Natalya Coyle committed to cut and thrust of competitive life

Veteran of London Olympics focused on renewing her pentathlon dream in Rio

Natalya Coyle has learned to smile and say thanks when people wish her luck in Rio. Sometimes, it's just too complicated to explain that she hasn't actually qualified yet. That, yes, she ought to be there ...that, in fact, her recent 11th place finish in the European pentathlon championships means that she will go as first reserve if one of the top-ten finishers makes automatic qualification.

Or that in the meantime she has to throw herself into an event schedule which sounds like a head-wrecking task of suitcase-packing, let alone athletic endeavour.

February meant Cairo. She will compete in Rio in March and then Budapest and Rome following a three-week furlough in Ireland. Then the World Cup in Sarasota, Florida. Finally, Moscow. By then, she will either be in the Olympics or she won’t.

“If I don’t perform well I don’t deserve to go anyway,” she said on a quiet Monday afternoon at the national aquatic centre.

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It is Coyle’s home-from-home: running in the morning and swimming in the afternoon.

“You don’t want to just scrape in. If I am doing it, I want to do it well.”

Still, from a distance the idea of Coyle not being in Rio seems inconceivable.

Ireland's boxers had such a dazzling fortnight in the London Games that Coyle's ninth-place finish in the women's pentathlon didn't receive the attention it perhaps deserved. That is partly because the event takes place on the very last day of the Games – for the practical reason that it requires a range of venues.

“The very last medal given out in London was the women’s pentathlon,” she remembers.

Closing ceremony

“So you know you are going to be cranking up just before the closing ceremony, when most people are already finished their events. So after our last event and the medals, I got back to our camp, had a really quick shower and got my closing ceremony uniform on. It was five o’clock by the time we were finishing. So it is really chock-a-block.”

Coyle feels she is a different athlete now than four years ago. When she thinks of London, she remembers everyone advising her to “take it all in”. She didn’t fully understand what that meant. And she tried to. It was a peculiar fortnight: she spent the first few days in the athletes’ village enjoying the pure scale and weirdness of the whole festival. When the Ireland team was waiting in the tunnel before the parade of nations’, she saw Usain Bolt with the Jamaican team standing behind her.

"He had bodyguards everywhere and we wanted to get a photo but we weren't sure how. And a Jamaican athlete saw us and said: If you want, I will bring you up. So I went up with Tori [Pena, who competed for Ireland in the pole vault]. Only realised later it was Asafa Powell who had introduced us. But you see everyone. When I was in the dining hall you could see Kobe, Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps. All just strolling around. Very strange."

And then she moved to the sedate Lensbury sports resort in Teddington to train and wait and watch the Games on television and for whatever reason, she found herself getting ready for her first event, fencing, in a perfect frame of mind: nervous, yes but not at all fazed by where she was or the symbolic five-ringed hoops that are everywhere in Olympic venues.

“I compete best if I am in a good mood and having the crack instead of being tense and worried. There is a photo of me fast asleep after the swim on the way to the horse riding. I didn’t say: I want to be 15th or top ten...it is just about performing the best that I can and take it one event at a time. One event could go badly but it is not the end of the world.”

The result was that unprecedented performance which catapulted her into the Olympic top ten. It was a huge personal triumph: in the space of four years, Coyle had made the transition from thinking of the pentathlon as something she loved doing to something around which her life revolved. A childhood love of horse-riding gradually paved a path towards pentathlon. It is an exotic sport, combining equine, running and swimming skills along with pistol shooting. It is, in short, an ode to the military life but Coyle laughs at the idea of being drawn to that career.

“I can’t keep my car clean, let alone my boots. I am so bad at armoury. The geeky stuff. Some of the guys are great at it because they have an interest in it.”

Central thing

She began static-shooting at the age of 17 and once she began to concertedly train as a swimmer and running and competing in triathlons. Once she started college, a high performance coach devised a programme for her and her progression in pentathlon was rapid.

