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Pentathlete Kelly Finds Mentor in Jack Daniels

May 31, 2008, 6:52 p.m. (ET)

The Olympics are full of inspiring lessons. But none resonate quite as powerfully as those passed directly from an old Olympian to a prospective one, in a sport they both love. It is how Jack Daniels shaped Michelle Kelly's Olympic career.

Daniels was a two-time Olympian in modern pentathlon who discovered the sport by accident while serving in the Army in Korea. He had competed on rifle and swim teams back at the University of Montana, so when he heard of a military triathlon that involved pistol shooting, swimming, and running, he figured he had two of the sports nailed and thought, "well, anybody can run." Victory led to victory, and once he acquired fencing and riding skills, Daniels earned a silver medal in the pentathlon team event at the 1956 Melbourne Games. At the 1960 Rome Olympics, he placed eighth individually and earned a team bronze.

By the late 1990's Daniels was coaching runners at SUNY Cortland in central New York. As a Division III school, he was not allowed to recruit.

So Kelly found him.

Kelly had grown up three hours east, in Chatham, New York, where she was the fourth oldest of 10 children. Because of her speed, she was a wide receiver on her high school football team for two years, but more than anything, the 5-foot-2 firecracker with the easy laugh loved the Pony Club, a well-known junior equestrian organization. In the summers, the Club offered a sport called tetrathlon (shooting, swimming, riding, and running) - pentathlon without the fencing.

 "In high school, I started running to get in better shape for these competitions," Kelly said. "I realized I was good and wanted to run in college. I heard this track coach out at Cortland was an ex-pentathlete, and I was like, ‘Well there we go! That'll work.' It ended up being an amazing arrangement."

With Daniels' guidance, Kelly became an 11-time All-America in track and cross country. As a senior, she placed second at the 2001 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track Championships in three distances ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 meters. "I don't know if she would have been happier with one victory or three second places," Daniels said.  "But all three were lifetime bests."

That season was doubly pivotal because Daniels discovered that his Olympic past could help launch Kelly's future.

"I found out she did tetrathlons," Daniels said. "To be honest, I'd never heard of tetrathlons. When she explained, I said, ‘Wow, you know how to do four of the five events. You oughtta do pentathlon.'

"She said, ‘Do you happen to know how to fence?'

"I said, ‘Sure, I'll teach you.'"

Cortland didn't have a regular fencing strip, but Daniels did have a bunch of epees, so the two met at the indoor track or the gym after hours where he taught her how to parry, lunge, fleche.

When the indoor track was empty, Kelly also practiced shooting targets with an air pistol. "It was just like a little BB gun, really. It wasn't a very good one but I had it from doing tetrathlon," she said.

As the old pro taught the young cub, "I definitely think it brought back good memories," Kelly said.

From Daniels, she also learned about the sport's deep military roots.

"There was a time when you could only compete if you were in the military," Kelly said. "Even the origin of it is based on a military courier trying to deliver a message to the front line "

In late 2001, while the country was being transformed by terrorist attacks, Kelly decided to pursue pentathlon in the Army's World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). "It was an interesting decision," she said, but "a natural choice in our sport." After completing basic training in Georgia and advanced training in Missouri, she performed well enough in pentathlon to be an alternate for the 2004 Athens Games.

"I wasn't ranked high enough to get the US spot, but it was still pretty exciting," she said.

The WCAP requires Olympic athletes to return to the military for a year before re-entering the program for the next quadrennium, and Daniels had always encouraged Kelly to become an officer. So while the Athens Games proceeded without her, she applied - and was accepted - to officer candidate school.

Three years later, Kelly captured a bronze medal at the Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro and became the first female pentathlete from the US to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. With a year to prepare for Beijing, she decided to focus on improving her weaker events (shooting and fencing) so she would be a contender in China.

"It wasn't always conducive to really good results at the competitions," she said, "but I think it was the right decision."

As of mid-May, the US appeared to have three women vying for two Olympic berths, and depending on the outcome of the World Championships, May 29- June 3, in Budapest, Hungary, Kelly may or may not make the cut.

Until the team is officially named, Daniels continues to write Kelly's running workouts from Flagstaff, Arizona, where also coaches world-class track athletes at the high altitude training center at Northern Arizona University. One of his runners, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, will represent the US in the women's marathon in Beijing.

The 2008 Olympic schedule would allow Daniels to see both of his athletes' events in China, but the 75-year-old veteran of the Army and two Olympics isn't sure he will be there to watch the little blonde football player from New York complete their joint mission.

"I'm just a personal coach," Daniels said.

His protégé might disagree.


Aimee Berg 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.