 2008 U.S. team is the ultimate goal, Bertine will take every opportunity along the way to stop and smell the sweat socks ... and to share the smell, taste, sound and feel of the experience with you. You'll meet coaches, teammates, competitors, good guys, bad guys, people who will make you laugh, make you cry, make you cover your eyes in horror. You'll find out what the day-to-day life of an elite athlete is like, get a feel for the kind of sacrifices necessary, see for yourself what kind of politics is involved.

In the first installment of Bertine's adventures, she begins the search for her sport with a visit to the modern pentathlon training program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The U.S. Olympic Training Center has a nice pool. It would be nicer, however, if I didn't have a 30-pound weight belt cinched around my waist while trying to swim its 50-meter length 10 times. This is my third workout of the day. I'm tired and cranky and semi-drowning, yet I can't think of any place I'd rather be. So, I decide to suck it up.

At the wall, the swim coach of the women's modern pentathlon team stops me. "Your hips look like this," he declares in a thick European accent, slaloming his hand through the air with quick, angular movements. He looks like he's break-dancing, which is not good, seeing as he's imitating me and I should be swimming a straight line.

"Oh," I say, making a mental note: Spazzing hips, bad.

"Keep going," he says. "With the weights."

More ...

Don't miss out on Kathryn Bertine's series on her efforts to become an Olympian. So far, she's explored pentathlon, team handball and track cycling. Check out earlier columns:
PARTS: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

I look for pity from the swimmer next to me. She smiles and offers, "Usually, he puts the weights around our necks."

Big brother's big footsteps

My spazzing hips were actually the first step in a journey toward the improbable goal of a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. To get to Beijing, however, I needed to find one thing first: a team that would have me.

There were some sports I ruled out entirely, like soccer and gymnastics and diving, because those athletes usually begin training for their events immediately upon exiting the womb. Sadly, I couldn't seem to find the Summer Olympics' equivalent of the two-man luge, a warm-weather sport in which I could get to China by lying very still above or below another person of the same gender. So, after carefully sifting through the actual possibilities, here, as far as I could tell, were my choices:

  • Modern pentathlon, which consists of cross-country running, swimming, fencing, horseback riding and pistol shooting … all in one day. On the plus side, no one in the United States has ever heard of it, and it's obviously crazy hard, two factors which ought to discourage top-level competition. On the other hand, I'd never fenced in my life, hadn't been on horseback in 20 years, and the only gun I'd ever fired shot water … with a very weak stream.

    • Team handball: No, not that kind of handball. Team handball — a hybrid of basketball, soccer, water polo and dodgeball — is a sport that is all the rage in Europe and South America. On the plus side, not much has happened on that front in this country since our unexpected fourth-place finish in the 1984 Olympics, and I'm a good team player. The disadvantage: The last time I played a court sport was, um, never.

    • Track cycling: On the minus side, brakeless bikes scare the crap out of me, especially brakeless bikes being pedaled by packs of riders zooming around at 40 mph on an embanked cement track. On the other hand, thanks to my experience as a pro triathlete, I'm a decent road cyclist, so this seems to offer a shimmer of hope.

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    • Rowing: On the plus side, I rowed in college. On the other hand, I'm too big to be a good lightweight and too light to be a good heavyweight. But perhaps with a lot of lettuce or a lot of ice cream, there's that shimmer-of-hope thing.

    • Triathlon: This is what I do now, though I tend to do it at longer non-Olympic distances and, therefore, at a pace too slow to qualify for the Olympic team. I'd have to beat out seasoned Olympians and world champions who, up until now, have been consistently handing me my arse on a platter. On the plus side, maybe I can speed up.

    Day 1

    I arrive at the Olympic Training Center at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 2, for national team testing in modern pentathlon. This means that if I meet their swimming and running qualification times, they'll accept me for training and give me a chance to make the national team. Best-case scenario: I wind up living and eating at the OTC for free and receiving a $500 monthly stipend. Worst-case scenario: I impale myself while fencing and leave the OTC dejected and full of holes.

