But on Saturday morning, two-time Olympic speed skater Joey Cheek was at home in Brooklyn, New York, trying to follow the women’s modern pentathlon online on Day 1 of the 2011 Pan Am Games.
“Full disclosure,” Cheek said up front in a phone interview, “I date Margaux Isaksen.”
Isaksen is currently the top-ranked American woman and was expected to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics here.
The two met last year at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, when Cheek was watching his younger brother Michael compete in the inline skating nationals and the coordinator of athlete services, Sherry Von Riesen, introduced him to Isaksen, a tall Arkansas native who placed 21st in modern pentathlon at the 2008 Beijing Games at age 16.
Cheek returned to Colorado Springs this summer to support his brother once again, and by chance, the modern pentathlon nationals were also being held so Cheek watched Isaksen win the title and over time, he said, “I fell more in love with the sport than I thought I would.”
Not only is modern pentathlon fan-friendly– “like a one-day sports festival,” Cheek explained, “It’s so James Bond. Not just all the outfit changes, but when they’re fencing and riding horses, it looks very aristocratic and a little more high-brow. The running and swimming are just brutal. And the shooting?! I can’t believe this is one sport! I’d love to do this!”
Recently, Isaksen showed Cheek how to shoot a laser pistol, the weapon that recently replaced the 10-meter air pistol in pentathlon.
“I’ve tried all the elements except fencing and equestrian,” he said.
Cheek now appreciates the array of skills – and adaptability – that modern pentathlon requires. In the equestrian portion, for example, each athlete chooses her horses by lottery and only has 20 minutes to get to know how it responds and develop a relationship with it so it will jump on command when a medal is on the line.
In contrast, the speed skater said, “I was enormously specialized. All I could do was short distances over a 400 meter oval. I couldn’t even do short track. It HAD to be a 400-meter oval.”
Cheek still loves a good race, however, so it’s not surprising that his favorite event within modern pentathlon is the combined run/shoot at the end.
In it, athletes run to the shooting range and must hit five targets in 70 seconds or less. Afterwards, they run a 1000-meter loop, shoot again, run another loop, shoot one more time, and run to the finish. The start is staggered according to the rankings after three events. The leader starts first, but the winner is whoever crosses the finish line first. (The format will make its Olympic debut in 2012.)
Another reason Cheek prefers the final event: “Margaux is a brilliant runner. She just walks people down.”
Shooting and fencing are usually less predictable, however, and Cheek said that if he were in Mexico to watch her race, “I’d be chomping my nails and watching trough my fingers at fencing and shooting.
After the first two events, the text message and e-card Cheek sent Isaksen for luck, seemed to be working.
Isaksen began the day by taking first place after fencing, with a 25-7 record. (Each of the 33 athletes fenced each other in a one-touch bout.) And after a swim in an ice-cold pool elevated next to the fencing strip, Isaksen was in second place. After equestrian, she had to start the run/shoot 20 seconds behind the leader, Yane Marquez of Brazil, and made up the deficit to run away with gold.
“I learn a lot from him as an athlete,” Isaksen said of her high-profile fan, but most of all, “He really, really motivates me. Just seeing the passion he puts into everything he does.”