Alexander Lesun at the Modern Pentathlon European Championships. Source: TASS
Since his 2010 debut on the Russian team, Belarus-born pentathlete Alexander Lesun has won three champion titles in Europe and three world champion titles. And in early September, Lesun was awarded the gold medal at the world championships in Warsaw. What are the secrets of this multi-talented sportsman’s success?
Lesun began his athletic career on the Belarusian team. But for a number of reasons, after the Beijing Olympics, the athlete decided to represent Russia, for which he has since achieved remarkable success.
Lesun admits that he has received offers to return to Belarus, but although flattering, the prospect is unlikely, despite the fact that his family continues to live there. He is only able to spend a maximum of 2.5 months per year with his wife Yekaterina and two-year-old daughter Arina. Alas, not all ambitions can be realized.
“Russia is responsible for turning me into an athlete. The conditions for training here are ideal, the trainers are exceptional, and there is tough internal competition, and that is good motivation. All that is left to do is to work,” Lesun says.
And it requires very hard work indeed, as the modern pentathlon is one of the most challenging types of athletic competition. It includes fencing, swimming, show jumping, and the ‘combined’, an event introduced in 2009 that merges pistol shooting and running.
For some athletes, it is difficult enough to master just one of these disciplines. Other athletes, however, don’t stop at just one, but instead vie for the proud title of ‘The Knight of Five Merits’, as pentathletes are called.
Swimming: the most difficult discipline of all
Lesun first started swimming at age six, when he was still a Belarusian athlete. One day, however, he had a revelation: He had progressed to his highest potential in the sport and could go no further. Such a situation, of course, is unacceptable for a young athlete with high ambitions.
Interestingly, swimming happens to be the discipline that spawns the most pentathletes. Because swimming is the most difficult of the five events to master, already having such a base immediately gives an aspiring athlete a great head start. With a background in swimming, an individual already has functional and physical training.
“At the Olympic Reserve School, the swimmers’ dorm was right next to the pentathletes’ dorm. I was invited just to test my strength at their event, and so I did, and won the Belarus championship,” Lesun recalls.
“For me, this was a resounding success. I decided to switch events, and I don’t regret it. Sure, it might be more difficult physically, but there’s definitely nothing monotonous about it.”
Fencing: A battle of wits
Fencing is Lesun’s favorite event. But it’s not a case of emulating knights or musketeers. Lesun thinks of fencing as a moving chess game. The rules are as follows: Every athlete participates in no less than 20 matches. The very first hit on any point on the body determines victory or defeat.
“Among the pentathlon events, fencing is the one in which it is most important to outwit and deceive your opponent. You know him, and he knows you. To land that single and decisive strike really is no simple task. But that’s exactly what I like about it. I remember how that drew me in, and it still hasn’t let me go,” he says.
Show jumping: a horse lottery
The most unpredictable event in the pentathlon is show jumping. The host country of the pentathlon provides the horses, which are distributed among the contestants according to a lottery. Contestants are then given only 20 minutes to get to know their respective horses.
“In this short time you need to figure out what kind of horse you have, what the horse can do, and what its limitations are,” says Lesun.
“Understandably, an animal, like a human being, has its own emotional temperament and its own moods. At one competition, I couldn’t get anywhere with the horse. I just couldn’t figure out a way for us to get on the same page.”
‘I don’t pray for pistols’
Running and shooting pistols, like swimming, is a fundamental and technical event. “You can’t lose at swimming or combination. Every pentathlete absolutely tries to perform solidly and at a high level in these events,” says Lesun.
It is impossible to win a pentathlon without the help of some luck, he added. Not all of the events depend solely on the athlete’s performance. Will he be lucky in his fencing hits? Will the lottery grant him a good horse?
Incidentally, it is for this reason – chance - that so many pentathletes are superstitious. Lesun, however, has a different philosophy: “There is a Hungarian pentathlete, Adam Marosi.
Before the combination event he literally prays for his gun. This doesn’t make any sense to me. A pistol is a thing. When a person pins his hope on a thing, and not on himself, then it’s like he has already taken a step in the direction of failure. I don’t pray for pistols. I know that the outcome is in my hands.”
Andrei Moiseyev, two-time Olympic champion (2004 and 2008), main trainer for the Russian team.
“When I begin to talk about my sport, it can initially elicit inappropriate reactions in people. They don’t understand how it is possible to combine five types of athletics in one event. But later, after I explain it, people begin to understand how it all works. We begin our competition at 7:00 in the morning and finish at around 7:00 in the evening. The sport is a very difficult one because the various disciplines are completely different from one another. For this reason it is very difficult to combine them. There are technical disciplines like shooting, and physical ones like swimming and running. That means that if you are going to push really hard in swimming and running, the strength of your technical disciplines will decrease accordingly. It is essential to maintain a healthy balance and to keep yourself in good form at all times – and in this sport, that is the hardest thing.”
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