    I am issued a meal pass and a room key, which necessitate fingerprint scans and microchip cards. They don't fool around here. My room is in the Oslo Dormitory, a rectangular building across the street from the Athlete Center. An iron fence runs along the border of the property, rendering the training center a private compound in the heart of Colorado Springs. It has been 12 years since my last dorm living experience, my sophomore year at Colgate University. Room 121 of Oslo is a white-painted concrete brick, 12-by-12 square, with a lofted full bed, wood desk, metal chair, three-drawer dresser, floor lamp, mini fridge, A/C, and sink and mirror. Communal toilets are down the hall. Like many college dorms, the carpet is gray and the curtains are orange. Unlike college dorms, this room comes equipped with a TV (with built-in DVD and VCR), free Wi-Fi and daily housekeeping. The view from my window shows the future outdoor pool, which is currently an outdoor dirt hole.

    Instead of hallway trash cans overflowing with empty beer cans, Powerbar and Fig Newton wrappers gleam from neat and tidy receptacles. My neighbors across the hall are teenage wrestlers and weightlifters. Our schedules are such that we do not interact, but I hear the bleeps and whirs of PlayStations emanating from their rooms between training sessions.

    I had stayed at the OTC twice before. In the summers of 1995 and 1996, I spent two weeks here while I was competing in the collegiate nationals for figure skating. Didn't have a clue that the next decade would morph me into a triathlete, then perhaps a pentathlete.

    Back then, the dining facility was a small, one-room unit much like a public high-school cafeteria. Today, it is a swanky event center, with photographs of Olympic medalists and inspirational quotes from Lance Armstrong and Bonnie Blair painted on the walls. Three giant TVs softly fill the dining hall with chatter. Tonight is Mexican night, served up athlete-style. Lean, grilled chicken quesadillas and a topping bar with lard-free ingredients occupy one side of the cafeteria, while pasta and salad bars and dessert stations are on the other. Nutrition charts hover above every serving tray. The closest thing I can find to unhealthy food is a slim slice of lemon meringue pie, which is probably fat-free. Between the seating area and the cafeteria is a "recovery bar," where athletes can grab bananas, energy bars, nutrient shakes, fruit, cookies and trail mix on their way out the door.

    I sit down alone and observe the tables around me. Teenage mountain bikers with shaved legs and red welts occupy the round table to my left. Three Paralympic athletes are in the middle of the room. One athlete verbally disciplines his guide dog, after, en route to the table, he paused to snarf a tortilla fragment that fell beneath a table of weightlifters. At 7 p.m., things are quieting down. On my way out, I grab a few energy bars and look over the photos of greatness — smiling, victorious athletes with shiny Olympic medals. There is a plaque that reads "2008 Beijing Olympic Medalist," and underneath there is a mirror. I look into it. I am so excited. My chin is going to the Olympics!

    Chin, I think to myself, you'd better get your ass in gear.

    Day 2, Morning

    I'm having a light breakfast of cereal and toast in the dining hall with Janusz Peciak, the head coach of USA pentathlon, and Dragomir Cioroslan, the governing director of USA Pentathlon. Dragomir believes in his product and he believes in the people he tries to sell it to. From the beginning, Dragomir, a one-time Olympic gold-medal weightlifter, has made me feel like I'm capable of becoming part of their pentathlon program. Janusz, the 1976 Olympic pentathlon gold medalist from Poland, prefers scare tactics.

    He asks me how fast I can swim 200 meters.

    I tell him around 2:40.

    He asks how fast I can run a 5K.

    I tell him about 19:20, hastening to add that I'm currently training for longer distances, like the marathon, but that I can bring my times down dramatically by focusing on the shorter distances.

    He looks me in the eye. "Based on the times you told me, I don't think you'll make it," he says.

    Ah, directness. So refreshing.

    He then adds, "Pentathlon is not easy."

    I'm not sure what it is about my nature, about my face or my body language, that suggests I think pentathlon — shooting, swimming, fencing, horseback riding and running all in one day — is easy. Or that any Olympic sport is easy. Is my eye contact being read as arrogance instead of confidence? Do I throw people off by smiling at the challenge of the sport instead of wrinkling my brow into worrisome lines? Is it my T-shirt, silk-screened with I'm Gonna Kick Your Wimpy Butt, that turns people off? Oh, wait, I'm wearing a plain white tank top.

    I hold eye contact with Janusz and speak slowly but confidently: "I understand. Pentathlon is hard. I'd like the opportunity to try."

