February 29, the day that happens once every four years, is a special day for the country's most Olympic couple. Mike Gostigian, 49, a retired three-time Olympian in modern pentathlon, and Sharon Monplaisir, 51, a retired three-time Olympian in fencing, have been married for 12 years, but are celebrating their third wedding anniversary today. The math only adds up in the quirky quadrennial Olympic metabolism that churns anew every four years into a new set of dreams, goals and special days highlighted on calendars.
In 2000 Gostigian and Monplaisir were married in a ceremony that may as well have needed five rings instead of just one. For starters, they picked February 29 as the wedding day because they could rightly commemorate it every fourth year.
"We'd spent our lives operating on four-year cycles," says Gostigian. "What better way to make sure we did that for the rest of our lives?"
They married in an Italian restaurant, before 183 guests. Instead of "Here Comes the Bride," Monplaisir arrived to the sounds of "Bugler's Dream," the tune that customarily introduces the Games' coverage on U.S. television. After saying their vows, the couple walked under a procession of crossed swords created by members of the fencing team, and a guest carrying a lit torch from the Munich Olympics led them along a carpet to the back of the restaurant. Sure Olympians have married Olympians before, but as Olympic nuptials go, that one is the gold-medal standard.
Today, the New Yorkers are certified personal trainers and parents of nine-year-old twins, Gunnar and Siena, both of whom have special needs. Monplaisir was a contributor to Parenting Magazine; Gostigian was a featured speaker with NYC Dads to Dads, a support group for fathers with special needs kids. He often jokes that the couple has places reserved for them on the 2024 Olympic team or in sports more lucrative than his. "Take up golf. Finish last; win a car," he says. "But really I just want to see them pursuing a healthy active lifestyle, something that will help them keep fit and happy for the rest of their lives."
Gostigian has the athletic look, too. He appeared in the movie Pentathlon as a stunt double for Dolph Lundgren, who also played one of the villainous opponents in Rocky IV. Lundgren trained with the U.S. pentathlon team to prepare for his role, and was then chosen to function as the team manager at the 1996 Games at Atlanta, where Gostigian finished 16th as the only U.S. competitor. "I am Michael's valet," he said at the time.
His first retirement was supposed to take Gostigian away from sports and into the business world; he took a job on Wall Street, but hated every minute. "It was really not my kind of lifestyle," he says. "It was too confining, staring at a computer and trading all day. My body was rusting. I wanted to get back to something active." Within days of deciding to look for a new job, Gostigian had a chance meeting with an owner at the prestigious gym La Palestra on New York's West Side, launching his career as a personal trainer.
These days Gostigian trains 30 regular clients, many from New York's A-list of names, and starts his day at 4:45 a.m., often running through the park with a marathon or triathlon hopeful. When a group of bankers wanted to kick off a training season for an adventure race, they brought Gostigian up to Canada to set up the program. When a fashion industry mogul wanted to complete an ironman triathlon at age 50, Gostigian took him through his regular paces and got him to the finish line. He once coaxed a client to eat less by limiting his consumption tools to chopsticks.
In fact, Gostigian's athletic life has a new chapter. On March 9, he will be one of 12 U.S. men competing at the season's first pentathlon World Cup in Charlotte, N.C. Should he finish among the top four athletes from the U.S., which is allowed extra slots as the host country of this particular competition, he'll qualify to compete at other world cups, where the country will be able to send a maximum of four men to participate.
The word Olympics doesn't quite roll off the tongue the way it once did when he recorded a top-ten finish at the Barcelona Games in 1992 and also paced the U.S. team to fourth place. "I'm like Tom Brady at the 50-yard line throwing a Hail Mary," he says. "If I can find my old body, I can reach the goal line and then we'll see. No matter what happens, I'm doing this so my kids can see what I did all these years. That makes it worth it."
Even the sport of modern pentathlon has a new look since Gostigian retired from the five-event competition in 1996. The swim event is now 200 meters instead of 300, and the running and shooting events have been combined. Though Gostigian has always been a strong swimmer -- his time was second best among all pentathletes in 1992 -- he returned recently from an altitude camp in Colorado Springs where a biomechanical evaluation of his stroke compared to another athlete at the same camp revealed a striking difference in efficiency. So who wouldn't pale in comparison to Michael Phelps? "What an eye-opener," he says. "Phelps was generating tremendous power from the very first stroke. And yet it just looked effortless."
In sports with little exposure and financial rewards, the roads for Gostigian and Monplaisir were neither paved with gold nor huge sponsorship contracts. Monplaisir worked supporting jobs as a bank teller, a computer accessory salesperson, a cook in a hospital and at McDonald's and a janitor in a fraternity house when she briefly lived in Wisconsin. She was the subject of a book Sword of a Champion, and she will enter U.S. Fencing's Hall of Fame later this year.
Monplaisir was recently certified as a minister and officiated at a friend's nuptials on Shelter Island last June. She prepared the vows meticulously and recalls cheering and jumping from a platform at the proceedings with such energy, some guests feared she might fall into an adjacent lake. Her frequent bursts of ebullience mask a fierce competitor who should never be crossed.
Since fencing is among the pentathlon disciplines, Gostigian used to see Monplaisir at various competitions and had taken a quiet liking to her. When he saw her fling some of her equipment in anger after a match in 1992, he quietly told a friend standing nearby, "Wow, I wouldn't want to be her boyfriend." That pronouncement survived less than a year.
Since their wedding day, they have kept the quadrennial cycle alive by trying something new at each anniversary. Eight years ago, they competed in several ballroom dancing competitions around New York City. Four years ago, Gostigian took up chess and Monplaisir learned to play piano. "And this year," Gostigian says, "for me, it's cooking and for Sharon, it's surgeries; first the knees, then the shoulder. She's off to a great start -- way ahead of the game."
"He's always easy and cheerful," Monplaisir says, laughing, "I'm up and down. He's my better half." The woman who made her name with a foil in her hands clearly has one in her life.
The Leap Day celebration, she says, will be simple. "Just quiet time to be with the person I love the most," she says. "Really, that's the way I like to celebrate it. Michael and I have had so much fun together. Just making sure we're together on that day is enough."