Gibbons strives for American gold

Sept. 17, 2010, 1:09 p.m. (ET)


It’s not uncommon to hear a plethora of different accents from all over the world at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs.

Besides the many Americans training on site, athletes from other countries share the facilities from time to time for camps and competitions.

All the athletes have the same goal – to compete in the Olympic Games - so having athletes from other countries join in the training creates both camaraderie and rivalry.

Junior modern pentathlete John Gibbons is the rare combination of a foreign accent training to compete as an American in the Olympic Games.

Gibbons, 21, was born in Oxfordshire, a part of England known more for its beautiful countryside than its penchant for creating high-caliber athletes. His mother is English while his father was born in Washington, D.C., making him a dual citizen of both countries. He lived most of his life in England until a few short years ago.

Gibbons started swimming competitively when he was 10 years old, but soon got tired of the monotony of one sport. That’s where modern pentathlon came in.

“I got a little bit bored with looking at the same pool for 20 hours, plus, a week,” Gibbons said.

His dad’s roommate at the United States Military Academy at West Point had participated in modern pentathlon, so Gibbons’ dad suggested the sport to his son.

“So I picked up an épée and I picked up a pistol and I just started,” Gibbons said.

Modern pentathlon consists of, pistol shooting, épée fencing, 200 m freestyle swimming, equestrian show jumping, and a 3 km cross-country run.

Gibbons didn’t exactly start by storming out of the gate. It was more of a couple of stumbles that turned into a jog.

“I came dead last in my first competition – didn’t score any points in my shooting – so I’ve worked my way up from the very bottom,” Gibbons said.

In 2007, Gibbons decided to train as an American. The decision proved immensely valuable in that journey from the depths of modern pentathlon competition to the high level where he now competes.

“The ethos of training around here is a lot different than in England,” he said. “Obviously we have the best athletes around here, and if I was to train in England, I’d be training with the local squad and people that want to do this, some recreationally, some with aspirations. Everyone around here has aspirations of London [2012 Olympic Games] or Winter Olympics or some sort of gold medal around their neck.”

The reasons for the decision were the easy part. Nutrition, coaching, sports medicine and, of course, motivation from other athletes are all provided at the OTC, but the actual packing up and leaving a childhood home can be a more difficult transition.

But even that wasn’t too bad for Gibbons because as a young boy he was off to boarding school in rural England where he said you could run for hours without seeing much, “not even a cow.”

“I don’t really get homesick, no, I enjoy being on my own,” he said.

And even if he did feel pangs of homesickness, he’d probably be too tired to even think too much about it.

His days start at 6 a.m., and he’s on the go for six or seven hours of the day.

“The running and the swimming and the fencing, it builds up, but at the end of the day you have a great sense of accomplishment,” he said.

Running so many miles above sea level in Colorado Springs is one of the hardest adjustments Gibbons has had to make as an American athlete. It is quite a bit different than the below sea-level oxygen-filled air he was used to in England.

“I feel like my lungs are going to explode,” he said.

But Gibbons thrives in challenging situations – he’s been challenged since a young age.

As a child just learning to read he discovered that he was dyslexic. It shook his confidence, but he turned to sport to build himself back up again.

To this day, Gibbons still faces the challenges that come with a learning disability and it only gives him extra motivation in his training.

“It gave me a confidence boost and it gave me something to shoot for.

“First of all it gives you something else to think about so you’re not always thinking about your failures, you may be bad in the classroom, but if you’re good in the sports field, you can have the confidence that other people wouldn’t have,” he said.

Gibbons is even pursuing a double honors degree in marketing and business at the University of Northampton Business School. But that’s on hold for now while he works towards his ultimate goal - a trip to the London 2012 Olympic Games and a gold medal around his neck.

The idea of competing on what would essentially be home turf for Gibbons has motivated him even further to reach his goal.

So far, he believes deciding to compete as an American was the right one for him.

“I guess time will tell if I made the right decision,” he said. “I think it’s the best decision I’ve made so far – getting up at 6 o clock everyday, it’s hard, but you have to go through it, right? The greatest achievement known to man is the Olympics.”