    To be accepted for training, a female pentathlete must complete a 200-meter swim in less than 2 minutes, 40 seconds, and finish a 3-kilometer run in less than 11:20. Both tests are given on the same day, a few hours apart. I will swim at noon, run at 1:45 p.m., one chance for each discipline. The Colorado Springs training facility sits at 7,000 feet. Nothing about today will be easy. Then again, nothing worthwhile is.

    ***** ***** *****

    Of all the athletes out there roaming the United States with dreams of Olympic stardom, I'm sure you're wondering why ESPN picked some unknown 31-year-old female triathlete to be their Olympic Guinea Pig.

    So let's play a game: I will tell you my abbreviated life story … and you will try to stay awake.

    I grew up in the sheltered, economically aloof suburb of Bronxville, N.Y., just outside New York. Please don't hold it against me. From the womb, I sent a series of Morse code kicks that I would prefer to be born in a log cabin in upstate New York, or perhaps a rural Western state with lots of bike paths, but the call went unheeded. Westchester County it was. Luckily, I spent most of my time in the humble city of Yonkers, at Murray's Skating Rink, where I began figure skating at age 11, in 1986. By 12, I was putting in close to four hours a day, beginning at 4:45 a.m., an ordeal from which my father the chauffeur has yet to recover.

    I fell in love with skating. I fell in love with the physical effort. I fell in love with the cold. I fell a lot, in general. At 14, I actually had a dream that I was at the Olympic Games. There were a lot of lights and screaming fans and a really nifty USA warm-up suit. But I couldn't see my feet. I didn't know if I was wearing skates or not. The dream felt so real it woke me up. There were no screaming fans next to my bed. Just the chhk chhk of the second hand on my Hello Kitty alarm clock. I never had that dream again, but I never forgot it.

    Despite my dedication to skating, I soon realized there was not enough talent in my limbs to get to the Olympics as a figure skater. I focused instead on what I could achieve. I made it to the highest level of competitive skating, senior ladies, and competed with the best in the nation throughout high school and college. I then had two choices within the sport: coach, or join a professional ice show. I chose the latter, signing contracts with the Ice Capades (which quickly went bankrupt), Holiday on Ice (which made me wear an elephant costume) and Hollywood on Ice (which toured South America and paid us in IOUs handwritten on Post-it notes).

    From 1997-98, I toured with these skating shows, learning the hard way that hard work and athleticism took a back seat to physical appearance and corrupt management. Professional skating was about as athletic as professional pinball. There was no need for strong muscles and diligent training. We were simply required to look as Barbie-ish as possible. Lots of women starved themselves, drank, did drugs. I got out after a year. I needed to be an athlete again, the only lifestyle that made sense to me.

    I didn't want to go back to amateur skating; a fresh start seemed better. I considered a return to rowing, a sport I had competed in at Colgate. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of open water in Tucson, where I started grad school. But there were a lot of cyclists. I joined a local triathlon club. I was hooked. Being a triathlete was a hell of a lot better than wearing makeup and sequins and worrying about how many calories were in a cup of coffee.

    I decided to make a real push to become an elite triathlete. I moved to Boulder in 2003 and trained with world champion Siri Lindley. I improved. After six years as an amateur, I was good enough to turn professional and compete for money. I met the qualifications to race as a pro — finishing in the top three at three amateur races in one season, within 10 percent of the winner's time and in races with no less than 500 women.

    At about the same time, my writing life took flight when Little, Brown gave me a book deal to write about my life as a professional skater. "All the Sundays Yet to Come" came out in 2003.

    Life was good, but not perfect. Because my skills were better suited for long-distance triathlons — like the Ironman — than the Olympic distance event, my Olympic dream seemed a little too dreamy. But I kept training 25 hours a week and working such glorious part-time jobs as waitressing, pet-sitting, babysitting and substitute teaching. Dreams die hard, and I figured that somehow, some way, I could still make it to the Olympics. I called my lifestyle "athletic slumming." Then, along came ESPN. Did I want to be their ESPN Olympic Athlete for a couple of years, and write about it? For money?!

    Well, duh.

