"Modern Pentathlon competitions are rather unique..." The 2020 Men's Varsity Team consolidating their status as the most versatile sport in CambridgeCambridge University Modern Pentathlon Club

The finish line of my Cambridge education is approaching fast, with my dissertation hand-in and final exams taking place in a few weeks. Currently stuck in a deep dissertation and revision hole, I’m especially nostalgic about my time here. Beyond satisfying my itch to showcase my undying love and affection for the sport and Cambridge Modern Pentathlon Club, I hope that by writing this piece I can entice you, dear readers, to have a look at the sport, and perhaps even try it for yourself!

The sport is the modern rendition of the pentathlon of Ancient Greece – an event that tested the skills thought to be useful in ancient battles, such as javelin-throwing and wrestling. The ethos is the same in the modern event: all the events are skills that are absolutely necessary for an (early 20th Century) army officer to have when inevitably stuck behind enemy lines. You have to be able to fight off the enemy with a sword and pistol, mount an unfamiliar horse, run cross country, and swim across rivers back to safety.

Unfortunately, this is not done in an impressive triathlon-style relay; leaping from your steed with an extended rapier, running through an opposing pentathlete, before diving into a river. Rather, competitors obtain points in the separate events for each discipline, namely epee fencing, a combined run and shoot (like a ski biathlon with less snow), a 200 metre swim, and showjumping.

"I cannot help myself from pitching pentathlon to every friend, acquaintance, or stranger on the streets of Cambridge." The 2019 Men's TeamCambridge University Modern Pentathlon Club

When you tell someone that you compete in Modern Pentathlon, they are more likely to look confused than impressed as they try to guess what the five sports are, and try to understand what overachieving masochists put themselves through five separate events. The preamble above is a well-practised part of the pitch.

It’s even harder to sell the sport to potential recruits at the Freshers Fair, who tend to slip away nervously as soon as they hear ‘horse-riding’ and ‘fencing’ in the same sentence. Indeed during my first fresher’s fair, I never gave pentathlon a passing thought. I am from a rowing family, so I had only one sporting commitment in mind: don’t do rowing. Instead, I set my eyes on swimming and water polo initially. Those who were unsuccessful getting into the firsts swimming team after swim trials (like myself) received an email from the pentathlon women’s captain that roughly read, “We swim too! … and some other things that you shouldn’t worry about at the moment”.

Perhaps symptomatic of being a fresher, or due to the three week fever I had from fresher’s flu, I was easily persuadable. Although I could swim, and sort of put one leg in front of the other, I had never ridden a horse, fenced, or done any pistol shooting. However, I thought, why not have a go?

"A common mantra we have in the club, usually when staring down a particular large fence we are about to jump, is to simply ′have a go.’"Sebastian Pollington/Georgie Ward

As a Fresher stumbling into the world of ‘pent’, I found myself walking into an interesting ensemble of people, almost all of whom had started with another sport and moved over to pent. You’ll find 2nd and 3rd years that have drifted over from triathlon, swimming, or the equestrian teams; final year PhDs that have perhaps spent a bit too much time in Cambridge training and neglecting their work (but still took on a committee position this year anyway); 1st year PhDs that will spend the following year on the track and in the pool rather than in the lab; a smattering of vets (who have grown up around horses) and medics (who have likely not); and crazy master’s students that will attempt to learn how to ride a horse over 1.10 metre jumps in 6 months (quite successfully in some cases).

Admittedly, as a Fresher I was a bit of an anomaly, since it typically takes a year for people to find out the sport exists, or for a friend to drag them into it. I cannot overstate enough that you will not find a funnier or lovelier group of people elsewhere.

"...you will not meet a crazier, more lovely group of people than Cambridge pentathletes."Cambridge University Modern Pentathlon Club

You are very quickly thrown into the competitive side of pent with Novice Varsity, where new members of the Oxford and Cambridge clubs battle it out after a gruelling two weeks of taster sessions. In the interest of preserving life, show-jumping is not part of this particular event. This event gives newcomers a flavour or what to expect, and allows each club to find up-and-coming pentathlon talent. It’s also a wonderful opportunity to hit people with a sword and have a night out with the other side.

The rest of the year is spent focusing on two goals – preparing for the Varsity match and having a lot of fun. Along the way, you attend training camps, usually hosted by a member of the committee, providing team bonding time whilst getting some serious training done. Almost everyone takes the opportunity to be taught how to ride and jump by Team GB’s pentathlon riding coach on wholesome horsey weekends away from Cambridge. Furthermore, for those who are novice riders, many (subsidised) hours are spent in the saddle realising horse riding is a bit harder than it seems on YouTube. Soon enough, you are competition ready!


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Modern Pentathlon competitions are rather unique, requiring a boot full of club equipment, multiple venues, and many strawberry laces and Jaffa cakes to get you through the day. The Varsity match is a particularly grand affair. The competition in recent years has been hosted at Tonbridge school, and is spread out over two days. Every year provides nail-biting moments – almost always when fearfully watching the men’s ride – and it is agonising for all of us, as well as all our supporters, that we did not have the opportunity to compete this year.

I cannot help myself from pitching pentathlon to every friend, acquaintance, or stranger on the streets of Cambridge. I do this not only because pent is fun, and the experience of learning how to throw yourself and a horse over jumps is something you will not find elsewhere, but also simply because you will not meet a crazier, more lovely group of people than Cambridge pentathletes.

A common mantra we have in the club, usually when staring down a particular large fence we are about to jump, is to simply ′have a go.’ Three years later, I am very glad I did.

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