Pentathlon: an interview with sports star Steph Cook

Steph Cook: the rower who became a shooter, fencer, swimmer, horse rider, runner and gold medalist

The September portion of the 2000 Sydney Olympics had already done much to dispel the despondency which shrouded the British team's efforts in Atlanta four years ago when the final day of the Games - October 1 - provided what was, for many, the crowning glory: two British women on the podium at the end of an enthralling day of that quintessentially Olympic sport, Modern Pentathlon.

The MPAGB, governing body of the sport in this country, quotes Aristotle on the home page of its web site: 'Pentathletes have the most beautiful bodies, because they are constructed for strength and speed together.' Now this could almost be the mission statement for Peak Performance, but unfortunately, the pentathlon the philosopher was referring to was of the ancient variety and consisted of running, spear throwing, the discus, wrestling and jumping from a standing start.

The modern version was the product of the fertile imagination of the founder of the modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who eventually browbeat his committee - they finally relented 16 years after the first Games of the modern era, in time for the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 - with his vision of the cavalry officer marooned behind enemy lines. The poor chap, after losing the services of his trusty steed, has to employ pistol and sword, before swimming across a river and returning on foot to his men.

The story says a lot about the potent combination of testosterone and high morals that fuelled the Baron's vision of sport in the late 19th century. And testosterone (and, frequently, the Eastern European military) ruled throughout the 20th century in what was - in Olympic terms - an exclusively male preserve. But October 1 was the day the women were allowed in and two Britons, Kate Allenby (bronze) and Stephanie Cook (gold) and Emily deRiel (silver), an American, showed no hesitation in positively kicking the door off the hinges of this hitherto male preserve.

Before the Games, Cook, who was fresh from a hatful of medals in the individual, team and relay events at the European and World championships which, astonishingly, preceded Sydney by a matter of months, was on record as saying: 'There will be a lot of pressure on us at the Olympics and a lot more attention from the press, so that's something we will have to get used to.'

At that time, in August, the smart money for the gold was on Kate Allenby, Cook's training partner at Bath University, home to Britain's World Class Performance squad. Indeed, she appeared to many to be in the driving seat coming into the last event - running - just 21 points behind deRiel. The American, who took her first tentative steps as a modern pentathlete in the mid-1990s at Oxford University alongside Cook, had not been out of a medal spot all day but running was known not to be her strongest suit. Cook, on the other hand, had not managed better than eighth all day - the position she occupied after the four events, 198 points behind the leader - but she had regularly been a minute faster over 3km than any other international competitor in recent times.

To score 1000 points in the running, women need to achieve the standard of 11mins 20 secs, with each second below that time being worth an extra four points. That meant Cook had 49 seconds to make up on deRiel who, as leader, set off first with the rest of the field following at intervals reflecting their points differential after four events. In fact, she covered the 3,000m cross country course in 10:03, 51 seconds faster than deRiel, to clinch the gold by eight points. Allenby stayed in the bronze spot, 37 points adrift of the American.

Cook proved as adept in her predictions about media attention as she is in overturning apparently impregnable leads. When Peak Performance caught up with her two weeks after her return to the UK, she squeezed us in between a live slot on Woman's Hour and a lunch engagement with a would-be endorsing company. This is what she had to say. Sportspeople who believe that a peak performance comes but once in a blue moon and those who steer clear of meaningful competition in readiness for the 'big one' should look away now!

How did you start in the sport?
I started pentathlon at Oxford in 1994 and have effectively been a full time pentathlete, thanks to lottery funding, for the last couple of years. I suppose you could say I have always had good basic endurance: at Cambridge, as an undergraduate, I was a rower and was President of the lightweight crew in my third year, but suffered a stress fracture to a rib and that was when I turned to running. At Oxford, where I did my clinical training, running was initially more important than the other sports and I won my England vest for cross-country in 1997.

How do you fit the demands of five sports into everyday life?
I've been a pentathlete for six years, but for most of that time, have not really trained properly. Properly means six days a week, and on average 24 sessions per week, taking up to six hours per day (see page 9). After qualifying as a doctor in 97, I had junior house jobs in Poole and Oxford and then managed to organise a research post in Guildford with the intention of using the flexibility offered by that to train seriously. My results in the 1998 World Championships (highest placed Briton at eighth in the individual event; silver medallist in the team event and bronze medallist in the team relay) earned me full subsistence funding and in 1999 I moved to Bath, home of the new National Training Centre for Modern Pentathlon.

