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VIDEO: The42 spent the day with Natalya Coyle, a very modern Irish athlete

The Meath woman is aiming for glory in the modern pentathlon next summer in Rio.

Updated at 13.41


SO, WHAT SKILLS would a 19th Century soldier stuck behind enemy lines need to get himself out of bother and back to safe territory?

Well, according to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics, those skills would be sword fighting, shooting, running, swimming and riding a strange horse. If the army man could master those, he could Escape to Victory.

The good baron decided that these skills should be combined in to a single event and included in his fledging Olympic Games.

The discipline was christened the modern pentathlon, differentiating it from the pentathlon of the original Greek Olympics, and first contested in the 1912 games in Stockholm.

Now, 24-year-old Natalya Coyle from Tara in County Meath is far from a 19th century cavalry officer.  But a modern pentathlete she is and her sights are firmly set of qualification for Rio 2016, where she hopes to improve on her surprise ninth place finish at London 2012.

IMG_2225 Despite being left-handed Coyle shoots with her right. She also shows off the flexibility of the épée sword used in modern pentathlon.

“I was new to the sport in London so it was a shock that I qualified,” explains Coyle. “I was ranked 29th so to finish ninth was a huge step for me. Now I’m pushing on and training harder.

“I just want to focus on getting there. You can focus on Rio and say ‘when I get there I want to do this, that and the other’. But you have to get there first. A lot of people forget – the journey to an Olympics can be 10 times harder than the actual event.

“You see people who should have qualified, but didn’t so for me it’s about being on that start line. Once I’m on that start line I can focus on different things. If I perform to my best, who knows what I could do.”

Her childhood passion for horses led her into tetrathlon (tetra meaning four), a combination of show jumping, running, shooting and swimming. From there she found pentathlon, adding fencing to her already impressive skill set.

Source: Peter Sweeney/Vimeo

Coyle is in Belarus this week for the World Cup Finals (where she and Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe earned second in the relay), and from there it’s on to Poland for a training camp which means she’ll be away from home for more than a month.

At least international travel is easier now than it was — the pistols used in competition use laser rather than pellets, though she still gets stopped and questioned whichever airport she’s passing through. She’s even had to pay the occasional visit to a police station to explain why she’s packing.

Coyle, who is waiting on the result of her business finals, does most of her training at Pentathlon Ireland’s impressive facility on the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown. Given all of all the balls she has to juggle, it’s not surprising that he keeps a hectic schedule.

“We have hard days, medium days and easy days,” she said. “On Mondays I’ll run, I’ll swim, I’ll fence and I’ll shoot. On Tuesday I’ll do a hard swim and a hard run in the morning, but I’ll have the afternoon off.

“The next morning I’ll do some fencing, I’ll have the gym, physio and I’ll shoot and that’s an easier day because there’s no physicals on you apart from the swim. The following day is harder. I’ll have a run, a swim and a fence.

“Friday is a bit easier – I’ll have gym, shooting, horse-riding and fencing in the evening,” said Coyle, whose family own the Tayto/Hunky Dory crisps empire. “On Saturday we finish off with a hard run and an easy swim. It all balances so that you can train hard knowing that your next session won’t throw you back. It’s all done really well and there’s a lot of rest time in it.

“It’s a weird sport, but I love it. I love doing so many different sports and I love doing all the different training and that I don’t have to focus on one event.

“Because there are so many events pentathlon isn’t over until it’s over. You could fence terribly, but climb up the board with the other events and end up in the top ten. You could fence unbelievably, but then have a bad swim and drop down the order. It’s an open stage and it’s very exciting.”

Coyle is left-handed, but shoots with her right because the first gun she was given was originally intended for a right-hander.

Source: Peter Sweeney/Vimeo

She has delivered some strong recent performances, including three silver medals in prestigious competitions as part of a relay team with Kilkenny’s Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe this year.

If she does qualify for Rio the wait for the pentathlon will be a long one – it’s almost always the last event on the Olympic programme, meaning there’s a lot of waiting about, killing time.

IMG_2251 The grip on Coyle’s pistol has stickers from all of the major events she competed in.

“The last medal given out is supposed to be for one of the hardest events. In London it was the last medal, the women’s competition was last. I think men’s might be last in Rio, but I’m not sure,” explained Coyle. “Another reason is because we have to use all of the venues.

“You’re in the village listening to all your friends getting it done and performing well when you’ve got to wait until the final day. You have to have a strong mindset and make sure that doesn’t bother you.”

1-KEsIgROSvtab0LMji5tq_g A fencing mask and sword. You can see the tip of the épée, which has to be pressed in by hitting an opponent’s body to score a hit.


The competition takes place on a single day and consists of five sports – fencing, swimming, show jumping and a combined run and shoot.

*A competitor has to fence each of their opponents once. The target area is the whole body, excluding the back, and a single hit wins. If no hits are scored inside a minute, both athletes record a loss. Points are awarded for each bout won.

*The swimming is a 200 metre time-trial with the pentathletes seeded into heats according to their personal best times. For every second above or below the standard time of two minutes 30 seconds, points are added or deducted to/from their overall pentathlon score.

*Athletes ride an unfamiliar horse over a 12-jump course. Each round is timed and points are lost for every second over the optimum time, each error, knock down, refusal, fall or act of horse disobedience.

1-ZjJlr39fmYQTGLaX0SZD-A Natalya Coyle being interviewed at Pentathlon Ireland’s fencing facility in Dublin.

*This is the last event and athletes start in their competition positions – the more points an athlete has, the less their time handicap behind the leader. So the person in first goes first and the first person over the line wins the competition outright. Athletes run 800 metres and then have 50 seconds to shoot five targets. This circuit is repeated three more times.

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About the author:

Peter Sweeney

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