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Pentathlete Samantha Achterberg Is Meticulously Planning As Olympic Qualifying Looms

By Karen Price | July 02, 2019, 12:01 a.m. (ET)


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Samantha Achterberg has a notebook in which she writes down all the details of her training and competitions.

She’s a bit of a control freak, she admits, but if and when she gets to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, representing the U.S. in pentathlon, she wants to be as prepared as humanly possible.

“I want to know what I need to do on the trip over there, what I need to eat that day, where I need to be, what I need to be thinking about, how I’m recovering in between events,” she said. “There are always going to be things that are out of my control, but I’m learning what I can do and what I can control to have a good day there and hopefully walk away with a medal.”

Although Achterberg doesn’t yet have a spot locked down — she’ll have to qualify first — she’s determined to not have a repeat of 2016, when she was named an alternate to the U.S. team.

She was only six years removed from her first competition in the sport at that point, but falling short of the Olympic team was nonetheless devastating. 

Big changes were ahead, however. Growing up in Colorado, Achterberg was constantly active — skiing, hunting, running, swimming, playing tennis and soccer, doing gymnastics, figure skating, horseback riding and whatever else she could find to play or do.

With that background, the fact that she chose a sport that encompasses fencing, freestyle swimming, equestrian (jumping) and the laser-run (combined running and pistol shooting), seemed only natural.

Her parents were always supportive of her many interests, she said, shuffling her from one practice or game to another, and their only rule was if she started something, she had to finish the season.

By the time Achterberg was a senior in high school in the Denver suburbs she was still running, swimming and riding horses competitively. That’s when she first heard about pentathlon.

“Someone I was riding horses with reached out and was like, ‘You run, swim, ride horses and shoot guns. … Have you ever fenced?’” Achterberg said. “Her daughter did pentathlon, so we met at a horse show and she asked if I’d ever been to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I hadn’t even heard of it.”

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Samantha Achterburg celebrates as she crosses the finish line.

Achterberg started fencing lessons and competed for the first time in pentathlon in 2010. 

She didn’t think it was going to be a long-lasting endeavor.

“One of my first competitions I fell off the horse, of course, because I was like, ‘I’m a horseback rider!’” she said. “Then I went to the youth world championships and got my butt kicked. I was kind of like, ‘OK, that was fun, I’ll go to college and run now.’”

The U.S. coaches thought she had potential, however, and after winning a bronze medal at senior nationals and silver medal at junior nationals in 2011, she agreed. She stayed on in Colorado Springs, enrolling at the local branch of the University of Colorado.

As she worked toward going to Rio, Achterberg caught the eye of coaches and staff from the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, who began recruiting her. In the summer of 2017 she finally joined the Army, went through basic training and then advanced individual training and is now at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs. As part of the WCAP program, she travels to bases all over the country in total soldier enrichment training missions, talking to fellow soldiers about techniques they use as athletes, such as routine and visualization, as well as teaching proper running technique and skills that can help with overall fitness. 

Achterberg is also engaged, with a September wedding on the horizon, and her pentathlon results are moving in a positive direction as well.

She recently won her sixth national title and is coming off the world cup final in Tokyo, which also served as the Olympic test event, where she was the only American to qualify and placed 22nd of 36. It was her best world cup result of the year. She also earned a personal record in the swim portion of the event and had only time penalties in the equestrian portion, where she and the horse had to navigate bigger jumps than she’d seen all season. The only sore spots were a 10-point penalty in fencing and the fact that she got passed by two women in the laser-run, her favorite, just before the finish. 

It all goes into the notebook.

“The finish line, for one, I learned it’s OK to look behind you and be aware of where your competitors are,” she said. “I’m always like. ‘Look in front of you, look in front.’ I didn’t slow down but if someone’s chasing you, you do need to look back. And that’s the thing, I’m just trying to take everything in.”

She’s made three finals in three world cup events this season, a first for her, and is looking to make her first international podium of the season at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games later this month in Peru, where she could even qualify for the Olympic Games.

“It’s a little stressful when think about you could get a spot for the Olympics, but I’m one of the strongest athletes in North and South America and I need to remember that, have confidence going in, try not to have pressure and have fun with it,” she said. “My goal is to not be so stressed out and so nervous for the thing that I forget to enjoy it and take everything in.” 

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. 

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