FAYETTEVILLE -- In Warsaw, world-class pentathlete Margaux Isaksen was ready.
Dressed in breeches, half chaps and a riding helmet, she was in fourth place at the 2014 World Championship in Poland with a shot at a medal.
Having spent the previous year as the Champion of Champions, taking the gold at the Pan American Games while competing with a broken wrist, Isaksen was the favorite. Horse riding was second nature to her, but on this day she made a grueling landing. Her horse accidentally caught a pole between its legs and did a somersault. Margaux's feet left their stirrups, and as she lay on the ground, the aches already overtaking her body, she thought, "I could have died just now."
Janucz Peciak, Isaksen's coach, saw a friend die that way. Isaksen walked away with bruises, a concussion and severely pulled muscles in one shoulder.
Her main concern was getting back to the meet, but she could barely remember what floor her hotel room was on. When she woke the next day, she was overcome by gratitude.
"I just remember thinking, 'Oh, it's so beautiful. And I'm not dead! I'm not paralyzed ... I don't know that I could mentally [handle] getting back on a horse right now, but physically I'm OK,'" she says. "That's really a scary thought, but at the same time it was really empowering."
She returned for the finals but came in eighth. She went on to place fourth in the London Olympics. The aftermath of that accident, for all its grief, renewed her love for training as an Olympic pentathlete.
Last month, Isaksen won a silver medal at the UIPM (Union International de Pentathlon Modern) season opener in Sarasota, Fla. Although it's the first of many qualifying competitions for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Isaksen climbed the pedestal six points from gold at a point in the season when athletes are still gearing up.
Many hope to see her become the first American modern pentathlete to earn an Olympic medal since 2000.
IN HER BLOOD
Margaux Isaksen, 23, has always been an athlete at heart. She grew up riding a pony named Baby, who would do its best to throw riders. Instead, it taught the equally stubborn competitor to hang on.
In a family that prioritized a healthy lifestyle, she was always enrolled in some activity. Soccer was her first sport, and the first one she dreamed of competing in at the Olympic level.
Of the five sports in pentathlon (horse riding, swimming, running, fencing and shooting), she learned riding first. Weekends were taken up with Playday, a weekly horse show in Goshen, east of Fayetteville, where Isaksen learned Western style riding, speeding the horse around poles and barrels.
Then she picked up running, first by way of competing annually in the Fayetteville Athletic Center's kids triathlon, where her family got the first sense of how competitive she could be.
During one race, Isaksen ran alongside a friend who had trained for the race the entire year. They were neck and neck until the last 50 meters, when Isaksen's will kicked in.
"I'm sure she was a much better athlete than I was, but at the end, my mom said I was just going to, like, die fighting," she says. "I sprinted past her at the finish line and that's where it really started for me.
"I wanted to win. I wanted to push myself."
After her triathlon days, Isaksen ran cross-country at Ramay Junior High and Fayetteville High schools, even when she was educated at home for a time.
It wasn't until she came to love a third sport that pentathlon came into view.
Isaksen picked up fencing when her sister, Isabella, wanted to give it a shot. Their mother, Kathleen, had fenced recreationally in college, and the girls were drawn to it as something new.
Neal Picken, Isaksen's fencing coach at the Arkansas Fencing Academy in Springdale, connected the dots.
"I knew right away that this young lady had potential for being a modern pentathlete," Picken says. "She was a swimmer, a runner and I taught her how to pistol shoot and how to fence. She grew up on a horse, and that was the ticket right there.
"I've coached several in the last 30 years and as a result, I looked at her: 'This girl is destined to be good at it.' And sure enough ..."
"During the first couple months [of fencing], when I started, Neal said, 'You're going to make the Olympic team,'" she says. "I'd never done anything like it. I couldn't even do flip turns in the pool, I couldn't fence, I'd just started running, I couldn't do anything."
With encouragement from Picken, Isaksen began pistol shooting. Her mother found a UA swimmer who was willing to coach her on lunch breaks.
A year later at Youth National Championships, Isaksen made senior standards and claimed all three titles -- youth, junior and senior -- which earned her an invitation to live at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
FROM BEIJING TO LONDON
When Isaksen arrived at the training center, she was 15 years old. She was allowed to live and train full time in Colorado as long as she kept her grades up and attended class when she was in state for competitions. It was an arrangement that her mother came to with Fayetteville High School, and since her daughter made all A's, that wasn't a problem.
She asked shooting coach Silvino "Sill" Lyra about the type of pistol Margaux would need. When he asked what type she had, her mother pulled the pistol out of her purse.
Once Lyra caught his breath from laughing, they put the gun away, found her a proper instrument and got to work.
"When she arrived ... her knowledge was very close to none," Lyra says. But that wasn't unusual. "[Pentathlon] is the kind of sport you don't have many clubs. You just put one sport together with another one and you just do it."