    Day 2, Afternoon

    It's just about noon. As I finish my warmup for the 200-meter swim test, the stereo at the Olympic Training Center pool is appropriately playing Maroon 5's "Harder to Breathe." Janusz asks if I'm ready. I get onto the starting block, and he asks the woman beside me if she'd be my pacer. A high school swimmer and runner, Margeaux Isaksen is here for a summer training camp in modern pentathlon. She is feeling tired and sore from her workouts, but agrees to pace me for the first 100 meters. I'm thrilled. I need pacing. I tend to go out too fast and then sloooow waaay dooooown.

    Janusz does his thing: "Take your mark ... Go!"

    And go we do. Margeaux cranks out a 1:12 for the first 100, and I stay with her. Then comes the second 100, and I'm alone, living out Maroon 5's prophecy. I feel splashy instead of smooth, my muscles erratic in oxygen debt. With 50 meters to go, my brain starts its "Go!" chant. It has done this since I was a teenager. When the end is in sight, all I can think/hear is gogogogogogogogogogogo until I'm over the line, through the tape, the music has stopped.

    Still, I'm certain that my second 100 was slower than 1:12, and I'm worried it was not enough to break 2:40.

    Janusz looks at me, cocks a half-smile and articulates carefully in his Polish accent: "2:36.7."

    Oh, my God! I actually did it. I let go of the pool's side and exhale myself down to the bottom, exhausted. I reemerge momentarily and look at Janusz. He seems slightly impressed, though hardly blown away, which sums up my effect on most people. "Good," he says, neutrally. "OK, go get ready for running."

    Day Two, A Little Later In The Afternoon

    It's 1:40, and we're at the Colorado College track — Janusz, Dragomir, Lucas the ESPN photographer, Santu my pacer, and about 3,000,000 fitful endorphins whooping it up in my lower intestine. I'm thrilled my swim went well, and terrified my run won't. I've been training for a marathon, so I'm much more comfortable holding a 7-minute, 45-second pace for a couple hours rather than going one sub-six-minute mile. Today, I have to do an all-out 3K, which is 1.9 miles or 7.5 laps of the track, in under 11:20.

    As I start the run, my legs feel good. No, they feel great! Yeehaw! The first four laps are solid, and I clock 5:58 at the mile mark, surprising myself.

    But the last 3.5 laps prove harrowing.

    With three laps to go, "yeehaw" has been replaced by a "yech." My limbs are struggling, my posture is failing. My pacer tells me we're going too slow. Sure enough, I cross the line in 11:47, missing my qualifying time by a lousy 27 seconds, a small margin in a marathon, but too much in a 3K.

    Janusz and Dragomir head for their cars to escape the rain that began to fall during my run. There is no chitchat, I have not made the cutoff time, and my trial is essentially over. But, I think with the kind of wildly optimistic hopefulness that characterizes every successful athlete, there is still a chance that tomorrow I could wow them with my pistol and fencing skills, despite the fact I've never in my life held a gun or a foil in my hand. Hey, mere details.

    The photographer drives me back to the OTC. "How did you do?" he asks.

    "Pentathlon is hard," I answer.

    Day 3, Morning

    This is my last day at the OTC, and it begins with a morning swim of 3,200 meters, a quick breakfast, then a fencing session. The fencing gym is small, and in a corner there is a rack of polyester equipment that smells worse than an NHL locker room. Three metal runways about the width of bowling alleys are lined up next to each other, equipped with electronic score clocks.

    Janusz is busy giving a private lesson to a member of the men's team. After my disappointing run, I'm sure he's not expecting me to bust out with some Olympic-level fencing moves. Two female pentathletes show me how to slither into heavy white knickers and jacket and how to don the enormous mesh helmet that renders me faceless. I put on a right-handed glove and borrow a right-handed blade, which attaches to a cable that plugs into the scoring system. When an opposing blade hits me anywhere on my body, it sets off a sensor and awards my opponent a point, and vice versa.

    Pentathletes practice epee fencing, which means they compete round-robin, and each duel is finished after the first touch. The girls teach me how to lunge, defend and flush — pentathlon lingo for "dance around and don't get skewered." Within five minutes of bouncing about in the on-guard position, my quads are burning, my entire polyestered body is soaked in sweat, and my right arm feels like it's about to fall off. Fencing is much more physically difficult than I ever imagined.

    Before taking on a human opponent, I practice my "technique" by using my blade to poke a tennis ball dangling from a string in the corner of the gym. I do quite nicely, largely because the tennis ball is unarmed.

