While male pentathletes have competed at every Olympic Games since Stockholm 1912, Steph Cook became the first women’s Olympic modern pentathlon champion 88 years later, at the Sydney 2000 Games. The Great Britain star talks us through how she combined a hectic life as a doctor with going for gold – and how her fascinating sport, rooted in Olympic history, has evolved in the modern world.
Junior doctors in British hospitals are famously, perhaps notoriously, overworked. So the idea of pulling 15-hour shifts while also putting in the amount of training required to become an Olympian might seem physically impossible. Steph Cook, however, somehow managed it, and in a sport consisting of five disciplines – fencing, swimming, show jumping, shooting and running.
“It was crazy,” Cook said with a laugh, reflecting on her years before becoming the first women’s Olympic modern pentathlon champion. “I was studying medicine at Oxford, which is where I’d taken up modern pentathlon, and once I graduated I knew I needed to make a decision.
“Was I going to continue with sport or become a junior doctor? I decided I’d try to do both. I was doing up to 100 hours a week in the hospital while still training and competing. I remember coming off a night shift and flying straight to Poland for a World Cup. Somehow I kept going.”
Combining saving lives with creeping up the world rankings, Cook was clearly a multi-tasker of the highest calibre. No wonder the Olympic sport conceived to find the best all-round athletes appealed to her.
“Growing up, I’d done a bit of riding and was a good runner, and at university I thought I’d give pentathlon a go,” she said. “I really just wanted to get back on a horse again, but I also fancied the idea of trying some new sports. I had never shot or fenced before, and my swimming was ropey. I couldn’t even do tumble turns.
“Initially it was just fun. In 1994, when I started, the women’s sport wasn’t even at the Olympics. But I watched the men with interest at Atlanta 1996, and there was a campaign to get the women’s sport included.
“I got selected for the 1997 European Championships, but it clashed with my final medical exams and I couldn’t go. When the UK lottery funding came in, and the Olympics started to look more likely, I was offered a research position by a doctor in Oxford. It meant I could still study but also fit in more training. And then we got the National Training Centre in Bath. From November 1999, I trained full time.”
Having been in the sport for only six years, Steph was still under the radar in terms of becoming a potential medallist. But the unique nature of her sport gave her a chance. “Riding and running were my strengths, but they reckon it takes 10 years to get to international level in fencing,” she said. “I