The Pentathlon May Be Greek to Most Americans, but Robert Nieman Could Change All That
Astride a bucking horse he had never seen before, George Patton leaped over barricaded jumps and fences. Then, armed with an épée, he did battle with a host of opponents, before plunging into the water and swimming furiously. Next, Patton proved his pistol prowess and, finally, he raced on foot past the finish line.
The future general was not indulging in wartime training maneuvers, he was simply participating in the 1912 Olympic Games as a pentathlete, finishing fifth. Robert Nieman, 36, expects a sharper performance at next year’s Los Angeles Olympics. As the first world champion pentathlete America has ever produced, he has a shot at taking the gold medal.
Dreamed up by “the father of the modern Olympics,” Baron Pierre de Courbertin, the pentathlon simulates the derring-do required of a 19th-century military courier. The event begins with the athlete guiding a horse he has never before seen, much less ridden, over 18 barricaded jumps and menacing pits. “They ought to shoot the guy who thought of it,” says Nieman. On the second day, in round-robin bouts lasting up to three minutes, each contestant fences every other contestant, with the competition sometimes lasting 16 hours. The third day is devoted to the 300-meter swim. The final day starts with the pistol shot. Using .22-caliber bullets, the pentathlete blasts away at a revolving man-sized silhouette 80 feet away. The modern pentathlon concludes that afternoon with a grueling 4,000-meter run over rough terrain. “By this point,” confesses Nieman, “I’m a basket case.” The run has a handicapped start (based on points racked up in the first four events), and the first man across the finish line is the champion.
While Americans perceive a decathlete like Bruce Jenner to be the world’s greatest athlete, Europeans idolize the pentathlete. (Indeed, the decathlon only requires 20 or so minutes of actual effort, while the pentathlete is in action for more than three hours.) As the first and only American to win the world championship (in 1979), Nieman is far more celebrated abroad than in San Antonio, Texas, where he puts in 20 hours a week as an architect.
The rest of the time he can be found at nearby Fort Sam Houston, the center for American pentathletes. Six days a week, eight hours a day, the 6’1″, 165-pound Nieman hones his skills. A former ail-American in the freestyle, Nieman has no problem with the 300-meter swim; it’s the other four events he’d never tried until 10 years ago. “I’m a Chicago boy. I was scared to death of horses,” he says. “I had shot guns, but not very often. I had never even seen any fencing except in old movies, and unless somebody was chasing me, I never ran in my life.”
Growing up in Hinsdale, Ill., the son of a chemical-company executive, Nieman was recruited as a swimmer by the Air Force Academy, where he continued to set records while earning his engineering degree. He trained full-time for the 1972 Olympics but failed to win a berth on the swimming team. However, a conversation with one of the pentathletes piqued Nieman’s interest in the unusual event.
In 1973 Nieman, now a fighter pilot, requested an Air Force assignment near Fort Sam Houston and began training for the pentathlon. He became the American champion in 1976, thereby qualifying for the Montreal Olympics, where he finished a disappointing 25th. Nieman left the military and went to Notre Dame, where he received an architecture degree in 1978. Returning to San Antonio with his new wife, Susan Decroes, he set out to restore his pentathlon form.
When Nieman qualified for the 1980 Olympics, he had trounced every rival pentathlete in the world, including Poland’s Janusz Peciak and the USSR’s Anatoly Starostin. But the last three years have been frustrating. An injury kept him out of the 1981 World Pentathlon; an unruly horse led to a sixth-place finish in 1982; and an untried pistol hurt his performance so much that he failed to make this year’s American team. These setbacks, Nieman insists, have bred an underdog’s determination. As he prepares for what he claims will be his final try at an Olympic medal, he sums up the event to which he has devoted the past decade. “It’s painful,” he says, “but it’s living to the highest degree.”