Pentathlete Margaux Isaksen is only 20 years old, but she is already an Olympic veteran after competing in Beijing at age 16. In 2011 she was crowned the Champion of Champions in Sicily and won gold at the Pan-American Games in Mexico, which qualified her for the 2012 Olympics. SI.com caught up with her to discuss how her sport has changed, how she's changed, and playing through pain.
SI.com: The five events of pentathlon -- running, swimming, equestrian, fencing, and shooting -- are so varied. How did you end up in the sport?
Isaksen: I grew up on a farm in Arkansas and always had the opportunity to ride horses, which was great. My mom was very active -- she does triathlons and was an open-water swimmer -- so I just grew up very active and was interested in cross country. I started running my freshman year of high school and around the same time (in 2005) my sister wanted to start fencing, and I thought why would I want to fence? It sounds silly and not fun at all. But I went with my sister and we started taking classes together. I spoke with Neal Picken, at the Arkansas Fencing Academy, and his daughter had been a pentathlete, so he knew the sport. He said, "You know, you ride and you run and you seem to have a great talent for fencing, so why don't you give pentathlon a try?"
SI.com:How did you respond to that proposal?
Isaksen: I had never even heard of the sport before. It interested me so much because it was so diverse. I mean, who's good at five different things? Where else can I ride horses and fence and run? My favorite sports have changed since then, but at the time I was like this is so cool it combines all my favorite sports into one. I kind of wanted to conquer it in a way too because it's something that's so, so hard to master.
SI.com:What is it like balancing the training for such different skills?
Isaksen: The scheduling is difficult sometimes -- you're always running around and doing things, and it keeps your mind very active. Sometimes it's monotonous, especially when you wake up and you do the same thing every day. But when you have five different sports, it keeps things interesting. I think, "OK, today I'm going to do fencing and shooting, and today I have a hard swim, tomorrow I have a hard run." So it's really all about balancing everything.
SI.com:Do you have a favorite event?
Isaksen: Running by far. I always say I love pentathlon and I love all the other events as well, but running is the one sport I think I'll stick with long after my pentathlon career is over.
SI.com:Is there one you like the least?
Isaksen: It's not a dislike as much of a frustration, but I do struggle with my shoot sometimes. My shoot is sometimes inconsistent, [but] I feel like it's getting a lot better. Sometimes I'll be able to pinpoint why I am doing something wrong versus when I shoot well, [but] it's a little bit harder for me than it is in the other events.
SI.com:The shooting recently switched to laser pistols. Is shooting with those more difficult?
Isaksen: I wouldn't say it's more difficult, I'd say that it's different. Now the laser, right when you pull the trigger, there can't be any movement in the pistol whatsoever or the laser doesn't register, even if you're in the 7 ring. Whereas before, with the pellets, you could kind of shoot sideways, and as long as the pellet landed in the 7 ring it would count as a hit. There's less margin for error.
SI.com: The format also changed in 2009, with the running and shooting now being combined. You were a vocal critic of that move. Why?
Isaksen: I felt like it completely changed the sport and took away part of what made the sport so beautiful in that you had to be good -- great -- at five completely different events. You still have to be a good a shooter, but it took away an advantage for a lot of players that were truly good shooters, as opposed to now where you're just trying to hit a 7 [and then run]. Now, three years in, I'm not as completely opposed to it as I was before, and I understand that it's more spectator-friendly. A lot of people enjoy watching it more and I still think that it's a beautiful sport and completely diverse, but it took away the true meaning of the sport.
SI.com:Has that combining changed how you train?
Isaksen: Absolutely. Before [the change], you had to be very calm. You could come into shooting half-asleep and it actually helped you because part of it was being able to control your nerves. Now, you're running and shooting, so now you're trying to control your breathing and calm yourself in order to shoot all five targets in hopefully under 15 seconds. We still have specific shooting practices, but of course we're trying to shoot a lot faster than before. We also have run-shoot practices, so we're run, shoot five shots, then run again, then maybe shoot 10 shots depending on the day.
SI.com:At 16 years old, you were not only one of the youngest competitors in Beijing, but 23 years younger than your roommate, Sheila Taormina. What was the dynamic like between you two?
Isaksen: Sheila was a little bit like a mother to me and a little bit like a sister to me, and in every respect she was a mentor to me. Competing with her, she was such an incredible athlete and truly an incredible person. I learned a lot from her. I hope that maybe she picked up some things from me too. We had a great time together. Although there was such a big age gap, I don't think we ever really felt the age gap as much. She'd tell me to clean up my side of the room or something, but for the most part, we really got along. We had a lot of inside jokes. She called me "grasshopper" -- anytime she was kind of joking but giving me a piece of advice, she'd be like, "Listen here, grasshopper." To this day she's one of the most influential people in my athletic career.
SI.com:The competition in Beijing didn't quite go as planned, with a 21st-place finish.
Isaksen: The season leading up to the Games was my first real international competing season. By the time I got to Beijing, I put so much pressure on myself knowing that I could do well. Then it was this huge competition with fans all around you, and the pressure got to me in a way that's hard to describe. I felt like the pit of my stomach was just going to fall out. I remember going up to the shooting range, my eyes were teary. I just wanted to cry. My mom was smiling and my coach was trying to make me laugh and kind of like lighten the mood and I couldn't even laugh. I was just a bundle of nerves, as I think it's OK to be at 16, and here my first big competition happens to be the Olympics. There are things that I wish I had done differently, but at the same time I was 16 and I was just happy to be there. I'm ready to go to London and hopefully bring home a medal.
SI.com:You recently overcame an even greater challenge, competing with a broken wrist. Can you describe how that was?
Isaksen: It was an invitational competition in Moscow, where they invited a lot of the top athletes to come and compete for a prize purse. To be honest, I hadn't had the best year. I kind of struggled with my shoot and I struggled with some health problems earlier in the year. So I think that breaking my wrist -- I got thrown off my horse in warmup -- was a blessing in disguise in that I really started to question if I wanted pentathlon and if this was something that I still wanted to do. And when I broke my wrist and kind of had it taken away from me, I was like, no, I love this sport and I can't believe that I was gonna give it up.
So I came back and I competed at World Cup Final, which was the first Olympic qualifier, and my coach wanted me to go. I actually still had a broken wrist -- my arm was in a cast for the competition. It was probably one of the most painful things I've ever done. I'm glad I've done it because I don't think I'll ever feel that level of pain ever again. I convinced my doctor to saw open my hard cast, so I could take it off for the competition. I fenced with the cast, but then I had to take it off for the swim, which was excruciating. I also couldn't wear it for the shoot because I'm left-handed and had to shoot with my left hand, and you're not allowed to have anything on your wrist. Then I came back and they put a hard cast back on my hand for another three weeks. I was like, really? I just competed with a broken wrist. Can you please just give me a splint or something?
SI.com: Compared to Beijing, do you have a different mindset as you prepare for London?
Isaksen: I'm nervous in a very different way than I was in Beijing. In Beijing I wanted to do well, but the pressure had gotten to me. Now I have one Olympics under my belt, not to mention I have competed at big competitions, so I know what it's like to handle the pressure much more. Having the experience I do will alleviate some of the pressure, but at the same time now I know I can win a gold medal, and that kind of adds a whole new level of pressure for me.
SI.com:Does being the United States' best hope for a medal in pentathlon add any pressure to that?
Isaksen: If you had asked me a couple years ago I probably would have said yes, but I think I put more pressure on myself than anybody does. Of course, when I go out there I'm so proud to represent the U.S. and I want to make my fans and family and loved ones proud, but I do it for myself. And that's what it's really going to be about in London -- giving it my all.