“The first year I managed to make every final and nobody could believe it. And then people were talking about London. So it went from something I really enjoyed to the central thing in my life. There was no pressure when I was coming through. I was just going with the flow.”

But there she was, with little fanfare and a superb performance. And The Olympics confirmed that she belonged in elite company. In the months afterwards, her instinct was to push herself further. And she crashed.

“I had no energy. I was getting sick and injured all the time.”

Total rest was prescribed: absolutely no training. So she completed her exams. She went on holidays and saw her friends and got to go out at night without worrying about the next day.

“And I got bored,” she shrugs.

“You know: Is this it? Is this all there is? I just wanted to get back to training and that feeling of getting faster and quicker. I love that reward. I suppose you can get that feeling from different things in life and I’m going to have to learn how to do that when I am finished.”

The real shock was when she was eventually allowed to reintegrate herself to training again. The 2013 season was a write-off. She had done nothing except occasional classes of yoga.

“Wasn’t hard core enough,” she sighs. “Tried different things but...”

She was out of puff in the pool and appalled and alarmed by how much her running power had decreased. It was as if the rest had made everything she had taken as automatic vanish.

“When I started back, I had to do a lot of walk-runs. That is why I have the utmost respect for anyone who is trying to get in shape or lose weight. When you start off, it is really tough and to be so exhausted from every session. I felt like someone was sitting on my back in the pool as I tried to drag myself through the water.

“I missed out on a full season; that part was fine. But I was used to getting in the pool and doing great sets. It was like picking someone off the street who used to do a bit of sport and getting them to be an Olympic athlete. It was a long road back. It took well over a year. I didn’t realise that and people didn’t enlighten me either because they knew I’d be upset about it. I went to the worlds and just got run over. The sport moved on.”

Black hole

The break meant she had to reassemble her entire approach. In tandem, she was doing a lot of work with

Kate Kirby

, her sports psychologist, on the internal battles she faced, particularly with fencing.

“I have had serious ups and downs. I had a problem when I was younger if I lost a couple of fights in fencing that I would just to into a black hole and go ‘ awwh.... I am so bad... I don’t know what I’m doing here’. You can’t influence anybody else’s fight. You can only influence your fight.

“Then it is down to how fast I run, swim, how well I shoot. I put pressure on myself in the Europeans to make top eight and I nearly didn’t qualify from the semi-final because I was really worried. You need a kick in the ass sometimes to remember. Girls have meltdowns all the time. I have had meltdowns. In fencing: cried when I was younger – I’m gonna say younger but not really that much – because you have a bad start and you think: ‘I am so crap’. This can happen when people are competing. You see it. Mask off. You will see guys and girls throw masks off the ground and screaming. Then you realise sooner or later that it doesn’t help matters.”

Now, of all the events, she has come to appreciate that when she is on a roll in fencing, she can feel invincible. “It is like boxing....it is very tactical,” she says.

Unlike many Olympic sports, pentathlon rewards endurance and longevity. Athletes can compete at the elite level into their thirties. Coyle turned 25 in December. It is a difficult sport in that the costs of competing are huge but the prize money on offer is miniscule. She was fortunate in that her parents were able to support her for her first two years. “But after that, I wouldn’t have kept going if I couldn’t have been independent. I wouldn’t have kept this up if I couldn’t support myself.”

Her Olympic placing secured a Sports Council grant and she has several sponsorships in addition to work with Sky Sports promoting sport in schools. Once she tells the students she competes with guns, she has a ready audience.

“You just mention the word and they go: ‘Guns? You use guns?’ But look, young people are so open to hearing about new ideas.”

Naturally, they ask her about the Olympics. Everyone does. And occasionally, the dread thought will creep in. What if I don’t qualify?

“The thought alone makes you panic,” she nods. Everyone expects and they are convinced that I’ve already made. It. When are you going to Rio? Will you win a medal?

“Everyone expects and is convinced that I have already qualified. ‘When are you going to Rio? Will you win a medal?’ But it’s fine. I know I am giving this my all.”