The money is lying there, just a few feet away from the blonde with the gun in her hand. Her dark blue eyes take on a steely glint as she zeros in on the mark. If she can pull this off, the money will be hers. But she doesn't look at it. She isn't in this for the money. Lori Norwood, of San Antonio, the women's world pentathlon champion, sights down the barrel of the Walther OSP and squeezes off five rounds—blam, blam, blam, blam, blam! The mark never stood a chance. She lowers her arm and lets out a soft sigh.
Janusz Peciak, coach of the U.S. modern pentathlon team, calls out, "Forty-seven points out of 50. Lori wins." Norwood, 25, doesn't crack a smile. This is practice, after all, and the money is merely Peciak's way of keeping things interesting. "There are a lot of things I can't do or say now that I could before I won the world championship," Norwood says softly as she picks up the pot—60 cents' worth of nickels. "I used to whoop or cheer when I beat someone in practice, but now I feel I have to have extra humility."
"Lori is very shy," says Peciak. "She never acts like she's a big star. It doesn't matter whether she's the world champion or in last place, she has the same personality. I really like that about her. She's a very nice person."
Peciak's partiality aside, Norwood really is a very nice person. She is a sweet-faced, soft-spoken, introspective woman who spends a great deal of time reading and thinking about things besides pentathlon—things like art, life, the environment. Her serene countenance belies the fact that Norwood is a driven, focused competitor who came back after a two-year layoff to win the world championship in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, in August 1989. Last month she won the prestigious San Antonio Cup International, knocking off many of the same competitors she beat in Austria.
April 15, 1990
In Europe, Norwood is a star. Her picture hangs in the modern pentathlon museum in Budapest. But in the U.S. scarcely anybody knows who she is. Like its champions, pentathlon is practically unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Ask most Americans what a pentathlon is, and you'll get something along the lines of, "Urn, let's see. It's half a decathlon, right? Probably discus and, uh, pole vault. That's in there, right?" Wrong.
The five sports that make up the modern pentathlon, introduced at the 1912 Olympics, are running, swimming, riding, shooting and fencing. All are skills once needed by a 19th-century military courier to get through enemy lines: 1) riding an unfamiliar horse across uneven terrain; 2) running swiftly, in case the horse became disabled; 3) swimming across rivers; 4) shooting his way through enemy ranks; and 5) skewering any leftover bad guys with his èpèe. So what's a nice girl like Norwood doing in a macho sport like this?
Well, she was an Army brat. She lived in Panama, Thailand and Brazil, among other places, countries where her father was a U.S. military officer dealing with intelligence—something Norwood possesses in abundance.
"This sport may require more mental discipline than any other." says Bob Nieman, the only American besides Norwood ever to win a world championship, which he did in Budapest in 1979, beating Peciak, then of Poland, by 16 points. "Lori's got a real good head for the sport."
"She's very disciplined," says Peciak. "And she has a talent for work. Lori is a person who hates to lose. She's much tougher in the brain than the men."
Peciak, the 1976 Olympic champion and the '77 and '81 world champion, admits that Norwood is his favorite student. She would be any coach's dream—she follows orders without question and never complains, no matter how much she may be hurting. Her idea of fun is a 10-mile run. Other U.S. team members may straggle into practice 20 minutes late, but she's always on time. Although practice starts at 8 a.m., Norwood is up at 6:30 so she can be fully awake and focused for her workout.
She drives her navy blue Isuzu pickup to the athletes' house adjacent to Fort Sam Houston, where she drops off her dog, Sadie, an Australian shepherd, before heading for the nearby fencing salle. Fort Sam Houston has been the home of the U.S. modern pentathlon team since 1955.
Peciak yells, "En garde!" and the sound of clashing steel fills the air as the team advances, parries, retreats and lunges, over and over again. "It took me a long time to figure fencing out," Norwood says. "Not the quickness or aggressiveness. Not the thrusts and parries, but the sneakiness of it. The little deceptive moves." Now that she's a world champion, her teammates fence her twice as hard as they once did. "They think, Here's the world champion, and I'm going to try and beat her," she says.
At 10:15 a.m., Norwood hops back into her pickup and drives to the Pershing Pistol Range, three miles away. Shooting practice is not all shooting, however. "Everybody take your positions," Peciak says. "Up." A dozen arms lift and extend, pointing pistols down-range at the targets. Time passes. A lot of time passes. Arms begin to quiver. "Very good," says Peciak. "Your arm is like cement. Don't look at me, look ahead. O.K., down. Now take the gun in your opposite hand. Up." More time passes. "O.K., two minutes rest."
The team practices until 11:45 a.m, then strips down to shirts and shorts for the training run. Peciak yells, "O.K., the women do a 50-minute workout and the men 60 minutes, except for Lori. She runs 60 minutes." An hour later, when the team members return, Norwood isn't even breathing hard. "God, I love to run," she says.
