12 for 2012: No 4: Nick Woodbridge, modern pentathlete
Sunday 23 April 2006
Old Aristotle was on the ball when he mused back in ancient Greece: "The most beautiful sportsmen of all are the pentathletes", an observation endorsed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who brought the sport into the modern Games "because it produces the ideal, complete athlete, testing a man's moral qualities as well as his physical resources and skills".
Modern pentathlon, embrac-ing five sports - running, swimming, fencing, shooting and riding - has long been an understated activity in Britain, but it is an efficiently run and successful one, though until fairly recently it has been treated with relative indifference by sport's cash dispensers. The most demanding of all disciplines, and the hardest to train for, it used to be spread over five days but is now compressed into a dawn-to-dusk affair, partially to make it more televisual.
Britain has an outstanding track record, based on the team gold medal brought home from Montreal by Jim Fox and his men in 1976, and subsequently the World Championship won by Richard Phelps in 1993.
The dashing Sergeant - later to be Captain - Fox led the charge down sport's super-highway when men were men and women were known as ladies. Since his time, the latter-day Foxes largely have been vixens. Alas, Fox, always the ladies' man, can no longer be their cheerleader-in-chief, as for some years he has been stricken with Parkinson's disease. But now the 64-year-old, once the greatest all-rounder in British sport, is excited by the prospect of a new male cub on the horizon, one he identifies as a genuine prospect for London 2012.
Nick Woodbridge, from Telford, Shropshire, is one the sport believes could be the new Foxy. At 19, he is at the prime age to peak at the London Olympics, a fact underlined earlier this year when he turned in the best British male performance for over a decade by taking bronze in the opening round of the World Cup in Mexico City.
In a sporting world disfigured by excess, the "mod pen" is still regarded by some as an anachronism, yet in the past 14 months the British governing body has seen an almost threefold increase in participants, from 1,400 to 4,000.
In the past six years it has been British women who have taken over from the men, with Steph Cook's stunning Olympic gold in Sydney 2000, where Kate Allenby won bronze, and Georgina Harland's third place in Athens four years later.
Harland has also been riding high in the World Cup this season, finishing second in Mexico, but it is the four-way competition to be the best British male which is now enthralling the sport, fought out between Woodbridge and three other pentathletes who have National Lottery backing - Sam Weale of Yeovil, whose brother Chris plays in goal for the town's League One football team, and Ben McLean and Richard Hilldick-Smith.
"In recent years our women have always been good, but now it is beginning to happen again with the men," says Peter Hart, the chief executive of the Modern Pentathlon Association of Great Britain. "It has taken us a while to restructure our programme, but we are now seeing youngsters like Nick coming through as a result of the Lottery funding and the infra-structure at Bath University, where we are now based."
Woodbridge, the world youth champion in 2004, naturally has his eye on 2012 - and he insists he is also determined to make his mark in Beijing. Yet he almost quit the sport almost before he had taken it up properly. "I nearly didn't start," he confesses. "I enjoyed the Pony Club [the traditional entry route for the mod pen] and then started fencing, but I didn't like it very much and nearly packed up. But I was persuaded to do the national pentathlon championships in 1999 and really took to it."
Woodbridge has not seen much of the limelight - yet. In fact, this is the first time he has ever been interviewed, and he comes over as a reserved, though pleasant, young man who swam and ran for his school but had no initial thoughts about becoming a pentathlete until he came under the spotlight of the sport's talent identification scheme as a member of the local Pony Club. "Once he got into the sport it was clear he was an outstanding athlete and ideally equipped for it," says the nat- ional coach, Jan Bartu. "His swimming, running and riding were particularly promising."
He has been riding since he was eight, although he does not come from a horsey or farming family." It was just something I fancied doing, and managed to get the loan of a horse," he says. "But I really didn't know that much about the pentathlon until I started doing it.
"Obviously, I'd heard about Jim Fox, even though it was all before I was born. But when I read more about him and the team of 1976 it inspired me. It was Jim and his team who really put the sport on the map, so there's a lot to live up to.
"I definitely want to be up there on the podium in 2012, although I know there's a lot of work to do, particularly on my fencing." At the second World Cup event at Millfield School two weeks ago it was the fencing that let him down and put him out of the running for another medal place. "I just had a bad day," he says.
But Bartu , the Czech who was a Fox rival in Montreal, was not unduly perturbed: "It takes years to become a top-class fencer, and he has time on his side." Bartu says that most pentathletes peak around the ages of 25 to 30. "You can judge Nick's potential by the fact that before he is 20 he has already had good international results - he's on the right path. What we have to do with him now is move him gradually from the junior to the senior level, which will be a critical time for him. It's in this transitional period that a number of promising athletes are lost. By the time of the London Games we hope he will have got it all together and be in the best possible position for a medal."
Woodbridge, who is taking an HND sports science course at Bath, is about to embark on the third round of the six-stage World Cup in Berlin, and he will be taking part in the national senior championships in July.
If in six years' time the sport's brightest new recruit makes it to the Greenwich Park parade ground and passes out with full honours, then the old soldier Fox, who is still bravely fighting his toughest battle, intends to be the first to salute him.
THE ICON: A MESSAGE FROM JIM FOX
From what I hear about Nick Woodbridge he is a lad after my own heart, with the same ambitions, motivation and physique. Like me, he enjoys the diversity of the modern pentathlon and has little time for other sporting interests.
I was fortunate enough to be in the Army, where my sporting career was encouraged and nurtured, and Nick is similarly lucky in that Lottery funding now enables him to be full-time in the sport. I think the only sports grants available at our time were worth about six quid a week. The best piece of advice I can give him is to concentrate hard on his fencing, which I gather is not his strongest suit.
Fencing can win or lose you a medal, and I have always believed it is the most important of the five events because it is the only one in which you can take points away from the other competitors.
Riding is also very important, but his background suggests he is pretty useful on a horse, and he would have had to have been to get that third place in Mexico. It's often the riding that sorts the men from the boys.
It is also good that he is naturally a strong swimmer because that's one sport where you may not have to do quite as much training, leaving you more time to concentrate on the rest. In many ways it is good that he has chosen to use his ability in a sport that is not as much in the public eye as some others, because there are fewer outside pressures.
But to stay on course for 2012 he must aim consistently for top placings in the World Cup - and above all stay hungry.
Jim Fox OBE competed in four Olympic Games, leading the British team to gold in Montreal in 1976. He won bronze in the 1975 World Championships and was national champion 10 times.
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