This story, by Theresa Wallace, appears in the Summer edition of Ottawa Magazine as part of a 10-page Olympics-inspired “Best of Summer” feature. To read more, buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.
Melanie McCann will start out her Olympics with a round-robin fencing competition. Then she’ll swim a 200-metre race in a pool. On a horse she met for the first time just a few minutes earlier, she’ll show jump her way through an obstacle course. To finish, she’ll shoot a laser pistol at an electronic target until all five lights on the display change from red to green, then run three kilometres, stopping every kilometre to shoot again. Melanie, 22, competes in the modern pentathlon. An Olympic event since 1912, the basis for the sport was the honing of skills required to be a soldier in the cavalry. A women’s division wasn’t added until 2000.
Melanie says she has dreamed of competing at the Olympics for as long as she can remember. She moved from Calgary, where she was training and going to school, to Ottawa a couple of years ago to help turn that vision into reality. She qualified for the London Olympics by placing fourth at the Pan Am Games in Mexico in October.
At 6 a.m., Melanie starts her training day with a 11/2-hour swim workout under the watchful eye of John Hawes, national pentathlon coach for Canada and also head coach of the Ottawa Modern Pentathlon Club. She then does an hour of shooting and running, followed by weights. Her training day ends with an evening workout on the running track and fencing practice or a riding lesson.
Born and raised in Mount Carmel, Ontario, Melanie took up competitive swimming when she was eight and joined her school cross-country running and track teams. She was recruited to the sport of modern pentathlon at 15 while competing in a track meet in Goderich, Ontario, by a teacher from another school who was looking to start a modern pentathlon group and had heard she was a good swimmer and runner. She took her first fencing lesson in a former coach’s driveway and tested the shooting discipline in an empty school gym late at night. In 2007, when she was 16, it was time to add the riding event.
Although training for five sports requires superb organization, Melanie says the elements are also complementary. “You can take the quick decision-making you develop from fencing and use it in riding or use the calm focus learned in shooting to help salvage a fencing event that has taken a turn for the worse. And the fitness from running and swimming contributes hugely to fencing and riding.” In Budapest, Hungary, this past April, Melanie finished ninth in the third World Cup pentathlon of the 2012 season, her best ever finish. She then headed to Rome for the Modern Pentathlon World Championships and to Chengdu, China, for the World Cup Final, both in May, which rounded out her major competitions before the Games.
Coach John Hawes, who competed in the 1972 Olympics in swimming and in the 1976 Olympics in pentathlon, calls Melanie remarkable “not only for her all-round athletic abilities but also for her commitment and drive to leave no stone unturned” in her preparation.
“I am using the competitions this season to tweak my training and try to peak for the Games,” Melanie says. “I need to train my body, but also my mind. To have everything come to together on the same day is the ultimate goal.”