Friday, July 11, 2014

It Takes a Community to Train a Modern Pentathlete

After taking the silver medal at the 2013 US ModernPentathlon National championships, Graham Maas returned home and immediately made a vow to return in 2014 and bring back gold. In this age of limited attention spans, one year is a long time for a boy of fourteen to stick to a plan. 

For those unfamiliar with Modern Pentathlon, the sport includes fencing, swimming, running and shooting. Athletes younger than nineteen do not compete in equestrian events, the fifth pentathlon element, for liability reasons. If you think getting your child to soccer practice each week is tough, try scheduling practice for four events on a daily basis.

The first step in Graham’s plan was to become an even faster runner. Fortunately, he runs for the Wayzata cross country team. In his final middle school season, Graham went from being a middle of the pack runner to one of the top five runners on the team. Graham singled out the coaching of Chad Bartels and Kraig Lungstrom who worked with him to become better at pacing and using proper form. All of which paid off in spades.

Graham finishing up a cross country race for Wayzata in 2013
Graham swims year-round with the Life Time Bears swim team. It’s not every swimmer that gets to swim with the US Paralympic national coach, but again fortune shined on Graham when the swim team named Tom Franke as its head coach. Franke, was recently  tabbed the Paralympic National Coach of theYear. Franke helped Team USA to an astonishing 41 medals at the 2012 London Paralympics as co-head coach of the U.S. squad. 

Graham & swim coach, Tom Franke

 Franke also individually coached Team USA's three captains: Anna Eames (silver), Cortney Jordan (three silvers, one bronze) and Justin Zook (gold and a world record). Zook has been a key motivator for Graham, providing all the depth and knowledge required to become an Olympian. 

Before swimming at the Olympic Training Center Aquatic Center, Graham always pays a visit to the photo of Justin Zook, one of his swim coaches back in Minnesota

In the three months following cross country season, Franke had lowered Graham’s 200 freestyle time by twelve seconds. Graham also credits Franke with something else: firing the inner Olympic spirit in him and more importantly, being a gracious and humble competitor.

In late winter, Graham was struggling with his fencing. He was losing more than ever before. He was having performance meltdowns on the fencing strip. It simply was not working for him. The stars aligned again when Minnesota Sword Club director Rich Jacobson introduced Graham to Jim Johnson, the competitive instructor at the club. Johnson and Graham immediately clicked. As Graham stated, “Prior to Coach Johnson, I was just told to ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ but no one ever connected the dots for me so I never knew why I was doing something with my footwork or with the blade. Coach Johnson explained to me the why, and it all became so clear. I guess I’m sort of cerebral and I just needed to see the end game.” Graham became a much more confident fencer and it started to show in tournaments. Progress was being made.

Graham & Minnesota Sword Club competitive epee instructor, Jim Johnson
It was also time for Graham to start training for track. The weather outside was cold, but Graham was invited to train inside the dome at Central Middle School each Friday afternoon where 400 interval training was going on. Graham would finish up his running session and head straight over to the pool to get in a two hour workout. The days were getting long for him now, and would not ease up until late June. He stayed dedicated.

On March 29 at the start of spring break, Graham traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to compete in the Paul Pesthy Memorial Pentathlon, which served as the Texas Regional Championships. Maas fenced at the newly built and fully dedicated fencing building on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word. 

2014 Paul Pesthy Memorial Pentathlon from Brian Maas on Vimeo.

The day before, Graham received a private fencing lesson from John Moreau who was a member of 1984 and 1988 US Olympic Fencing Team. During competition Graham fenced well enough to take him to the title of overall male winner for the regional event, his first overall pentathlon win.

Graham and John Moreau fence together in San Antonio

The very next week Graham was competing in a much colder spot, Mendota Heights. Snow was still on the ground as Graham competed in the Great Prairie Pentathlon, the regional event for the Midwest. Instead of aging up and competing with the older boys, he stayed within his natural age group to compete and start to get ready for Nationals. His combined run-shoot time had the timers simply shaking their heads. How could someone run that fast and yet shoot so accurately? Confidence was growing.