"Margaux has always been a good runner, a good swimmer and she did ride [horses] a little bit in Arkansas in the pony clubs ... so she had the fundamental skills, but no technical skill set," says Michael Cintas, her equestrian coach.
"When I went out to Colorado, it was funny," she says. "I couldn't do anything. It was really bad. The coach I have now told me I'd never be a good pentathlete because I couldn't swim ... but that's something I like about him; I don't like it when people sugar-coat stuff."
Isaksen got to work and kept an open mind. There was never anything she couldn't do, only things to learn and ways to get better. It was fun. Progress came easily.
"At that event, she's a natural," Lyra says. "Even at the first step ... I thought, 'If she works hard in every single sport, she'll be in the top,' and that's what happened."
"In six or nine months, before she turned 16, she became quite accomplished," Cintas says. "She gained intermediate competitive pentathlon [status] and her riding skills went right up the ladder. She qualified for World Cups from Rome to Egypt, Budapest to Brazil and Mexico City."
Isaksen loves to train. She loves it so much, in fact, that it's difficult to get her to stop. When preparing for a competition, coaches try to coax her into tapering, the act of cutting the volume or intensity of a training regimen in anticipation of strenuous competition. In tapering, she disqualifies.
"[Some athletes] come in tired after a long day and go into training by motion," Lyra says. "But with Margaux, she's not. She faces training as real competition. ... It's a byproduct from all this focus."
"She gets sick from working so hard," says her teammate Brendan Anderson.
A typical week, for Isaksen, leaves little wiggle room. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays begin with two and a half hours of fencing. At the Olympic Training Center, she has the advantage of training with the women of the U.S. Fencing Team and two of the top American epeeists. Another two and a half hours are devoted to swimming, followed by lunch and a brief nap. Running takes 70 minutes or so, depending on how far they're going (in the early stages of training, it would be 12-14 miles) and the day is polished off with some shooting.
Tuesdays, Thursdays and half of Saturday bring more running, but in far shorter distances to train for speed on the track. Though she didn't do this in her early years, Isaksen added weight training to her regimen to reduce the likelihood of injury, and follows it by swimming.
After six days of perpetual forward motion, Isaksen reserves Sunday for yoga, which she says helps her deal with the pressure of competition.
The ability to train full time meant she progressed quickly enough to compete in her first World Cup, in Cairo in 2008, where she placed 13th, and her second, in Mexico City the same year, where she got silver. They were the very wins she needed to be ranked second among American women pentathletes and land an invitation to compete in the Beijing Olympics.
"It was a beautiful, amazing thing to be there at 16," Isaksen says. "I was just wide-eyed, and in a way it was refreshing. The pressure of going to the Olympics [now] is so different from the pressure you feel when everything is new and everything is exciting."
At that point, Isaksen had no expectations of making the Olympic team so soon. Given her new arrival to two of the sports and only two years of training, she was able to enjoy the experience for all the wonder and without the public expectation of matching past records.
"I knew I wasn't going to medal at [the 2008] Olympics," she says. "But just to be there and have an Olympics under your belt, to get a grasp on it, although it was hard at 16 to fully comprehend what was going on.
"I walked into the stadium thinking, 'This cannot be real.'"
She finished 21st.
THE ROAD TO RIO
In the years leading to London, all signs pointed toward Isaksen's becoming a medalist. She competed well in 2010 -- a silver at the Pan American games in Rio, a silver at the World Cup in Mexico and one of the best combined times in the world, always in the top three. Then she came down with mononucleosis. Isaksen lost most of the year and had only six weeks of training before the 2012 Olympic games.
Between the illness and the horse accident, Isaksen had a lot to overcome. What might defeat another athlete motivated her. It made her realize how much she wanted it.
Teammates and coaches say it's a testament to Isaksen's dedication that the events in London didn't get her down for long. It simply set her on the road to Rio.
"I spoke to Margaux after London and she was so fired up to win gold in Rio that she convinced me she could do it," Picken says. "She's [now] the age of maturity for her sport. Running and swimming is a young person's game, but the discipline of shooting and fencing and grand prix jumping requires not only physical maturity but mental maturity."
Picken believes Isaksen has that now. He's not the only one.
"She was young to make the Olympics [the first time] and did an incredible job ... but I must say, she kept her wits about her," Cintas says. "She's grown into a fine upstanding woman of moral fiber and a terrific athlete.
"She should gold medal at Rio. There's not a doubt in my mind."
"In terms of making Rio ... to win gold, I have no doubt, she's there," Lyra says. "Her fencing is unbelievable, horse riding impeccable and the run is like seeing a gazelle running because it is just magic. The only word for her is complete. A complete athlete."
This year Isaksen is headed to the finish line, intent that nothing can stop her now.
"I always somehow feel invincible when I run," she says. "It's exhilarating. I just feel like no matter what happened, I would run and somehow, I feel free."
High Profile on 03/22/2015