Which are your strongest disciplines? And how good does an 'all-rounder' like you have to be, compared to individual specialists?
Running and riding are my best two. I have run cross-country for England and I started riding at a very early age in the Pony Club. It is difficult to make comparisons in riding because in Modern Pentathlon you have 20 minutes to acquaint yourself with an unknown horse, drawn by lot. Fencing is my weakest and newest sport but to give you an idea of the standard we have to aspire to, Kate (Allenby) was an individual bronze medallist at the last Commonwealth Games and I have finished third in an international fencing competition.

To what extent was Sydney a peak performance for you?
It was not my best ever competition. In shooting, I scored 178, having set myself a target of 180 (my PB in international competition is 184). In the fencing, it's you against the rest so the numbers vary in each competition. To achieve 1,000 points you need a 70% success rate against the rest of the field, which in Sydney (with 24 competitors) would be 16 hits; I actually scored 10 hits, which I was pleased with. In the pool, I achieved a PB of 2:26 for 200m. In the riding, I had two fences down; I have ridden clear rounds in competition before, but there wasn't a single clear round in Sydney in either men's or women's events. Your running time will vary according to the course, but the standard for 1,000 points is 11:20, which I beat by 1min 17secs.

How frequently do you compete in Modern Pentathlon?
For 2000, there were national selection events in December 1999, January and February. I was injured for the February event, but you achieve selection on the basis of averages (for example, your best shooting average from those three and three other nominated events) and bests (e.g. your best single riding performance). The international season started in March with the World Cup Olympic Qualifier in Mexico. That was followed by another World Cup in Hungary in April, then the Nordic Cup in May. The World Championships were in June in Italy and the European Championships in July and the Nationals followed that In August.

You also have to bear in mind that at most international championships I may have the team relay event as well, which means you have the relay (effectively a reduced version of each event) on day one then a day off. On day three is a 'semi-final' (four events, not the riding) and, if you qualify, a final on day five of the sequence.

That sounds like a huge competitive load: is that normal?
It is an average of one competition a month but, of course, I was 'training through' - and not tapering for most of them. I peaked for the qualifier in Mexico and then the World Champs in Italy, where we came away with two team silvers. But in our sport it is important to get the competition experience, particularly in disciplines like shooting and fencing.

How important is the coaching and support structure in Bath?
We have a team of coaches, with a specialist for each discipline. Istvan Nemeth, is the women's team coach (and also the specialist swimming coach) and he works closely with Jan Bartu, the World Class Performance Director who is the running specialist. We have medical support in the form of a team doctor, and physio and massage facilities are available to us in Bath, but in some ways the sports science back-up is still being developed. We had lactate testing just once before the Games but this is something which will be built on in the coming months.

How important is psychology in Modern Pentathlon?
Since moving to Bath, I've been working with Jeanette Dymond who works with a lot of top athletes. Psychology is a very individual thing: I find it very useful for problem solving and she's a general sounding board. We've identified various areas which we work on, such as relaxation and breathing techniques - particularly important for optimal performance in shooting - and visualisation and imaging. On a given day, I believe you have a certain skill level and in the 'skill events' your performance will vary above or below that level according to your mental approach on the day.

What about nutrition? You are on record as using food supplements?
Nutrition advice is available through the British Olympic Association, but prior to reaching that level, I used a nutritionist at GNC, the high street health store They provided me with sponsorship in the form of products like energy bars. I was also taking some natural remedies like echinacea as that is reckoned to improved your white blood cell count and I was suffering from persistent colds which I couldn't shake off. More recently, I've taken a New Spirit Naturals product, Green Magic, which contains spirulina, chloella and other enzymes, minerals and anti-oxidants*. One of the things I have to be concerned about, for obvious reasons, is the problem of banned substances so everything has to be checked with the BOA. It's very difficult to quantify the effects of supplements: it's such a multi-factorial thing. But in the absence of clinical evidence, what I can say is that when I first started using Green Magic at a training camp I felt that it did help with my recovery.

*Anti-oxidants are believed to combat the effects of the increased oxidative stress within muscles which is associated with the production during hard exercise of chemicals known as free radicals. Next month, PP reviews the literature on free radicals and assesses the evidence for the efficacy of anti-oxidant supplementation.

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