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Catching up with: Emily deRiel

Emily deRiel
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Catching up with: Emily deRiel

Emily deRiel was the last U.S. athlete to win an Olympic modern pentathlon medal

No U.S. modern pentathlete has claimed an Olympic medal since Emily deRiel earned the silver medal at the 2000 Games.

She now lives in Bonn, Germany with her husband, Mike Peters, who is the Chief of Staff at the International Paralympic Committee, and two young children. She is still physically active, having run the Bonn Half Marathon the past two years. 

She answered several questions via email from NBCOlympics.com, including the key to getting a U.S. modern pentathlete back on the podium at the Olympics.

How did you approach training for the five events of the modern pentathlon? 

Training for five fairly unrelated events obviously takes a lot of time.  On the positive side, the workouts are so different that it's not like staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool lane for three hours a day, as I did as a swimmer in high school and college. 

I would run six days a week, ride 2-3 times a week, swim 3-4 times a week, and shoot and fence 4-5 times a week. So on any given day, we'd be doing 3-4 different workouts. Sunday was rest day. 

Sometimes the events are thought of as falling into two groups: "skill" events (shooting, fencing, riding) and "strength" events (swimming, running). Skill events, especially shooting and fencing, require a lot of time and repetition to improve muscle memory and build skills. The strength events also require a lot of time putting in the miles/yardage. 

As a swimmer, when we would taper for races we'd work on stroke technique, starts and turns and things like that as we rested. With pentathlon, there's not really time to perfect every skill and every nuance of each sport -- or at least, I never achieved perfection! You just aim to get everything to as high a standard as you can. 

It helps to have a strong base in one or more sports, since everyone has weaknesses as well. For me, I learned to ride when I was younger and had a good foundation in that, and in swimming. Fencing was always my weakest event. It's not a sport that is very popular for kids in the U.S., whereas in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, it is more common and pentathletes from these countries tend to be quite strong fencers. 

In terms of strategy, another consideration is that for the skill sports, there is a maximum number of points possible. For swimming and running, you earn more points the faster you go. So there is an argument for focusing on these events where there is the potential to gain significant points. 

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What do you remember most from your experience at the 2000 Olympics?

The Sydney Games were incredible. I know I'm biased but I've been a spectator at a few other Games and in terms of organization, the friendliness of the volunteers, the setting -- it was wonderful. The women's event was on the very last day of the Games, so we had to stay rested and not overdo anything leading up to the competition. I remember so many moments as if it were yesterday. 

Here are my top 5: 

1. Standing on the podium, getting the medal and watching the flags go up. I was friends with the gold and bronze medal winners (Steph Cook and Kate Allenby, both from Great Britain), so it felt like we were able to celebrate together.

2. The feeling of surprise throughout the day that I was doing so well! I was in first place after the first event (the shoot), and going into the fence there was a scoreboard with my name at the top. I told myself, I'd better enjoy this while it lasts! My goal for the day was to soak it all in, enjoy every minute because I had worked so hard just to be there -- I wasn't necessarily a favorite for a medal so I didn't feel as much pressure there.

3. When I thought my gun receipt was lost right before the shoot. Handguns aren't allowed in Australia so we had to turn over our guns to the organizers and check them out each time we wanted to practice, using a receipt to prove it was our gun. We were supposed to pick them up the morning of the competition right before the shoot. I had triple checked my bag the day before so I knew I had packed the receipt. Of course I was a bundle of nerves that morning but was trying to keep calm and relaxed which is especially important for shooting. But when I went to get my receipt out of the bag to pick up my gun, it wasn't there. I thought about panicking but I just told myself it would all work out, stay cool.... and turns out one of the coaches had taken my receipt for me to get my gun. Whew.

4. There is a photo that was used in many newspapers of Mary Beth Larsen (Iagorashvili at the time) and me taking a "victory lap" together carry the U.S. flag, which someone kindly handed to us from the stands. Mary Beth came in 4th place. We were great friends and it was a wonderful moment to share together -- after all the training, sharing highs and lows, we could be there together and soak in the cheering crowd. We both had family and friends in the stands who had come a very long way to support us, which was amazing.

5. Closing ceremonies - we went straight from our medal ceremony to the closing ceremonies. I think in fact we were the last medals awarded for the whole Games. We missed the opening ceremonies because we arrived a few days later in Sydney, so being there on such a high from the competition was just so fun. All the athletes were relaxed, friendly, and celebrating together.

What is the key to getting a U.S. modern pentathlete back on the podium at the Olympics?

I wish I knew! :) Pentathlon is such a difficult sport -- some days you're on and things go well, and other days they just don't. For me, I struggled in national competitions until I figured out the mental aspect. I would do well in the shoot, and then get nervous in the fence and if I started losing bouts, I would get into a negative spiral. I could then move on and have a good rest of the day in the swim, ride and run, but the fence really dragged me down. I read some sports psychology books and with the help of my coaches, Viktor Svatenko and the late great Paul Pesthy particularly, figured out what worked for me to stay positive during the fence and not get in my own way if I lost a few bouts. It also helped me stay calm in the shoot and improved my scores there as well. In pentathlon, you have to fight for every point but at the same time, not let the pressure get to you. The key for me at the Sydney Olympics was to just try to enjoy the experience.

Why should fans watch the modern pentathlon?

Pentathletes are true all-around athletes. It's a long day but an exciting sport -- people can go from first to last, or come from behind and there's almost always a surprise somewhere. Although pentathlon has evolved with the times, going from a five-day event to one day, and a combined shoot-run, it is a historically important event, started by the founder of the modern-day Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Pentathletes are in it for the love of the sport, not fame or money (as there's so little of it!). :)

Modern Pentathlon 101

Learn more about modern pentathlon:

Basics | Competition format | Equipment | Glossary | Olympic history | Qualification | Venues

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