Young American Isaksen takes on modern pentathlon

Aug. 18, 2008, 6:48 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The average pentathlete can train up to a decade before developing the skills needed for Olympic competition.

Margaux Isaksen is anything but average.

The 16-year-old from Arkansas took up the sport, which combines fencing, shooting, swimming, show jumping and distance running, three years ago at the urging of a fencing coach.

Beginning Friday, she'll compete in the Beijing Olympics against competitors who are mostly in the late to mid 20s.

And her 39-year-old teammate Sheila Taormina - the first woman to qualify for three different Olympic sports - won the gold medal in a swimming relay in 1996, when Isaksen hadn't yet started kindergarten.

"Sometimes I forget I'm so much younger," said Isaksen, who also will compete against two other 16-year-olds. "I can't worry about it because when I'm competing no one is going to take my age into consideration."

Isaksen made a name for herself in the sport by winning all three U.S. National Championship titles in 2007 and solidified her status with a silver medal at the 2008 World Cup in Mexico City.

Intense training is essential to success in the modern pentathlon. Isaksen rides horses a couple of times a week, shoots and fences up to five times a week and runs and swims as many as six days a week.

She now calls the pentathlon her "calling" - but that wasn't always the case.

"I didn't really know what the pentathlon was before my coach suggested it," she said.

And after her first event, where she finished dead last, she wasn't sure it was for her.

"It's shocking how hard it is," she said. "There were times I wanted to throw my gun through the wall. I don't think I understood what it took."

After the initial shock of the sport's difficulty, pentathlon grew on Isaksen.

Coach Janusz Peciak, who won gold in the event for Poland in 1976, loves the young athlete's attitude and work ethic and marvels at how much progress she's made in the last year. He said she's lowered her times and scores in almost every portion of the event.

"It's fun to work with her," Peciak said. "She's still very young. I'm very lucky to be here to watch her improve."

Teammates and coaches say Isaksen is very mature for her age, but her girlish side shows in the intricate American flag designs painted on her big toenails. The rest of her toes follow the patriotic theme, alternating between blue and white, and stars dot her fingernails.

Her adjustment has been aided by the guidance of Taormina.

"She doesn't only help me with any questions I may have about the sport, she gives me advice about life," Isaksen said. "I didn't really know what to expect, so having her has been great."

Peciak said he's enjoyed watching the pair bond.

"I'm sure it helps that Sheila is like her icon," he said. "She's also like a mother for her. They are far apart in age but they are joined by pentathlon and it works perfect."