Sam Sacksen is a down-home rural guy. But he'll begrudgingly relocate to the city if that's what he needs to do to achieve his Olympic dream.
"I need the city but I don't necessarily want to live in there," says Sacksen, as he works to pack up his belongings in State College, Pa., for a move to the Philadelphia area.
Growing up in Somerset, Pa., a city of about 7,000 in the southwest region of the Keystone State, Sacksen had all the space he needed to ride horses, camp out and go fishing.
"If you see two cars go down the road it's a busy day,'' Sacksen said of his hometown.
But now, having completed his college classes at Penn State (his degree, however, is in biology from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Colo.), the modern pentathlete is hoping that a new fencing club in Philadelphia can push him to the next level in competition. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Sacksen finished 18th overall, but he tied for 29th in the fencing competition, his lowest finish in the five disciplines. (The other events are riding, shooting, swimming and running.)
There was no fencing team in State College over the summer, when most of the students are gone. So Sacksen had to seek out a year-round program. He found one in Philadelphia.
"I am hoping that will be better for me," he said.
Living in the nation's fifth-largest metro area does have its benefits, but if he had his choice, Sacksen would still prefer the farm.
The Sacksens moved to Somerset when Sam was 8, buying a pre-Civil War era farmhouse that doubled as his father's veterinary practice. Growing up on an active horse farm in rural Pennsylvania provided Sacksen with plenty of opportunities to stay active. And it's no coincidence that his best discipline at the 2008 Olympics was riding, in which he finished seventh.
"He's not the type that just sits around on the couch and plays video games all day," said Ben Sacksen, Sam's older brother who also competed in pentathlon. "I think he would rather be by himself or with a close friend in the middle of nowhere, camping, or on an adventure or expedition, than at a dance club."
Having that independence and responsibility while growing up on the farm taught Sacksen to be self-reliant from a young age.
"It gave me a well-rounded basis in reality that I've relied on to overcome challenges that I've faced," he said. "I learned very young to not expect things to happen for me, I just went and got things done. When it came to Olympic sports, that mentality helped me a lot."
Ben definitely noticed Sam's work ethic and determination in everything he did growing up, including when the two trained for pentathlon together.
"He is the kind of guy that will get up every morning, no matter what he is doing, and go for his morning training run or do whatever he is supposed to do," Ben said. "And that's what it takes. He has a very focused attitude, very dedicated to the sport I'd say, and obviously enthusiastic, obviously he loves it."
"I've seen better natural athletes not get as far because of his attitude and his mindset," Ben added. "When he gets his mind set on something it's hard to get him off it."
That's how Sam qualified for the Olympics when he was 22.
Sacksen, like many elite pentathletes, was experienced in other sports before trying pentathlon. The bulk of his experience in high school was in cross-country running, track and swimming. But his multisport experience in the tetrathlon is what got him noticed by USA Modern Pentathlon in 2005.
As an escape from traditional horseback riding growing up, Sacksen decided to try out the tetrathlon-a competition involving riding, running, shooting and swimming. He had been competing in tetrathlons on the side for about five years, but after graduating high school in 2004, he really started to focus on it.
"The only thing I needed to add, and I'm obviously still struggling with, is fencing," he said.
That's likely what the USA Modern Pentathlon officials thought when they first saw Sacksen at the 2005 summer tetrathlon nationals-his breakout year in the sport-and invited both Sam and Ben out to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., for a tryout.
Ben ended up leaving and eventually going to flight school. Sam ended up staying at the Olympic Training Center for the next three years and eventually competed at the Olympics. Sam earned his degree from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and routinely was on the dean's list.
"Sometimes when I'm speaking with him, I'm like 'No wonder he went to the Olympics, he really likes what he is doing,'" Ben said.
The actual Olympics didn't go quite as well as Sacksen had hoped, but that has only motivated him more.
"I definitely got a slight case of nerves because I had no preparation for how intense the spotlight was going to be, even for a minor sport like mine," he said. "It was a totally different experience from what I was used to, and I got a little bit wide eyed from that. By the time I recovered to the point I expected, there were only two events remaining."
With one Olympics under his belt, Sacksen confidently talks about his goal to be back at another one, hopefully, the 2012 Olympics in London.
"Now that I know what's coming I will be able to handle it better," he said. "And I certainly hope that my performance will improve because of that."
Growing up, Sam wanted to follow his father's footsteps as a veterinarian. With Sam's determination, Ben doesn't rule anything out for his brother's future.
"He still hasn't given up on those goals," Ben said. "For the rest of his life I can see him being a veterinarian. He loves where we've come from in rural Somerset, Pa. He really loves those roots, and I can see him returning to that at some point."
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.