Nathan Schrimsher competes in the men's modern pentathlon at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games on July 19, 2015 in Toronto.
Nathan Schrimsher was about 12 years old when he was plucked out of a New Mexico swimming pool.
“Hey, do you want to try these other sports out?” asked Jan Olesiński, a Polish Olympian.
At a camp that summer, the other sports turned out to be running, fencing and pistol shooting — a proto-modern pentathlon minus the equestrian element.
And so Schrimsher, now a U.S. Army sergeant, “just kind of fell into” the sport. It proved to be a good fit. As the 2015 Pan American Games bronze medalist, Schrimsher became the first athlete of any sport to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team, and on Aug. 20 he’ll be one of 36 men vying for medals on the next-to-last day of competition at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
Unlike most U.S. pentathletes, however, the youngster who grew up on a New Mexico ranch had a history with horses and guns growing up. So the sport promoted by modern Olympic Games founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin was a natural for Schrimsher.
But how do others come to a sport contested in the Olympic Games since 1912?
John Amabile, chief spokesman for USA Modern Pentathlon, said triathletes, runners and fencers — wanting to “broaden their horizons” — are known to sample one or two pentathlon events.
“We’re very successful getting swimmers and fencers into the program,” Amabile said. “And they do real well.”
Now as many as 800 Americans compete seriously in pentathlon, he said.
Feeder clubs exist, including ones that grew out of Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, because of the sport’s military DNA. Others have popped up in Florida (like the Sunshine Region Modern Pentathlon Club) and California (West Coast Pentathlon). US Pony Clubs trains youngsters to ride, and more equestrian clubs are branching out into pentathlon.
Patricia “Pat” Duffy is president of West Coast Pentathlon. She’s observed the growth of the sport for 13 years and said riding and swimming contribute the most modern pentathletes, with track and field also bolstering club ranks.
Amabile said some athletes might see pentathlon as an easier path to the Olympic Games due to the relative lack of participants.
Schrimsher would set them straight.
“A lot of people are drawn to the sport (because of the perceived easier path to the Games), but once they get into it they realize it’s not that simple,” said Schrimsher, who will be 24 in Rio. “There’s not a huge depth of athletes in the United States, but you’re competing against a world stage. Every athlete I’ve met — they’ve put in the hard work to get here. Blood, sweat and tears like you hear in almost every sport, it’s really true.
“It’s hard to train for five sports that are completely opposite and unique, and difficult. So yeah, it’s a hard sport.”
And so is the qualifying process. Team USA can send a maximum of two men and two women to Rio – but only after they qualify for the Games. Athletes can still qualify by finishing among the top-three non-qualified athletes at the world championships in May or by being among the top six athletes in the world ranking (of those not already qualified).
Margaux Isaksen, America’s top female pentathlete, is favored to qualify. Her sister Isabella is a contender as well, along with Samantha Achterberg.
And who might join 6-foot-2, 173-pound Nathan Schrimsher on the men’s side?
How about brother Lucas Schrimsher — the No. 2 American?
“With four more good competitions, he could possibly be on the team,” Nathan said of Lucas, who turned 22 last week. “I wouldn’t put it past him. He has as good a shot as anybody. That would be really cool to have two brothers on the team.”
Seven more opportunities exist to gain world ranking points (through June 1), including this week’s world cup and Olympic test event in Rio.
“I’d say the top 20 guys at the Olympics could all realistically be the Olympic champion because anything can happen,” said Nathan, a member of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program. His coach Olesiński, “like his second dad,” was 11th at the 1980 Olympics.
The sport’s wild card is equestrian jumping, where horses are assigned by a random draw. Athletes basically have 15 minutes to acclimate to their mount. Schrimsher is looking forward to his draw — unlike days of yore.
“When I was a kid, I actually hated horses,” he said. “I didn’t like riding at all. There was something that was kind of scary to me as a kid. But now I love the equestrian events. … I just look the horse in the eye, and he looks right back.”
All it takes is confidence, he said.
“You just have to believe in yourself.”