A fish out of water emerges as contender for pentathlon medal

July 23, 1992|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Staff Writer

Newtown Square, Pa. -- Mike Gostigian wasn't crazy about fencing, and never had shot a pistol. Distance running was only a last resort to stay in shape, and horseback riding was unthinkable. But he could swim fairly fast.

So John du Pont thought Gostigian was a perfect fit for a modern pentathlete.

"This sport really has been a test of sanity, will and character the last 13 years," said Gostigian, 29, after another 12-hour training session at du Pont's Foxcatcher Farm in his Pennsylvania hometown. "I don't know whether to give John credit or the blame."

Gostigian, after being discovered by du Pont, an Olympics patron, in a swimming pool at age 16, is going after an Olympic gold medal when the 1992 Summer Games begin Saturday in Barcelona, Spain.

The modern pentathlon is a grueling test that combines five sports. Europeans have dominated the event over the years, especially Russians and Hungarians.

The United States hasn't won a medal since 1960, and Americans have won four medals -- two silver, two bronze -- since the 1912 Games.

What's all this talk about a U.S. gold medal?

"Going into the Olympic competition, I realize that there are about 10 people who can seriously challenge for the gold lTC medal," said Gostigian, 5 feet 10, 150 pounds, who placed first in the World Cup event in Frankfurt, Germany, June 7.

"I feel that I'm peaking now. It's just a matter of getting into the right frame of mind," said Gostigian. "Four years ago, I was a long shot and just glad to be there. This year, I think I can come home with the gold hardware."

Gostigian doesn't talk much about his experience in the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea. He finished 59th with 4,023 points. He said he was awed by the likes of Hungary's Janos Martinek (gold medalist with 5,404 points) and Italy's Carlo Massullo (silver medalist with 5,379).

Heck, Gostigian said he was nervous just walking next to Carl Lewis in the opening ceremonies.

He promises to be more in control this time around.

He also wants a better horse.

In modern pentathlon, competitors draw their horses by lot from a pool supplied by the local sponsor. They get 20 minutes to become acquainted with the horse. That means a rider can get a great horse or . . .

Gostigian drew a dud.

He missed a lot of jumps (losing 30 points for each miss) and tumbled in the standings.

"This may not be an Olympic sport for long, going the way of the Edsel. People won't appreciate it 'til it's gone," said Gostigian, who will retire from the sport after the 1992 Games. "I'm 29 years old, and, actually, it's time to move on to something else. When you're close to finishing up your career, you tend to focus more. I was devastated last year, and, at times, thought about giving up. But I've played these 1992 Games out in my mind a number of times since then. Each time, I've won."

It's been a long road to the Olympics for Gostigian. He idolized Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz as a teen-ager and wanted to be an Olympic champion, too.

There was one problem. Gostigian wasn't a good enough swimmer.

Enter du Pont, owner of Foxcatcher Farm, who barely missed making the 1968 U.S. Olympic team as a pentathlete.

"He just seemed like a natural for the sport, plus he had so much energy and ambition," du Pont said. "I guess I have a knack for these things. I don't want to get into predictions and put a lot of pressure on him, but I've been around the sport since 1953, and he's the best I've seen."

Gostigian said: "John just plucked me out of the pool. He said I should be a pentathlete. The next thing I know, I'm dripping wet in my trunks and shooting at a target from 10 feet away for the first time in my life."

Training for the modern pentathlon is complex. If you want to be good, you can hire two coaches. If you want to be world-class, get five.

That's why the Europeans have held an advantage for so many years. Their top pentathletes were in the military, with no duties other than to train. They traveled the world, taking part in fencing and shooting tournaments.

Gostigian tried that in the mid-1980s, living for months at a time in Poland and Hungary, studying the top pentathletes. He also trained at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, home of the U.S. Modern Pentathlon Association.

It was a life that Gostigian found expensive, dipping into his savings, and ultimately counterproductive.

"I was training in four or five events every day in 1988," said Gostigian. "I burned myself out. Now, I put the emphasis on quality rather than quantity."

In the past two years, he has moved back with his parents and trained full-time at Foxcatcher Farm. He found a group of coaches he trusted.

Gostigian's running coach is Joy Hansen, a local triathlete. His swimming coach is Dick Shoulberg, assistant coach on the U.S. Olympic swim team. John Halota, a Newtown Square police veteran, worked with him on the pistol.

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