In the middle of his hardest sessions, right when the pain gets close to intolerable, Arthur Lanigan-O’Keeffe imagines a very specific scenario.
It’s mid-August in Rio de Janeiro, and the 24-year-old is charging around a cross country course in the final event of the Olympic modern pentathlon, a combined test of running and laser shooting. It’s a test which will require concentration, co-ordination and a hefty dose of courage.
Fittingly, it’s the event which crowns the champion, and every time that homemade movie plays in his mind, Lanigan-O’Keeffe is in that starring role.
“I like to keep it in my head,” he says. “It fuels me. Whenever things get hard, it helps to get that extra one or two percent out.” The movie is not just fantasy. Lanigan-O’Keeffe is the current European champion, and in the 104-year history of the modern pentathlon at the Olympics, only Europeans have ascended to the top of the podium.
“My goal is 100% gold,” he says. “I’ve got to believe in that, believe in my own ability, otherwise I won’t do it. There are about 10 guys who can win a medal, but I’m aiming to win gold.”
His competition will take place on August 20, and if he makes good on his target, then expect the Irish sporting public to receive a swift education that day about his sport.
For hipsters who want to know before it becomes cool, here’s the crash course.
It consists of five events, all sandwiched into one frenetic day: Fencing, a 200m freestyle swim, show jumping, then the climactic combined event of pistol shooting and a 3200m run. Competitors begin the run based on their points ranking, so the first across the line is the champion.
As a kid, Lanigan-O’Keeffe never imagined his life would be dedicated to such a niche sport. Back in 2004, he was a competitive swimmer who marvelled at Michael Phelps’ otherworldly ability at the Athens Olympics.
Originally from Kilkenny, he attended secondary school in Glenstal Abbey, Limerick, at which point coaches noted his outstanding aerobic ability and coaxed him into the world of triathon. However, the last thing his mother wanted was a teenage son out cycling the roads for hours on end, and he was soon sent down a different path.
“She found this other sport, and I went to a competition in Millfield,” he recalls. “I fell in love with modern pentathlon straight away.”
Like so many of our Olympians, Lanigan-O’Keeffe realised he would have to go abroad to reach his potential, so he applied for a scholarship to the school in Millfield, near Glastonbury. After that, he says, the rest is history.
His training is arduous, with five separate coaches advising him, along with an overall high performance director. “Each day has four or five sessions, and it’s five or six hours a day,” he says. “It’s a massive balancing act.” Then there is the travel, which can be a headache. In March he was ejected from an Aer Lingus flight for having fencing equipment on board, resulting in him missing a competition.
“The nature of my sport is crazy,” he says. “I have to travel with air pistols and epees which look like threatening swords, but it’s the nature of it. There’s going to be problems, but I don’t blame anyone. They’re just looking out for the safety of their passengers.”
Last weekend he flew to Florida on Friday, competed on Sunday, and was back home in Dublin on Monday. Next weekend, he’s off to London for a fencing competition, then he’ll go to Budapest, and before he knows it he’ll be jetting off to the Irish Olympic holding camp in Uberlandia, Brazil.
This close to the Olympics, he doesn’t need to go searching for motivation, but sometimes it seeks him out.
Last week he got a call off an old school friend, one of many who is travelling to Rio to lend their support. Soon after hanging up, Lanigan-O’Keeffe went to the track and smashed a session. He ran as hard as he could, fighting the pain, the Hollywood ending to his story once again playing in his mind.
“Hopefully,” he says, “I’ll make them all proud.”
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