Modern pentathlon: Perfect sport for Suzanne Stettinius

Baltimore County resident representing United States in London Olympics

June 16, 2012|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

Like many Olympic athletes not named Michael Phelps, Suzanne Stettinius is both training and fundraising in these final weeks before the Summer Games. She's made appeals via Facebook and her blog and, next week, will host a party at a Baltimore County tavern where among the auction items will be a date with the athlete herself.

A risky proposition for a 24-year-old woman? Maybe, but perhaps not one whose sport involves shooting and fencing and, should flight rather than fight seem advisable, running, swimming and riding a horse.

Oh, and her father is a former Navy SEAL, too.

"We never brought boys home," Stettinius says with a good-natured groan about her dating life as a Hereford High School student.

Any dates now will have to wait at least until she returns from London in August. After an extended qualifying process in her sport of modern pentathlon, Stettinius is all but assured of one of the United States' two slots for women to compete in modern pentathlon in the Summer Games in London, which run from July 27 to Aug.12.

As archaic as it now seems, the modern pentathlon seems that it could find an audience in these attention-deficient times. And in fact, the multi-tasking is what attracted Stettinius, a lifelong athlete who, during overlapping times of her life, has competed in steeplechase, soccer, fencing, cross-country running and swimming.

"I don't know how other athletes stay fit with just one sport," Stettinius said. "I'm too ADHD for that."

She is the middle child of five, raised on her family's Parkton horse farm just below the Pennsylvania state line where she still lives with her parents and youngest sister. From childhood, her father, William, said, she has always "over-programmed" herself.

"I can remember when she was in middle school, she was fencing five times a week, playing soccer, indoor soccer, and she decided she wanted to add indoor lacrosse," William Stettinius said. "I said fine, what do you want to drop? She wouldn't talk to me for two weeks."

A recent training day began at 9:30 a.m. with a horse-jumping practice at the Monkton farm of her riding coaches, Joe Davies and Blythe Miller-Davies, and continued through to a 7 p.m. session in Columbia with her fencing coach, Bin Lu.

About the only sign that she had been through a particularly packed day — there was also running and shooting practice at home and swimming in the YMCA pool in Shrewsbury, Pa. — was a yellow mustard stain on her fencing pants from a hot dog she had scarfed down.

Modern pentathlon debuted 100 years ago at the 1912 Olympics as an updated version of the ancient pentathlon introduced at the 18th Olympiad in 708 BC. Then, competitors ran, swam, wrestled and threw spears and discuses.

Today's version was developed by the founder of the modern Olympics himself, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who based it on a Napoleonic-era military courier who had to deliver a message across rigorous, enemy-laden terrain. Along with the legendary Jim Thorpe, who won gold, competitors of the first modern pentathlon included the future World War II general, George S. Patton, who placed fifth.

And he was robbed, according to Stettinius, who agrees with what Patton always contended, that the shot he made that was declared a miss actually went through the hole made by the other four.

Stettinius, who graduated from McDaniel College last year, can practice three of her sport's disciplines at her family's farm, Mint Meadows. She can ride one of her nine horses, rescued from tracks after their racing careers ended, jumping over makeshift obstacles to simulate the 15 jumps on the Olympic course. She can run on a track that's been mowed through an overgrown patch on a hill, to an inverted plastic barrel where she's placed her gun, 10 meters in front of a target hung on the side of a shed.

"It's my ghetto track," she jokes of the makeshift accommodations.

Hardly — despite the rumble of the nearby I-83, the farm is peacefully rustic. "These are our soul-soothers," her mother, Avis, says as she follows her daughter into the horse barn, ready for a ride herself after working around the farm that morning.

As a rather gimpy old goat named Freddy watches, Suzanne readies a horse near a sign that warns, "No whining."

There's not much of that, it seems. Stettinius talks as casually about previous injuries such as a broken neck the way a weekend warrior might talk about a pulled muscle — a little bump in the road.

She broke her neck, in a non-paralyzing way, she notes, several years ago in a steeplechase race; more recently she broke her collarbone in another race. Neither will keep her from getting back in the saddle, literally or figuratively.

"I'm just so game," she said.

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