    Next, I face Margeaux, the 15-year-old pentathlete who was lightning fast in the pool the day before. She proves the same in fencing, but she takes it easy on me, because she's kind and quickly realizes I have the same skill level as a newborn. Still, when I take off my uniform, I see little red stab wounds on my arms, thighs and shoulders, and, upon closer look, I notice they spell out: "Pentathlon is hard."

    After fencing, we grab a recovery snack and head to the shooting gallery. I am met by Silvino Lyra, the shooting coach, who outfits me with a right-handed air pistol and shows me how to load the 5-pound gun. The tiny pellets are not round BBs but instead are shaped like ant-sized hourglasses. Sil teaches me to look through the plastic sights on the barrel and line up the front sight with the rear sight. He teaches me to aim just beneath the bull's-eye, which is 10 meters away, and to pull the trigger very slowly.

    He sets up the target range by attaching a paper bull's-eye to a pulley system which whisks the target along a clothesline-ish string to the 10-meter mark against the wall. Around me I hear the bap, bap, bap of the pentathletes hitting their paper targets.

    I raise my pistol, align the sights, squeeze the trigger, slowly and gently. I hit the wall instead of the target. The pellet bounces away, bapless. Sil encourages me to try again. And again. And again. Then, bap! Upper left-hand corner! Woohoo!

    After a few minutes of successful bapping, I notice that I'm actually getting better. I've nailed six bull's-eyes right in the cornea. My right arm is incredibly fatigued after two hours of holding a blade and a pistol at a 90-degree angle. When practice is over, I feel terribly lopsided.

    I hand my targets to Sil, and he seems pleased. Immediately, I conjure up a fantasy in which Sil tells Janusz I should be admitted to the national team program, because I'm such a good shot, and it would be a shame to waste such incredible potential. This fantasy is rudely interrupted by a pentathlete who informs me it is time to go to riding practice. Crap! I almost forgot all about the horse.

    Day Three, Afternoon

    The last time I was on a horse was 20 years ago, as a fifth grader. That summer, I went to a camp where horseback riding was a required activity. I learned to trot and canter and to clean up poop. I also learned to hold on for dear life to a large animal that would ultimately do as it pleased. A good metaphor for the larger picture: Hold on, life will ultimately do as it pleases.

    The assistant riding coach for pentathlon is a recent college graduate named Lindsay. She puts me on a horse named Breezie, which immediately put me at eezie.

    "He's very slow," she promises.

    Too bad we can't fence against horses, I think.

    Breezie and I head out to the ring. The omnipresent Margeaux is there on a horse named Cheezy, and they both look anything but. Lindsay instructs Breezie to trot, and we bounce along the inside rim of the ring. Strangely, my riding instincts come back to me. I remember how to post, how to control the reins, how to not fall off. After a while, Lindsay asks if I'd like to go over a jump, "a little one, just a foot high."

    Sensing my skepticism, she quickly adds, none too convincingly, "You'll be fine."

    Breezie trots around, takes the jump in a lumbering lurch, one of us screams, and then we both land safely and unharmed. In pentathlon, the horseback riding competition involves riding a jump course in about 1:15. The athletes are timed and judged on presentation. Some jumps in competition are 4 feet high, four times the height I managed to eke out today. Besides holding on for dear life, the rider is also responsible for telling the horse where to go. Which seems like a tall order, especially since I don't speak a lick of horse. If I'm going to be a pentathlete, I have a lot of work cut out for me.

    Back at the OTC, Dragomir informs me the coaches have left for a competition in China, and they will call me next week for a summary/critique/evaluation of my testing.

    "If we select you, you would have to move here and train just like this — eight hours a day, four to five sports a day — and be totally committed to pentathlon. Are you willing to do that?" Dragomir asks.

    I assure him that I am, weight belt and all. He assures me we will talk next week. I'm not sure what exactly we will talk about, but I have a feeling it will involve working on my run split if I want to make it into the program. So there is still a chance I could make it as a pentathlete, but I'd have to try another 3K time trial, and abandon that relaxed marathon pace I like so much.

    In the meantime, I'm scheduled for a tryout with the national women's team handball squad in Cortland, N.Y. My brain, which suffers from ignorance-is-blissism, assures me that team handball can't possibly be harder than pentathlon.

    Next installment: Kathryn finds out that her brain isn't always right.