The modern pentathlon is an event that is foreign to most Australians. Designed for the 1912 Olympics, it is quite the swashbuckling event, meant to simulate the experience of a 19th Century cavalry soldier caught behind enemy lines. To break free they need to take control and ride an unfamiliar horse, fight enemies with pistol and sword, swim and run back to their own soldiers.
Contested over one day, competitors compete in fencing, 200m freestyle swimming, equestrian show-jumping and a combined pistol shoot/3200m cross country run. With the exception of Alex Watson, who was suspended from the 1988 Olympic Team for excessive levels of caffeine, Australian Pentathletes aren’t afforded much column space before, during or after the Olympics. After Rio this will no doubt change.
While the Modern Pentathlon may not be front of mind for most Australians, in the Esposito family it is a way of life. When your father is an Olympian, it’s probably not that surprising that you may take an interest when others don’t. This is certainly the case with siblings Chloe and Max, who both qualified to compete in Rio under the tutelage of their father, 1984 Olympian Daniel.
It was a second Olympic campaign for Chloe who was driven by her results in London, “After the last Olympics, I was surprised with my result when I came seventh, and I said to myself ‘next Olympics I want a medal’.”
To meet that end the Esposito clan knew a change was required and they made the decision to relocate full-time to Europe, first to Barcelona and then more successfully to Budapest. Although difficult to leave behind friends and family, the move would allow Chloe easier access to competitions, where she could improve her weakest discipline – fencing and, by extension, her chances for an Olympic medal.
The move to Budapest allowed Coach Daniel to reconnect with old contacts from his competitive days and helped in finding a Hungarian fencing coach to train his children. Two hours a day, four days a week, the Esposito’s were put through their paces by the best fencers Hungary had to offer.
Beyond the sparring, lessons three times a week went about overhauling everything about how Esposito fenced. Attitude, tactics, footwork were all challenged and modified to give her the chance to step up on the podium at Rio. The regime was noticed by competitors too, “I hear the others say ‘the Esposito’s are training like crazy, they do too much’” Chloe shared “I’m not trying to sound big-headed, but I know Max and I train a lot harder than any other pentathlete.”
But you know what they say about the best laid plans. Just as Esposito’s goal appeared on the horizon, an Achilles injury hampered her preparations and prevented her from competing in a single World Cup event this year. The layoff however had some unexpected benefits. For an athlete who had sacrificed time with loved ones to chase her goal, her treatment at the AIS in Canberra meant she was able to have quality time with friends and family as she convalesced.
Helped through the lows and doubts that injuries bring, Esposito’s mood slowly improved when she was able to again prepare for Rio. As she completed high-altitude training thoughts turned to gold. Confident in her training, she allowed herself to think what she hadn’t before. “I thought ‘you know what, I can win’ I just had this gut feeling that ‘I can do this’.”
This confidence only grew after completing the fencing competition, her weakest leg, in thirteenth position. A win in her swimming heat and seventh overall kept her in touch as competition turned to the show jumping.
There is an element of luck in play as each rider is randomly allocated a horse with which to navigate the 350m course and 10 obstacles.
Esposito chose to ignore events until her turn to complete the course, explaining “I didn’t watch any of the other girls because I just didn’t want to think who is knocking jumps down or falling off”.
It was a wise strategy, as Esposito kept her own counsel waiting to jump 30th out of 36 competitors, a dramatic jumping event unfolded. Olympic Champion Laura Asadauskaite and World Champion Lena Schoneborn were eliminated. There were also horrifying scenes as Hungary’s Zsofia Foldhazi was thrown from her horse and dragged by the reigns, and Cuba’s Laura Moya Leydi was tossed forcefully into a fence and needing to be taken away by medi-cab. Esposito, oblivious to the mayhem that went before her, was able to successfully navigate the course still within striking distance in seventh position heading into the final event.
The combined running/shooting event ultimately decides the winner of the Modern Pentathlon. The results of the previous events now translating to a starting position for this event. The point’s leader starts first and each competitor follows behind at an interval based on their individual point tally. In Rio this meant that Oktawia Nowacka of Poland headed off first and Chloe Esposito joined the race seventh, 47 seconds behind the Pole.
It was a substantive lead, but with the combined event being Esposito’s strongest, it was not insurmountable. The Australian hurriedly chased down the leaders, her strong running combined with near perfect shooting saw her enter the last shooting station only behind Nowacka. Staring at the most important target of her life, Esposito quickly made her five shots and set off for the last run, in the lead.
As the finish line drew nearer, the expectation of a challenge was slowly replaced with that of victory.
“I wasn’t sure how many shots they had or still needed to go so I thought ‘they’re probably going to be right behind me’.
But then I was running and I could hear the person over the microphone and they weren’t saying they were leaving [the shooting station] yet and I was running and running. Finally, I heard that they had left the shooting range and I turned back and saw that it was quite a big distance and I know that I can run and I knew they wouldn’t catch me.”
All the years of sacrifices and of training “a lot harder than any other pentathlete” was now rewarded with the sport’s highest prize. Much more surprising than Australia’s other Gold won at Deodoro Stadium, when the Pearls won the Women’s Rugby Gold, it was just as thoroughly deserved.
As a result we celebrate the winner of Australia’s 150th Olympic Gold Medal and its first ever Pentathlon medal, 2016 Olympic Modern Pentathlon Champion – Chloe Esposito.