Cheap Seats: Stettinius Aims For Olympic Gold In Little-Known Pentathlon Events
By Michael Page
McDaniel College alumna Suzanne Stettinius is about to achieve her dream.
The 24-year-old qualified for the U.S. Olympic team and will be competing in the modern pentathlon in London Aug. 12, the final day of the Summer Olympics. Stettinius, from Parkton, has spent her life competing and training and is ready to take on the world's best competition and bring home a medal.
"I'm going to go in there and hopefully keep my cool throughout," she said, "and if I can keep my cool throughout, I'll have a good chance. I have to remember that there are five sports, and I can't freak out if I don't do well in one of them."
The modern pentathlon is an event that is staged in one day. Competitors begin with fencing, followed by swimming, riding, running and shooting.
Stettinius' Olympic journey started 16 years ago, when she was introduced to Pony Club.
"It was clubs competing against other clubs in riding competitions," she said, "and one of the competitions was tetrathlon, which is the pentathlon without the fencing. I did my first tetrathlon at 8 years old. I picked up my first fencing lesson at 14."
From there, Stettinius hasn't looked back. She took aim at the 2008 Summer Games, but fell short and decided to rededicate herself with the help of many coaches, friends and family, especially her mother and father, Avis and William.
"I wasn't ready to be competing at a World Cup level," Stettinius said, "and they convinced me that I had a chance at the Olympic Games, but I thought I wasn't good enough. They really made me feel better about myself, because I was always losing."
One of the major turning points for Stettinius was when she transferred to McDaniel College during the middle of her sophomore year and joined the swim team, led by coach Jeff Hiestand.
"Swimming was always my weakness," Stettinius said. "I never really grew up swimming. When I got to McDaniel, Jeff really helped my swimming a lot. My time dropped 21 seconds in the 200, which is unheard of."
It didn't take long for Hiestand to realize the sophomore that walked on to the swim team was a special athlete.
"It was funny," he said. "I didn't know about her with the pentathlon. We got to talking, and struck a great conversation about the Olympic Games that were out in Colorado, where she had spent some time. It was a good first impression I got. ...
"I don't think swimming is a natural sport for her, but she's a worker. I would never have to ask her to do more. When it comes to Suzanne, it's almost like a reversal of roles from normal with average athletes, where you're asking them to give more. You kind of have to ask her to take a step back."
Stettinius improved so much that she now holds two of the 10 swimming records at McDaniel, despite having missed half of her sophomore season because of the transfer and almost all of her junior season because of an injury.
Stettinius ramped up her training during the winter of 2011 when her yoga trainer, Karen Dubs, referred her to the PerformFit performance and fitness facility in Lutherville.
Tim Bishop, who was the Orioles' strength and conditioning coach from 1993-2006 and has worked with hundreds of professional athletes, runs PerformFit. Bishop had never met Stettinius before she came to his facility, but once she began to train with him, his eye for top-level athletes conjured up a memory.
"I live in Parkton, up in northern Baltimore County," Bishop said, "and I used to see this tall, lean girl running on the track, and I would always say to myself, 'She's a college runner or something,' because she had great form and great strides, and it never dawned on me until I put it together when she was training with us. I asked her if she had done her running at Hereford High School and she said, 'Yeah.' She's unique. You don't see that kind of professional-looking stride on the track every day."
Stettinius developed relationships with the PerformFit employees, including performance coach Pat Hedge. Though Bishop and Hedge have been training elite athletes for years, they, like many others, had to learn about the pentathlon.
"I asked this question to 10 or 15 different people [at PerformFit] and said, 'Name the five events,' and they go, 'Swimming, running, biking,' and I'm like, 'Wrong,' " Bishop said. "Out of about 15 people I asked, no one was even close."
Bishop said he and Hedge had asked Stettinius to tell them what she needed, and they told her what they could do to help her.
"[Hedge and Stettinius] formed a good bond, and a good combination of trust," Bishop said. "She trusted him, and he was able to know when to push her and when to pull back and when she needed a break. Sometimes, high-level athletes want to go, go, go, and sometimes we have to teach them to recover and pull back.
"Overtraining can be common with higher-level athletes, because they think more is better, and sometimes you have to teach them to rest and recover and regenerate. That's one thing Pat and Suzanne worked on a lot, which was hard for her. It's hard for a lot of athletes, because they feel like they're going backwards, but many times rest and recovery and regeneration help you go forward."
Throughout Stettinius' workouts at PerformFit, Bishop noticed she shared a quality with another well-known Baltimore athlete.
"If she can't get a drill down the first time, she's doing it again, and again, and again," Bishop said. "You, know Cal Ripken was that way. She has some of that in her. That's not something you see with high school or collegiate athletes. To get where she is, she's go to be virtually perfect in her practice."
To reach the 2012 Summer Games, Stettinius has had to overcome many obstacles. She suffered a broken neck in 2009 and a broken collarbone in 2011 while horseback riding. She also suffered a major hamstring injury that nearly knocked her out of the Olympic qualification for 2012.
The modern pentathalon qualifier is a combination of scores in four events. Stettinius was able to compete in only the first two of the four, but her showings were so good that on the strength of those two finishes alone, she was able to qualify.
Financing has been another major obstacle, which is often not considered when it comes to amateur high-level athletes. Traveling the world to compete in countries such as China, Egypt and Europe can be expensive.
"The family has sacrificed a lot to make these opportunities available to her," Hiestand said. "The last year when she was out of school and I was coaching her, I did it for free. Things like that have helped her along the way. Going to the competitions all around the world, she has built up a lot of debt. They are doing a lot of fundraising to try to bring down that debt."
Coaches such as Hiestand, Bishop, Hedge and Dubs have donated their time to Stettinius to help ease some of her financial burdens. Her parents have also had to make sacrifices, supporting Stettinius because training prevents her from getting a full-time job.
Stettinius said she had racked up close to $40,000 in debt on her way to qualifying for the 2012 Summer Games. Through fundraisers and community support, she has nearly been able to pay off her debt.
Stettinius said her goal was to raise at least $60,000 to cover her debt and raise money for her family and coaches to travel with her to London. She had raised more than $40,000 as of July 9, and said the support she had received from her community had astounded her.
"It's been pretty amazing," Stettinius said. "People have been seeing me in the newspaper and have called in and figured out how to donate."
To make a donation to support Suzanne Stettinius and the U.S. modern pentathlon team, visit suzanne.mintmeadows.com.
More Cheap Seats:
• Stettinius Aims For Olympic Gold In Little-Known Pentathlon Events
• Carroll Group Studies Concussion Awareness
• Darren's Dream Comes True In Loyola Victory
• Lacrosse Excellence Is Ian Shure's Goal
• Campbell Sees Better Future For Mustangs
• Heist Is No Shakespeare, But He Has Writing Prize
Issue 175: July 2012