At 1:30 p.m., Norwood stops to pick up Sadie before driving home to shower and eat lunch. Her one-bedroom apartment, on a quiet San Antonio street, is small but tidy. Bronze and clay figures are arrayed on the floor and on a coffee table. Norwood is not only a superb athlete, she's also a talented artist. The first thing she can remember holding in her hand was not a gun or a horse's reins, but a chunk of modeling clay. "I love the feel of clay," she says. "I always had a three-dimensional sense as a kid. I was always making dogs and other animal figures, or building sand castles out of mud—always creating."
Her art sustained her when she was barred from competition for two years after testing positive for a banned substance. At the 1986 world championships in Montecatini Terme, Italy, Norwood and 11 other pentathletes from four countries tested positive for gamma-butyrolactone, a chemical that acts as a sedative. To this day Norwood vehemently denies ever having taken any banned drug. She becomes angry and upset just talking about that period in her life. "We'd never heard of this drug," she says. "And it took a year to get the test results [from the sport's governing body]. Meanwhile. I'm kicked out of the sport. I've absolutely no recourse.
"It follows me. It's always with me. I felt like such an outlaw," she says. "So many people heaped shame on me; they were so quick to condemn me. But I know what I did or did not do, and I'm perfectly able to go on with my life with that knowledge. I know there's life after pentathlon."
When the suspension was handed down, Norwood sold all her equipment except her riding boots. "I'm an artist," she says. "At least I had that other passion." Norwood spent those two years getting her B.A. in fine arts at the University of Texas, paying her way through her final year by selling commissioned artwork.
Her studio is near the old stables at Fort Sam Houston. "There are a lot of parallels between art and sport," she says. "In the studio, I'm just as active. I'm on my feet all day—it's very physical work. It's like taking a long run; it requires that focus. I'm not an amazingly talented or gifted athlete. I'm just more able to stay concentrated on something for a long time and be consistent. I can't just sculpt for an hour or two. Once I get in the studio, I live there."
Right now, of course, she lives for the pentathlon. For the 4:15 p.m. team swimming practice, she arrives early at the Blossom Athletic Center pool, suits up and starts doing laps. Swimming is the weak link in Norwood's performance, although Peciak believes she can do the women's 200-meter pentathlon distance in under 2:24. (She swam the best time in San Antonio, 2:30.5.) At 5:45 p.m., after an hour and a half of swimming laps, Norwood's training day is done.
The next day she fences, runs and swims again, but she also rides for an hour and 45 minutes. It's a 25-mile drive from her apartment to the stables, in Boerne, Texas, and Norwood hitches a ride in the team van. The team starts hauling riding equipment out of the van and the trunks of cars: hard hats, riding crops, boots, chaps.
Norwood's mount is a rather sorry-looking quarter horse-thoroughbred gelding of indeterminate age named Yakatak. She treats him as if he were Secretariat, however, talking to him and stroking his neck. Riding is the final event in the pentathlon, which is contested over three or four days, but it's the wild card. If you draw a bad horse, you can easily blow the whole thing with a bad ride. The host country of a meet is responsible for providing the horses, so the local athletes usually know the idiosyncrasies of many of the animals.
Norwood learned to ride in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, when her father. Lieutenant Colonel Marvin Norwood, was stationed there. The Brazilian army has a mounted cavalry, and each officer keeps about five horses. "They couldn't possibly ride all their horses every day, so I was given lessons by one of the Brazilian officers," says Norwood. In addition, when she was in her early teens her father taught her how to handle a gun.
In 1977 the family moved to North Carolina, and Norwood took up running at Westover High School. "It was instant gratification," she says. "As soon as I started competing, I started winning races." That's where she first heard about the pentathlon. A family friend, having observed her abilities at riding, shooting and running, said to the 15-year-old Norwood, "Have I got a sport for you!"
Four years later she was training full time in San Antonio. Three years later she won a bronze medal at the Goodwill Games in Moscow. A month after that, she went to the world championships in Italy. The following November she was informed of the positive drug test. Although Norwood vowed never to compete again in the pentathlon after being banned. Peciak talked her into returning, and she went back into training in December 1988. Eight months later, she was the world champion.
Norwood's immediate goal is to win the gold at the Goodwill Games in Seattle this July. Her long-term goal is Olympic gold and that will be a tough one. The women's pentathlon isn't an Olympic event, although there's talk of it for the 1996 Games. Pentathletes peak at about age 30, and Norwood will be 32 in '96. Then again, there is no guarantee that the women's competition will make the Olympics. But Norwood has an answer to that. "I can't see postponing my life for another five years and then not being able to compete," she says. "So I'm going to try out for the 1992 men's Olympic team."
Her chances of making the U.S. men's team are slim to none, according to Peciak. "Lori doesn't have a chance of competing against the men in pentathlon," he says. "They're too strong. It's like Mike Tyson boxing with a woman."
Bob Nieman disagrees. The men's team is weak, he says, and fencing could be a key event for Norwood: "If Lori can walk into the Olympic trials and know the weakness of every man there, she's got a shot."
If anyone can pull it off, Norwood can. "I have maybe one chance in about a hundred million," she says in her practical, clear-eyed way. But then the dreamer emerges. "I want to represent my country," she says. "I want to walk into the Olympic stadium and have people say, 'These are our best athletes.' "