Anyone who has watched a major athletic tournament on television will be familiar with the concept of a multi-event sport. Normally containing the suffix -athlon (from the ancient Greek âthlos, meaning “contest”), each sport comes with a rhyme or reason for its particular combination of events.
The biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and shooting, has its roots in the close relationship between the Norwegian military and the development of skiing as a sport. The decathlon, a contest featuring ten different track-and-field events, was devised at the turn of the twentieth century with the intent of determining the “world’s greatest athlete”.
The most peculiar collection of events, however, is likely that of the modern pentathlon. A full-day event featuring fencing, swimming, horse jumping, shooting and running, its contents are anything but random.
The ancient Olympic pentathlon featured five events thought to represent the most useful skills in battle: running, jumping, javelin throwing, discus throwing, and wrestling. In Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s revival of the Olympic Games (the modern games were held in 1896), he devised a sport inspired by the ancient Greek version that would represent skills necessary for a 19th-century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines: riding an unfamiliar horse, fighting with a pistol and sword, and running and swimming back to their own soldiers.
“If there was a zombie apocalypse, I’m pretty confident that I’d be okay,” said Springbank athlete Claire Samulak. The 25-year-old just returned from the 2019 Pan American (Pan-Am) Games in Lima, Peru where she represented Canada in the sport.
First held in Buenos Aires in 1951 and every four years since, the Pan-Am Games is a two-week sporting competition featuring the top athletes from the continents of North and South America. For a large contingent of Olympians from the western hemisphere, the Pan-Am Games are the most significant competition of their sporting careers outside of the Olympics.
Factoring in the gravity of the tournament (Lima 2019 organizers anticipated a global TV audience of up to 400 million), Samulak’s performance and participation are impressive considering she only has two years of pentathlon experience. Her initial inspiration for jumping into the five-sport frenzy stemmed from the same source of wild ideas that many others can relate to.
“My father has a kinesiology degree and got to know me as an athlete really well growing up,” Samulak said.
“He identified that my skillset would probably be good for excelling in modern pentathlon. He was always filling my head with ideas of all the million things in the world I could do or be, and it this one kind of stuck with me.”
On a horse before she could walk, Samulak considers her forte to be in the horse jumping segment of pentathlon.
“You can’t get freaked out about the giant screen that has your name, the rankings and the time running and stands full of people,” she said of Lima’s course.
“The horses are nervous too and can sense any of your tension, so you have to be confident with them.”
Central to pentathlon’s equestrian portion is the athlete’s ability to perform on a horse that they haven’t had the chance to develop a bond with.
“You draw a random horse, get twenty minutes on the horse to get to know it, and up to five practice jumps in a little warm-up ring,” she said.
“You have to be bold, and you have to be calm. My approach is to be really friendly with the horse and make them think that they’re having a lot of fun so they want to go and jump and do it for you.”
While her high level of horsemanship was evident since her first pentathlon in 2018, Samulak built up her other four skillsets through the classic one-two punch of long hours and hard work. There is a certain level of stamina and physicality she’s still working on attaining.
“You fence one-minute on, one-minute off for four hours straight,” she said of Lima 2019’s fencing portion.
“There’s no time to eat or go to the washroom or anything like that, just a marathon of fencing. I was pretty hyped at the beginning, but had a hard time maintaining my energy throughout.”
She credits one particular local facility with providing the tools she needed to develop what was initially her least-favourite event into one of her strongest.
“Shout out to the ladies who do the aqua-fit classes while I’m swimming my laps at the Spray Lakes pool and then we all hang out at the hot tub after,” she laughed.
“I get to train there every week, and it’s a beautiful pool. The staff and community there have been so supportive over the last year, and I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Pentathlon events are held consecutively over a single grueling day. At the end of her day in Lima, Samulak found herself in 19th place out of 34. Pretty good stuff against a pack of Olympians and other athletes with decades of experience.
“I wanted to be in the top twenty, so I was really happy with that result,” said the Mount Royal University student.
“I ran and shot faster than I ever have. I set a personal best high score, and doing that at the highest level of competition I’ve been at is an endearing thing for me because it’s the place that’s hardest to get the points.”
Rather than her performance, however, Samulak’s favourite takeaway from Lima was the human aspect.
“We shared our team’s apartment in the athletes’ village with the beach volleyball women, so we were hanging out with them and we watched volleyball down by the beach,” she said.
“The village had a whole international zone with concerts and activities every night, and pin-trading with the other athletes was big for building those connections. I was really proud to rep our awesome Canadian tracksuits everywhere I went and to share little bits of Canada with people from other countries, especially the South American ones.”
A push to qualify for an Olympic berth is a massive financial and logistical undertaking, and with Samulak at a pivotal time in her own career outside of athletics, setting her sights on the Tokyo 2020 summer games doesn’t make sense.
“I’m rooting for my two other Canadian teammates,” she said.
She’ll give her body a couple of weeks to recover, and then it’s back to training facilities like the SLS Family Sports Centre in September. She’ll be back in pentathlon action in Bern, Switzerland in the spring, the beginning of a multi-year competition plan that includes the 2023 Pan-Am Games in Santiago, Chile and culminates with the Paris 2024 summer Olympic games.
“I’m setting up a strong four years of training,” said Samulak.
“There’s no offseason, it never stops.”