Graham completes the Minnesota regional Pentathlon

2014 Great Prairie Pentathlon from Brian Maas on Vimeo.

Track season arrived and again Graham found himself working with Kraig Lungstrom. There was a barrier to breakthrough and Graham was hell-bent on achieving it: A sub-five minute 1600. Lungstrom again coached Graham to proper pacing and calculated workouts. Graham finished the season with that sub-five minute 1600. On three separate occasions. But even more impressive was running the 3200 in 10:40, the second fastest by an 8th grader in Wayzata high school history. That was important because in the run-shoot combined of pentathlon, Graham would be called upon to run 4x800 meter circuits with precision shooting in between each 800. Graham now had the confidence to run faster and shoot well.

Graham has always been a strong shooter and many consider that aspect to be his best pentathlon element. But that doesn’t mean advice is not needed. On April 26, Graham competed in the New Mexico Modern Pentathlon regional held in Roswell, New Mexico. The day before the competition, he worked on shooting with New Mexico Military Institute head coach Jan Olesiński. Olesiński’s credentials include competing in the 1980 Olympic Games.

Graham and Jan Olesiński
The next day at the competition Graham, the youngest competitor by far, finished second in the field. He simply blew everyone away during the shooting phase. 

2014 New Mexico Modern Pentathlon from Brian Maas on Vimeo.

It was now time for final tune-up stages for Nationals. School was finally out. Graham was working out three, sometimes four, times per day. He refused all sweets. He only drank milk. He didn’t even want soda in the house. His personal pentathlon coach, Todd McIntyre, started to prepare Graham mentally for Nationals. Now that Graham had participated in three regionals in 2014, he knew nearly all his competitors. McIntyre would play the part of one of the competitors at fencing practice and Graham would have to quickly adjust his focus and movements for that person. It was a crucial last step. Fencing is the first event up during a day-long pentathlon event. And Graham would need a fast start.

On July 5th at 8 AM at the fencing building on the campus of the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, the boy’s National event began. Each competitor faced 42 grueling one touch fencing bouts. Graham immediately started off with a win. After ten bouts he was 8-2. After twenty bouts he was 14-6. He finished with five straight victories for total of 27 wins and just 15 defeats for a win percentage of 64%, a personal record. And he not only led the Youth C (13-14 year old) category, he was tied for fourth overall out of twenty-two athletes. 

At 11 AM, Graham swam a personal best in the swim which was all the more impressive because it was at altitude as Colorado Springs sits at 6500 feet elevation. He still led Youth C and was still sitting in fourth place, this time all by himself. 

At 1 PM, the combined event started. Graham ran and shot a personal best yet again and earned his first national championship. Graham performed so well that he was the top scorer from all groups and winner of Youth C with 1,091 points. Reigning National Youth A and Junior champion Brendan Anderson won Youth A with 1,068 points, Seamus Millett won Youth B with 1,068 points and Alexander Yue won Youth E with 897 points. The full results of the Youth Boys US National Championship can be viewed by clicking here.

2014 US Modern Pentathlon Nationals - Graham Highlights from Brian Maas on Vimeo.

While Graham said his coaches were the key to the victory, his friends and fellow competitors also had a key role. Floridian Michael Hoffmann, arguably the best youth male pentathlete fencer in the country, did not hesitate to provide Graham with advice. Neither did Hoffmann’s coach, Egyptian pentathlete Omar El Geziry, one the top male pentathletes in the world. Up-and-coming pentathletes such as Colorado’s Seamus Millett and California’s Noah Rescate provided not only fantastic and stressful competition, but valued and long-lasting friendship. The USA Modern Pentathlon youth team will be a force to be reckoned on the international stage with in the coming years. I'm not sure the youth deep has ever been so deep in talent.

Graham’s next goals? Another successful cross country season, this time under the tutelage of Bill Miles, the long-tenured coach of the 2013 Minnesota State champion Wayzata harriers. Then try out for, and make, the 2013 Minnesota State champion Wayzata swim team. 

Longer term, Graham has his eye on Buenos Aires in 2015 and Dublin in 2016 where the Youth World Modern Pentathlon championships will be held. It will take a lot of work to get there. All of which Graham has shown he is willing to do.