Fivefold Talent: Mary Beth Larsen

Most of us find it plenty challenging to excel at a single sport. Olympic pentathlete Mary Beth Larsen Iagorashvili does her best work while focusing on five at once.

In the summer of 1984, a young Mary Beth Larsen flipped on the television and saw her future self. The Olympic Games were underway in Los Angeles and the 9-year-old native of Waukesha, Wis., was captivated by the speed, intensity, glamour and raw strength of the athletes competing in the multisport spectacle. “I knew right there and then that someday I was going to participate in the Games,” Mary Beth recalls. “I didn’t have a sport picked out, but I just knew that that’s where I wanted to be.”

Today, at 30, the world-ranked pentathlete has already realized her Olympic dreams twice — competing in Sydney in 2000 and last year in Athens. Along the way, she’s earned her stripes as a five-time National Pentathlon Champion and six-time National Tetrathlon Champion. Her athletic prowess has earned her plenty of gold medals and titles like “athlete of the year,” and her good looks have led both ESPN and Esquire to name her among the sexiest athletes in America.

But the Olympics, Mary Beth says, are still the brass ring for an athlete. “The first time you go, you don’t know anything. You’re just thrilled to be there. You don’t know what you don’t know,” Mary Beth says of the Games. “The second time around I knew much more about what was required and the level of competition. But that also made it a much harder experience.”

Indeed, after placing fourth in Sydney, demonstrating astonishing skill in all five pentathlon activities — shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding and running — she was devastated by her return performance in 2004: In the first event, pistol-shooting, she scored dead last among the 32 participants and, despite outstanding work in the remaining events, she was only able to climb her way back to 15th place overall. “I still don’t know what happened,” she says. “But I just had to put it out of my mind and continue.”

Pentathlon was added to the Olympic Games in 1912. Showcasing the skills that a soldier in battle might demonstrate, the event was originally used to uncover a single champion among myriad participants. Women’s pentathlon was only added to the Games in 2000, and Mary Beth was the first female contender to represent the United States.

She admits it’s a grueling sport — competitions can last more than a dozen hours as participants shoot at a target 10 meters away, complete a series of one-touch épée (fencing) bouts, swim 200 meters freestyle, coax a horse through a show-jumping course and then run 3,000 meters cross-country. But to her, the variety is invigorating: “The idea is not to be the best at all five sports,” she says, “but to be consistent in your performance across the board.”

Her favorite activity is fencing. “It requires strategy, speed and skill,” she explains. “It’s not strictly a physical game. You have to use your mind.”

The daughter of a Wisconsin contractor and his wife, Mary Beth grew up in a family of athletes: Her father played semiprofessional football, and her sisters — who, like Mary Beth, grew up swimming, riding and running — still remain active in athletic pursuits ranging from soccer to snowboarding. In high school, however, Mary Beth was the only one to be recruited to pentathlon. After a summer at a clinic in Roswell, N.M., she enrolled at the New Mexico Military Institute, a breeding ground for future pentathletes.

Happily, for Mary Beth, the hours of training require of pentathletes led not only to a sport she loved, but also to love itself. Six years ago, she met Vakhtang Iagorashvili, a former bronze medalist for the Soviet Union who immigrated to the United States in 1992. In 1999, just eight months after they met, the two were married, and “Vaho” remains her closest friend and coach.

“Sometimes it’s a challenge when we’re both competing and so focused on our training,” says Mary Beth, “but most of the time, it’s just great to have someone who understands why this sport is so important to you.”

The pair currently live in a Minneapolis suburb, where, when she’s not training, Mary Beth works as a chiropractor. Her husband cooks; she takes care of the pets — a Border collie, a mutt and a kitty named Rita. Weekends they spend doing low-key things, like watching her favorite movie, The Princess Bride.

And while 2008 might seem distant to some, Mary Beth is already eyeing a possible return to the Olympics. “I was never the one with the most talent,” she says of her career, “but I work really, really hard. And I never give up.”

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