The Interview: Kate Allenby - A modern daredevil rides out

A five-star sport rolled into one could be the success story of the Sydney Games. By Alan Hubbard
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The Independent Online
KATE ALLENBY is unquestionably Britain's supreme sportswoman, an athletic all-rounder who rides, shoots, swims, runs and fences with dash and dexterity. Her agonising schedule both in daily preparation and then one-day competition that is compressed into a dozen excruciating hours from dawn to dusk, would make the pampered prima donnas of the Premiership go weak at the knees.

Allenby trains between six and eight hours a day - every day - shuffling from venue to venue and taking tuition from five different coaches while studying for a Masters Degree in Philosophy at the University of Surrey. Her main form of relaxation is to read Jilly Cooper novels before an event, to calm herself down.

She may be a product of the Pony Club but there's nothing Jolly Super about the down to earth doctor's daughter from Reading who describes herself as "a stubborn cow". It is this stubbornness plus a derring-do that nestles somewhere between a Charlie's Angel and Superwoman which is likely to hold her in good stead when she leads the British challenge in the world modern pentathlon championships in Budapest this week, bidding for a place in Sydney 2000, where the women's event makes its Olympic debut.

Those who kick a ball for a lucrative living, and complain about having to do it too frequently, may sniff derisively at what, to the uninitiated, may sound like an esoteric form of formation dancing. Yet the modern pentathlon is almost as old as the modern Olympics, an understated activity in which Britain has a pretty good track record based on the gold medal brought home from Montreal by Jim Fox and his men in 1976.

Now the Foxcubs, by and large, are vixens. Foxy always was a ladies man so it seems apposite that it is the females who have taken up the reins from the dashing white sergeant who brought the sport out of obscurity. Allenby, 25, is now ranked second in the world following her World Cup victory last year and with 27-year-old Stephanie Cook and 23-year-old Sian Lewis she won the European team silver medal in Finland two months ago. In Budapest they will be joined by Georgina Harland, 21, and Gwen Lewis, 25, who comprise a British squad now among the world's strongest in the event.

Alas, 57-year-old Fox won't be there as their cheer leader in chief. A victim of Parkinson's, the old soldier who competed in four Olympics and was once celebrated as the most macho figure in British sport has been forced to relinquish his post as president and chairman of the Modern Pentathlon Association because of his restricted mobility. But Fox was in attendance at the squad's send-off session last week, a two-day work- shop in the grounds of the Sussex home of Geri Bright, a former Broadway and Carry On actress whose daughter Emily is also a modern pentathlete. "I think Jim's bloody wonderful," says Bright. "He's done so much for this sport. A brave, lovely man."

It is a sentiment echoed by Allenby, herself too young to remember Fox's Montreal conquest but deeply conscious of the contribution he has made in securing the services of not only world-class coaching but vital lottery funding in recent years. "What Jim has done has been fantastic," she says. "He came back into the sport at a time when we'd hit a low patch and he's been inspirational. He's a tremendous motivator. He knows fencing, at which he was so brilliant, is my weakest event and he always tells me `just go out and sock it to 'em. Go out and stab 'em, girl'."

Fox combined his own drive and enthusiasm with that of the young team manager Dominic Mahony to entice the world's leading coach, Jan Bartu of the Czech Republic, to forsake a similar job with the US team to become Britain's performance director. Under him and Hungary's Istvan Nemeth, the women's head coach, Allenby and company have won seven European and world championship medals since 1997.

Allenby herself was individual European champion that year, World Cup winner in 1998 and a bronze medallist when she competed for England in the Commonwealth fencing championships a year ago. Such has been her progress at her least proficient event. Modern pentathlon may be an unsung activity, but it is an efficiently run and ambitious one, recently securing the services of Elaine Shaw, voted the country's most able sports administrator when she was with the Triathlon Association, to take over as chief executive.

"This is no longer just a middle-class or military sport," says Mahony. "It offers so much scope for youngsters from all walks of life. It is fascinating and varied and they'll never get bored." Now that the doubts of the Olympic chief Juan Antonio Samaranch have been assuaged - the feeling was that he preferred the likes of beach volleyball to real sports like the modern pentathlon - it could be one of the success stories of Sydney. Baron de Coubertin described it as "testing a man's moral as much as physical resources and producing the ideal, complete athlete".

With only 32 competitors, however, it is still the smallest sport in the Games but one upon which the lissom, 5ft 9in Allenby could take a giant step for womankind. Oddly enough, it was not Fox but another Olympian, Sebastian Coe, who provided the original aspiration for Allenby. "I was only five or six when I saw him win the 1,500 metres gold medal in Moscow and I thought `that's for me'. Seb became my hero. I had no illusions about becoming as great a runner because even then I wasn't really the right shape. But from that moment I knew I wanted to be an athlete.

"My parents were tremendous. Dad was an all-rounder who played county hockey and ran three London Marathons. But they were very clever. They never really pushed me, simply dangling carrots. As I've said, I'm a stubborn cow and they always made it seem as if what they wanted me to do was my idea all the time."

Allenby began in the Pony Club (without her own pony) and progressed to the tetrathon, a pentathlon without fencing. "What eventually attracted me to the pentathlon was the fact that I've got quite a low attention span. I used to do one sport and when I'd finished it was a case of `Oh shit, I'm bored'. Now I find going from one sport to another keeps me sharp and in form. If you are running but not running well, it seems as if your world is falling apart. But when the other sports go well it compensates. The beauty is that you always train hardest for what you're worst at. I came into it as a rider and fencing was the thing I took up last, so I spend quite a lot of time on that."

Allenby's daily schedule is, literally, breathtaking, starting with a 45- minute run followed by two hours of swimming, three hours of air pistol practice, an hour's fencing lesson and riding whenever she can fit it in. To do it all she has to drive a triangular circuit between Guildford, London and Reading.

There are only two places available for British women in Sydney and to be certain of qualification Allenby must win in Budapest, although there will be further opportunities before the Games. The pursuit of gold used to be spread over two days. Now it is concertinaed into one, starting with pistols at dawn and culminating with a 3km cross-county run as the sun goes down. "It is literally the survival of the fittest," she says. "By the time you get to the run you are on your chin straps, absolutely knackered. Sometimes it is difficult to get the coaches to appreciate that. It is all about letting your body recover between events."

Allenby's chief rivals in Budapest will be the current world No 1 Fabiana Fares of Italy and Poland's Anna Sulima, the 1998 world champion. She will also have to fend off domestic rivalry from Cook and Lewis.

There will be no let-up once competition commences but at least unlike two years ago she goes into it virtually as a full-time athlete. Previously she had to work a 40-hour week as a fitness instructor, training for another 23 hours in her spare time. Now, as so many world-class performers are saying, the lottery windfall makes all the difference.

The combination of agility, stamina and mental concentration required for the various disciplines has always made the modern pentathlon a sport apart. "You can train as hard as you like but in the end you need that little bit of luck," says Allenby. That luck did not come her way in the last European Championships which she seemed set to win before drawing a duff horse in the showjumping event where you are required to manoeuvre a series of 1.2m high fences.

Part of Allenby's philosophy degree will be based on religion in sport. She says she is fascinated by the effect it has had on the careers of Muhammad Ali and the Chariots of Fire man Eric Liddell. She is not personally religious, she says, but she'll be excused if she offers up a little prayer that fortune will be riding with her in Budapest - and swimming, shooting, running and fencing too. For someone who spent a few years in Australia as a toddler this is now all in a day's play. Not so much a Bond girl, but perhaps next year a Bondi girl.

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