Monica Pinette: Athlete in Obscure Sport to Receive National Aboriginal Achievement Award

By Clint Buehler

Even Monica Pinette will concede that her Olympic sport—women’s modern pentathlon—has a very low profile in the Summer Olympics. But she believes it doesn’t need to be that way.

And, despite that low profile, she has been selected to receive the 2010 National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Sport for her efforts and achievements in the sport.

“I was a bit surprised” to receive the award, she says. “I had been nominated before and hadn’t won so I thought I probably hadn’t done enough community work.

“It is just nice to be recognized. Pentathlon is such a small sport that we fall in the cracks a lot of the time. There have been times when I haven’t been eligible for grants or awards because my pentathlon isn’t big enough—in the media enough—so I am always grateful when someone recognizes an achievement.”

Women’s modern pentathlon, created by the French founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Courbertin, in 1912 is a strange mix of events: 20 pistol shots from 10 metres at a 155 mm. diameter target, one-minute fencing matches with every other competitor, a 200-metre freestyle swim, a 350 to 400 metre obstacle course on horseback and a 3,000 metre cross-country run.

Initially a five-day event, in 1996 it was changed so that all the events were crammed into single day.

More recently, the international federation is considering making fencing the opener, followed by the swim and the ride and then a new biathlon-style shooting/running discipline in which competitors would shoot at targets between 1,000-metre run laps.

“Ask anyone who’s really involved in the sport, like the coaches,” she told the Vancouver Sun, “and, unanimously, they say it’s going to be disaster. Apparently, there’s pressure from the International Olympic Committee that we need to improve the vpopularity of triathlon, and 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 it is sold on it. It’s crazy and fun.”

According to the Canadian Olympic Committee biography of Pinette, while growing up she learned to ride horses as a member of the Pony Club. She went on to become part of local swim, gun, fencing and pentathlon clubs in British Columbia. That provided the foundation for her to become a rare pentathlete, strong in three technical events, show jumping, arguably her best event, but with fencing and shooting strong as well.

The feisty Metis from Langley, B.C., now living and training in Switzerland, says this is her final year of competition in the sport. But it isn’t that she’s retiring from the sport that allows her now to be critical of it; she’s been just as outspoken in the past.

Pinette has been recognized as a “true trail blazer” for the sport of modern pentathlon in Canada. In Athens in 2004, shev and Karen Grant became the first Canadian women to compete in the sport at an Olympic Games. Not only that, but Pinette was the only athlete of Aboriginal descent (Metis) to compete that year, her 13th place finish, Canada’s best achievement ever in Olympic modern pentathlon.

She was highly critical after finishing 27th at the 2008 Beijing Olympics—far below what was expected from her because of her previous achievements in the sport. She had been hoping for a top 10 finish after finishing 11th at the 2008 worlds, and blamed herself after finishing 33rd (out of 36) in fencing. But a day after some of the male competitors knocked the quality of the horses supplied by the Chinese, Pinette was even more critical.

“This really sucks today,” she told the Vancouver Sun, commenting on the show jumping and a 3000-metre run at Beijing she called a circus. “They messed it up, actually. The riding was a bit of a disaster. The horses all went lame and they just weren’t prepared properly. They’re not great, talented jumpers. They’re ex-race horses, it looked like.