Margaux Isaksen

Margaux Isaksen
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U.S. modern pentathlon in Rio will be Isaksen sister act

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Margaux Isaksen says Rio may be her final Olympics, but she hopes it’s the first of many for Isabella Isaksen.

The U.S. women’s modern pentathlon team of two is a sister act. Margaux, 24, goes to her third Games (she debuted at age 16 in Beijing). Isabella, 22, made her first Olympics, but she had to wait three weeks after the final qualifying event in May before it became official this month.

Margaux’s voice cracked in a phone interview when asked which Isaksen Olympic berth meant more.

“I’m definitely happier for her,” she said.

And Margaux desperately wanted one more Olympic shot, after finishing fourth at the 2012 London Games.

The difference between her and bronze medalist Yane Marques of Brazil was eight points — 5,340 to 5,332 after 10 hours of competition across fencing, swimming, show jumping, running and shooting.

She would have retired after the London Games if she made the podium. Margaux missed a medal by one touch in fencing, one rail in horse riding or less than two seconds in the combined running and shooting event.

“It’s actually, obviously, something I’ve thought about quite a lot,” she said. “Especially the year after the Olympics, but even to this day.”

She felt she owed it to her coaches and support circle to try for Rio (though she refused to use the #RoadtoRio hashtag until she officially qualified). Regardless of what happens in Rio, Margaux plans to take at least the next two years to focus on other ventures. Philanthropy on a local level in her native Arkansas, notably.

“Retirement’s on the back of my mind,” she said. “I never know if I’m going to want to continue to do this. That was something I’ve always said, when I first started this sport, when I don’t love it anymore, I won’t do it anymore.”

Her body might have a say, too.

Margaux’s performance in London was incredible, not only because it was the best Olympic modern pentathlon finish by an American since 2000, but also because she had been sidelined nearly six months by a severe case of mono. Margaux restarted her training about six weeks before the Games.

This year, she seriously sprained her left ankle in February and has tried to train and compete through it, only to twist and roll it a few more times. Then she found out last week the she suffered a small stress fracture in her leg.

“Hopefully, in three weeks, I’ll be able to run again,” Margaux said last week from Colorado Springs, home to many elite athletes who live at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. “My body, quite frankly, has never been as strong as it was before I got sick [in 2012].”

It showed at the World Championships in May. Margaux failed to qualify for the 36-woman final for the first time in a senior career that began at age 16 in 2008.

“I’ve had probably, no, not probably, I’ve definitely had the worst season of my life,” she said. “I honestly have taken all of the pressure off of myself at this point, because I honestly have no idea what to expect in Rio.”

Little sister Isabella can’t have that great of an idea of what to plan for, either. She attended neither the 2008 Beijing Games (costs) nor the 2012 London Games (stayed home to train for the World Junior Championships).

The sisters were together at the Senior World Championships on May 27, as spectators. They watched the final for which they failed to qualify. By then, Margaux knew she was going to Rio. Isabella wasn’t 100 percent sure, with a few close rivals in rankings also competing.

“Thankfully, I mean this sounds horrible, they kind of messed up, which allowed me to stay high enough on points,” Isabella said.

Isabella started modern pentathlon between the Beijing and London Olympics. One year after Margaux’s mono, she got it, too. It affected her for two years, during which she married Egyptian modern pentathlete Amro El Geziry, and she said she’s just now feeling fully healthy again.

Her struggles are now more mental than physical.

“I had at least one point of every competition [in this Olympic cycle] where I thought, am I good enough?” Isabella said. “I psyched myself out [at Worlds in May]. I stressed myself out too much, thinking like I have to perform every event really well so I can qualify [for the Olympics].”

Now that both Isaksens have qualified, they can enjoy the Games together.

In 2012, Isabella cried as she watched on a computer stream as Margaux finished fourth. After the ducts dried, she went back to training in Colorado. The next month, the sisters shared team event and relay gold medals at the World Junior Championships in Poland; Margaux won individual gold.

Margaux, while unsure of her prospects at her third Olympics, predicted the Rio Games will “be the first of many Olympic Games and many successes” on the senior level for Isabella.

“I just get a little emotional when I think about it,” she said. “I want it even more for her than I want it for myself.”

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Rio Olympics

First member of 2016 U.S. Olympic team should come from Pan American Games

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The first athlete to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic team will likely qualify from the Toronto Pan American Games, a quadrennial multi-sport competition whose Opening Ceremony is Friday.

Two sports at the Pan Am Games have direct qualification to the Rio Olympics for individual athletes — modern pentathlon and table tennis.

The first Pan Am event with individual Rio Olympic spots on the line is the women’s modern pentathlon July 18. The U.S. athletes entered are two-time Olympian Margaux Isaksen and Sammy Achterberg.

The three highest finishers will qualify for the Rio Olympics with a maximum of one Olympic qualifier per nation.

Isaksen is the defending Pan Am champion who finished fourth at the 2012 Olympics. She’s ranked No. 9 in the world and finished 22nd at the World Championships in June, behind three other athletes in the Pan Am provisional field. However, one of those three, and the only one ranked higher than Isaksen, has already qualified for the Rio Olympics.

The men’s modern pentathlon is July 19. U.S. athletes entered are 2012 Olympian Dennis Bowsher and Nathan Schrimsher.

In 2011, Bowsher finished fourth overall at Pan Ams.

Bowsher went on to finish 32nd in the 2012 Olympic modern pentathlon. The last U.S. man to earn an Olympic modern pentathlon medal was in 1960.

Schrimsher is ranked No. 59 in the world. Bowsher is No. 65. Guatemala, Mexico, Chile and Cuba have higher-ranked athletes in the Pan Am Games provisional field, and Argentina has an athlete ranked No. 62. So Olympic qualification for an American man is no sure thing.

In table tennis, the Pan American Games men’s and women’s individual champions, crowned July 25, qualify for the Rio Olympics.

The top ranked U.S. table tennis player at the Pan Am Games is 2012 Olympian Lily Zhang, who is the top ranked woman in the Pan Am field at No. 94 in the world. There are no U.S. men ranked in the top 300 in the world.

Zhang shared bronze at the 2011 Pan Am Games as a 15-year-old. The defending champion is unrelated Canadian Mo Zhang.

In all, the U.S. Olympic team included more than 500 athletes in 2012, so this is just the start of the roster building.

Watch Rio Olympic Park move from construction to completion

*Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the men’s modern pentathlon was July 18 and the women’s was July 19.