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Athletics: Cut and thrust of life in fast lane

When temperatures soared in Dublin last Monday, Natalya Coyle did the same as a lot of her fellow Trinity College students: she basked in the sunshine at the Pavilion. However, unlike most students, Coyle's stay was short; she sat on the grass for a few minutes at mid-day then left to do a two-hour swim followed by a tough gym session. She returned six hours later and rejoined her friends, who hadn't moved all day.

The difference between 21-year-old Coyle and most students is that she is a modern pentathlete who is trying to qualify for the London Olympics. To do that she must excel at five sports: fencing, shooting, running, swimming and show jumping.

Coyle wants to be an Olympic athlete and is determined to do what it takes to make that happen. She's had to make sacrifices and live an unconventional student life but she wouldn't have it any other way. One look at her weekly training schedule is proof of that.

On Monday she has a two-hour swim at the National Aquatic Centre along with a gym session and a long run. On Tuesday it's two and a half hours of fencing and also an interval run and a shoot. Wednesday consists of a hard run in the morning and hard swim in the evening for two hours. Thursday is fencing, a swim and a shoot. On Friday it's a gym session followed by a run and swim. Then on Saturday she has a run, a gym session, a swim and some horse riding.

Although it doesn't seem possible, Coyle manages to fit in lectures and some down-time with friends on top of all the training.

But she is happy juggling everything; her friends are supportive and understanding; Trinity are accommodating her competitions by letting her postpone some exams until the end of August; and most importantly, Coyle enjoys training.

Although the Meath woman is currently the best in the country at what she does, she hasn't been a pentathlete for long. Growing up she competed in Pony Club and then progressed to tetrathlon -- a combined event that is part of Pony Club and consists of running, swimming, shooting and riding.

Coyle competed both nationally and internationally in tetrathlon. She enjoyed the challenge of competing at a variety of sports but very quickly surpassed others.

At that time family friend Eanna Bailey was competing in the pentathlon -- he told Coyle about it and encouraged her to try it out. So Coyle did.

She was already accomplished at swimming, shooting, riding and running, so all she needed to master was the fencing.

Coyle's entry into the world of the pentathlon three years ago coincided with the arrival of high performance coach Lindsay Weedon. Before former pentathlete Weedon got involved with the set-up, they didn't follow a proper routine and schedule, and had little knowledge of the international scene.

"Everything has changed since Lindsay came on board; she put us all on a programme and sorted out our training schedules. She brought us to international competitions and showed us what we could do," says Coyle.

"When we started out back then I never thought I'd be trying to qualify for the Olympics. I'd say Lindsay was shocked that the standard was so bad when she started, but we've all improved so much now."

Coyle is the only female in Ireland who is competing at the top level internationally. The sport is developing and there are youths moving up through the ranks, but presently there are no females she can train with or compete against. So she has to be content with working with the male pentathletes.

Along with the physical aspect of training, she also works with the Irish Institute of Sport, availing of their physiotherapists, nutritionist and sports psychologist.

All five pentathlon sports are on in one day, which is mentally and physically draining. As a result of the intensity of the competition Coyle is often nervous and finds it hard to eat, so nutritionist Sharon Madigan incorporated shakes and drinks into her competition day diet to compensate.

The combined running and shooting event is the last event of the day. By this stage eight to 10 hours have passed since the competition started, and the athletes are exhausted. Shooting after a run is difficult so Coyle has worked with sports psychologist Kate Kirby to help prepare.

Shooting is her strongest event: at her last World Cup competition she was the second fastest shooter in the competition. Fencing is her weakest event, but she has only been competing for three years so that's to be expected.

"I have to work hard at fencing but I'm getting better because we got a new coach. It's a beginner sport here in Ireland -- some girls in college give it a go but they usually don't stick with it so I fence the boys all the time.

"It's hard to fence the boys. They are faster and stronger so even if I have the move right they are quicker than me. Not having someone to fence is one of the reasons I go away so much.

"I'm going to Bath next month to train, there are some very good girls over there who fence so it's very beneficial."

Coyle is just back from America and Rio de Janeiro where she competed in two World Cup events. Next month she is heading for Budapest and Moscow for two more. It's an expensive sport but she gets funding from the Irish Sports Council and the Olympic Council to cover her costs.

She made both finals in Rio and America so Olympic qualification for London is looking a real possibility. However, she will have to wait until June to find out if she makes it as the official rankings don't close until the end of May.

One thing she does know is that she will be carrying the Olympic torch when it comes to Dublin on June 6. Trinity nominated two athletes so she will do the honours along with marathon runner Mark Kenneally. Although carrying the torch is an honour for Coyle it's not her dream.

She wants to be an Olympian and won't rest until she makes it happen. She knows no other way.

Sunday Indo Sport