Irish athletes, Natalya Coyle and Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe talk to The Sports Chronicle about their aspirations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the unique rivalry that exists in the couple’s relationship as they compete for glory at the elite level of the Modern pentathlon.
Arthur: Will I explain what the modern pentathlon is all about?
Natalya: You can explain it, yeah.
Arthur: Basically our sport was created by Pierre de Coubertin, who also created the modern Olympics. The idea was for a sport that tested the physical and mental attributes of the athlete. He found five completely conflicting pursuits and put them all together to try and find the most complete athlete. It is the only sport made specifically for the Olympic Games.
Natalya: It’s based on dropping a solider anywhere in the world to see if they’ll be able to find their way home. Like Lara Croft! We do a lot of school visits and I’d always have to explain everything but in recent years a good few students already know what it is we do. So the word is spreading. I got a taxi a while back and he saw my fencing gear and said, “You’re a modern pentathlete?” Now, when the taxi driver knows, that’s progress.
Arthur: Less people are wondering if it is the one with archery. People are now beginning to understand it’s fencing, swimming (200 metres freestyle), riding (show jumping really), shooting and running cross country.
Natalya: Arthur’s strength? I think it’s…
Arthur: She doesn’t know, that’s a good thing.
Natalya: It’s a toss up. He’s a really good all round athlete but he’s a very good swimmer. I think his fencing was been really strong in 2018. It’s difficult. He changes week to week depending on how the body feels.
Arthur: I had to work on running the most. A few years ago they made swimming less important so I’ve upped my running training from five times a week to eight. I come from a swimming background. Natalya’s an incredibly good fencer. She’s fierce. In Ireland she doesn’t have too many sparring partners so she has to fence a lot of men. When a man steps up to face Tal they tend to be a bit cocky. She hits them and they go again and she hits them again and they get really aggressive.
Natalya: I do like taking on men on the fencing piste.
Arthur: Never underestimate her.
Natalya: I did a multitude of sports growing up whereas Arthur was more specialised.
Arthur: I wanted to go to the Olympics as a swimmer. My granddad Tom Brady went twice and my auntie had the Irish record for breast stroke – but she never went to the Olympics as Ireland boycotted that Games. My mother was on the English Eventing team, so I also rode horses growing up and I played rugby in secondary school, even making the Munster development squads. My rugby coach used to bring me to the swimming pool as I was in boarding school, just so I could keep doing it. Triathlon Ireland came along next, when I took part in a talent ID test. They lent me a bike. My mother heard about that and not wanting me cycling on Limerick roads she redirected me to an international pentathlon competition in 2007 over in the UK. And that was it. A really, really random route into the sport.
Natalya: In the book Bounce, Matthew Syed writes about circumstances needing to align for sporting success. That happened to a small group we were a part of. Same age, all competing at the same time, all driving each other on. Around this time a former pentathlete, Lindsay Berne, moved over from the UK with her husband Shaun Berne, who was signed by Leinster rugby, and at the same time our fencing coach Tristan Paris moved over with his wife who was doing a PhD in Galway. All very random circumstances happening at the same moment. I used to try and beat the boys. We all pushed each other.
Arthur: Looking back, the odds of all this expert coaching being available in Ireland at the same time are enormous. Like, I met Tristan in a barn in Kilkenny. That was my first ever fencing class and it was with a world class coach. Complete happenstance.
Natalya: All this occurred within a six month period. A weird gathering of good runners and swimmers with really good coaches.
Arthur: We met at the Irish pentathlon nationals in 2007.
Natalya: I don’t remember that. I remember the next year.
Arthur: It was a friendship first.
Natalya: And then totally a rivalry, and then a friendship again. I had no one to compete against so watching what Arthur and the other guys were doing drove me on. We both understand there is one goal and there will be bumps on the road.
Arthur: Not all days are good days but usually we don’t have a bad day together. One of us can pick the other one up. Maybe I’ll drive to training or cook diner, or the other way round.
Natalya: A kick in the ass is sometimes all we need.
Arthur: We can get each other through a week of training. Having access to the Institute of Sport has been so important.
Natalya: Definitely. Just the chance to interact with elite athletes from other sports. I remember watching Derval O’Rourke a few years ago. Just seeing how she warmed up and had her food with her. Small things matter, is what I learned off Derval.
Natalya: The goal in 2019 is Olympic qualification.
Arthur: We know, having both competed at the previous two Olympic Games in London and Rio that looking straight towards Tokyo would be a mistake. It’s about ticking the box of qualification.
Natalya: We’ll take the year in blocks. There are world cups – win them and you qualify – but performing at the Europeans in August is the main target. We want to be on form to be top eight in Europeans.
Arthur: The Europeans are the most difficult, because so much of our sport’s talent is Europe based, but I did win at the same venue, in Bath, before. No pressure!
Natalya: The ultimate goal is to medal in Tokyo.
Arthur: We have done everything else there is to do in our sport, bar winning a world championship.
Natalya: We have to aim for that level. It’s the be all and end all of our sport.
Arthur: I don’t think we’d be going to another Olympics with any other goal.
Natalya: We know not to get caught up in the Olympic Village.
Arthur: We have a different view of the Olympics to other athletes as the modern pentathlon is at the end of the Games. The only way I can describe this is it’s like being stuck inside studying when all your friends have finished their exams for the summer.
Natalya: You are the last day.
Arthur: The start of the Village is very different to the last few days.
Natalya: We know how to do it now. We come in and do our accreditation, get a taste of what it’s like and then escape to our holding camp. That’s integral – those two weeks of preparation.
Arthur:We have vital experience from London and Rio. Like, you make mistakes you never normally would. I forgot my riding jacket in Rio. Still don’t understand how that happened. Someone had to break into my room to get it. We’ll limit our time in the Village to a day or two in Tokyo. It’s so easy to get wound up. Even walking into the dining hall your heart rate can go 15 beats higher. Oh, there’s LeBron James, there’s Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte – swimmers that I hero worship. You are all the time stimulated. That takes energy from you.
Natalya: I met Usain Bolt. Free this, free that.
Arthur: It’s like Disneyland for athletes.
Natalya: And we don’t want to just take part. We want to be ready. It’s too much hard work!
Arthur: Way too much hard work. Too much sacrifice not to be at our best.
Natalya: Too much hardship. You could be doing a lot of easier things. We are not going to a third Olympic Games just to participate. We want to medal.
Arthur and Natalya