Aboriginal Pentathlete Monica Pinette

By Morgan O’Neal

Monica Pinette is described as “a true trailblazer” for Modern Pentathlon: one of two Canadian women to compete in the sport at the Olympics and the only Canadian of Aboriginal descent in Athens in 2004, where she clinched 13th place. Pinette wore a traditional Metis sash at the closing ceremonies, not just because the red, green, blue, and yellow weave matched four of the five Olympic rings, but also because she is extremely proud to represent the Metis Nation. This year she took the sash to Beijing. “There aren’t a lot of aboriginal athletes out there,” said the 31-year-old from Langley, British Columbia. “We’re the role models that kids need to look up to.” In one of the best finishes ever for a Canadian at the World Championships earlier this year, Monica (coached by her husband, former Olympic athlete Phillip Waeffler) came in 11th and was ranked No. 20 in the world. In Beijing, however, she finished 27th after kicking off the competition with second-place in shooting. She then fell further behind, placing 33rd in fencing, 34th in swimming, 14th in show jumping, and 27th in cross-country running.

Pinette’s strongest event has always been show jumping because she comes from “a pretty horsey family” and had already started riding “in the womb.” By the time she was 20 years old, a saddle alone couldn’t keep her attention. After she moved to Switzerland and started seriously training, she went to Athens as the only aboriginal athlete and placed better in the Pentathlon than any other Canadian ever had. No one really expected her to place so well, but it isn’t hard to see how she pulled it off. She is naturally strong at show jumping; shooting and fencing “came easy” (being left-handed and slender gives her a killer advantage with the epee); and running “wasn’t too much of a stretch.” She sees swimming as the only sport that’s a real challenge for her.

Pinette started competing at age 20, but one sport wasn’t enough. “It keeps it interesting when there are a lot of different things you can play at and practice.” She started running and swimming and shooting, then threw a bit of fencing in for good measure. “One of the things I struggle with is motivation,” she says. If she sometimes lacks motivation, however, modesty she does not. She has already graduated from University of Victoria with a Bachelor of Arts in English and earned a Diploma in Journalism and Photojournalism from the Western Academy of Photography. She plans to pursue a career as a professional sports photographer when she hangs up pistol, sword, saddle, sneakers, and swimsuit.

She had been hoping for a top 10 finish in the games, and blames herself alone for the disappointing performance in Beijing. But one day after some male competitors in the same event criticized the quality of horses supplied by the Chinese, Pinette was even more openly critical. “The horses all went lame and they just weren’t prepared properly. They’re not great, talented show jumpers. They’re ex-race horses, it looked like.” The run was an even greater disaster. “I’m going to write a nasty letter to [the officials],” said Pinette. “This is the Olympics. It’s not that difficult to organize a 3K run.” She says the race should replicate cross-country, and the best ones are through grass or a field or a combination of grass and pavement.

Pinette’s letter may or may not be taken seriously. She’s not even sure the athletes are being heard in regard to other already proposed changes to the Pentathlon, designed to save it from Olympic extinction. International Olympic Committee (IOC) boss Jacques Rogge has already tried twice to get the sport axed, only to be rebuffed by old-guard Europeans who see it as a symbolic sport. It was a five-day event for decades, but was shortened in 1996 to a one-day format (20 pistol shots from 10 metres at a 155mm-diameter target, one-minute fencing matches with every other competitor, a 200-metre freestyle swim, show jumping, and the run. Now the International Federation is considering making fencing the opener, followed by the swim and the ride and then a new biathlon-style shooting/running event in which competitors shoot at targets between 1,000-metre laps.

Serious competitors are asking, “Why fix something when it’s not broken?” Pinette says, “Ask anyone who’s really involved in the sport (like the coaches) and unanimously they say [such a change] is going to be a disaster . . . Apparently, there’s pressure from the IOC that we need to improve the popularity of triathlon and they figure this is the answer. A lot of us think the problem is in the marketing. It’s a great sport. Anyone who comes to watch is sold on it. It’s crazy and fun.” New World critics may not agree, but Pinette knows spectators who do. “Did you read the Herald Tribune after 2004 in Athens? This guy totally admitted that he ‘went there to tear it apart and fell in love with the sport.’”

Modern Pentathlon is a sport whose near invisibility outside of Europe is still fodder for North American critics. Joe Posnanski of the Kansas City Star recently asked, “What’s so modern about swords, pistols, and riding on horses? I have no idea who competes in this sport, other than very rich kids named Winthrop who have butlers and stables and take fencing lessons.” This putdown contains more than a tiny bit of truth. It is ironic that our lone aboriginal Olympic athlete is one of the best in her field competing against precisely this type of stuffy, wealthy Old World athlete.

And so, although I root and cheer for our Metis sister Monica Pinette to succeed in her athletic pursuit, I can’t help hoping that she is also aware of the historical irony here, for it might bestow upon her a smidgen of the motivation, desire, and strength necessary to beat the living daylights out of her competition and win one for Gabriel and Louis, for Poundmaker, and the old Big Bear.