Donna Vakalis, a petite blond with a small voice, preludes the start of her civil engineering PhD at the University of Toronto this September by shooting laser guns at the London Olympics.
Olympic pentathlete Donna Vakalis training with her new laser gun in her backyard.
Nick Kozak/For the Toronto Star
Strange as that sounds, the 32-year-old from Toronto will be among the first to use the sport’s futuristic modification in the Olympics when the so-called “new” modern pentathlon debuts at the Games this summer.
Lasers — say goodbye to old-fashioned pellet guns — are just one aspect of the significant revamp to the peculiar five-sports-in-one-day event, which was introduced to the Olympiad in 1912.
Also new to the pentathlon is the combined running-shooting event, a taxing hybrid of 1,000-metre sprinting and target shooting. The combined event, especially, poses new challenges to the notoriously strenuous competition, in which pentathletes also fence, swim and show jump on a horse they’ve never mounted before.
After a short 20-metre run to a target, pentathletes must composedly shoot five targets with their laser pistol, race 1,000 metres, then repeat the circuit twice more, all on a track rife with noise and the distractions of weather.
“It’s very much a mental game, but it’s also a physical game now,” said Vakalis, who will be joined in London by Melanie McCann.
“Your heart is racing. You kind of want to heave and breathe and take in as much oxygen as you can. You can’t allow yourself to do that. You just have to keep your breath on a steady rhythm and hold your breath with each shot.”
Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne, the sport’s oversight body, introduced the combined event in late 2008, following the Beijing Olympics.
Vakalis, who served as an alternate in Beijing and is ranked 32nd in the world heading into London, said shooting used to be her forte in the old format, when the event occurred in the solitude of a gun range.
The combined event, however, has proved tricky to master for Vakalis, who started pentathlon as a teenager — just try standing stock still and shooting accurately while managing a heart rate of 180 beats per minute.
For Vakalis, the pentathlon has always been about balance and disciplining her body to adapt to the rigours of five sports in one day.
“It’s learning to live with knowing you can’t spend 100 per cent of your time just doing one thing … you hope to be a more balancing person than that, so you try to excel at multiple things,” she said.
Some pentathletes attempt to simulate the combined event by running on a treadmill parked inside their gun range. Vakalis, however, sets up her laser gear in the backyard of her downtown Toronto home, then heads to the track at the University of Toronto’s Varsity Stadium.
Curiously, competitors are still forced to follow the sport’s rote gun-loading procedures — cock the gun, which activates the laser, raise arm, shoot, lower arm, touch gun to the table, repeat — even without a bullet or pellet.
Vakalis paid $2,725 for her sci-fi-style weapon, essentially an air pistol retrofitted with a laser. The amateur athlete-slash-engineer has waged a successful fundraising campaign to cover the cost, raising more than $4,500 thus far.
With air pistols, pentathletes took between five and seven seconds to load and fire the gun. Now, top competitors shoot in about 2½ to three seconds, trying to rattle off five shots in 10 seconds.
But the clunky air pistols undermined the importance of quick, accurate shooting, Vakalis said.
“Those air pistols were designed for slow and methodical and careful loading,” she said. “It became a competition to see how fast you could load, not just how fast you could shoot.”
While the combined event leaves the pentathlon with four segments, making it technically a tetrathlon, the fast-paced run-shoot dynamic is expected to generate fan interest in the obscure sport.
“It’s made it really exciting and a spectator-oriented sport,” said Pentathlon Canada president Angela Ives.
-- Torstar News Services