Pentathlete Brendan Anderson Hopes To Qualify For Paris at the 2023 Pan American Games
by Peggy Shinn
Brendan Anderson has long had an Olympic dream. It’s a dream that first sparked almost a decade ago, back when competed in modern pentathlon at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014.
Since then, the 27-year-old pentathlete has had ups and downs in a sport that combines riding (which may be replaced by an obstacle race for the OIympic Games LA 2028), fencing, swimming, running and laser shooting. The five sports — considered essential skills for a 19th century cavalry officer — “test an athlete’s moral qualities as much as his physical resources and skills, producing thereby the ideal, complete athlete,” said modern Olympic Games founder Pierre de Coubertin, who devised modern pentathlon for the Olymipc Games Stockholm 1912.
For several years, Anderson struggled with back and hip injuries. But after successful hip surgery in December 2021, Anderson is stronger than ever — with two senior national championship titles as proof (2022 and 2023). At the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 in Santiago, Chile, taking place from from Oct. 20-Nov. 5, he hopes to qualify for his first U.S. Olympic team.
Anderson grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and at age 10, discovered modern pentathlon through the sport of fencing. His mom saw an ad in the newspaper for a community fencing program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and signed up Anderson and his older brother, Ryan. The boys already played several sports: lacrosse and tennis, and the family skied every winter in Colorado’s Summit Country.
“My parents always liked having us try different things,” Anderson said.
The program instructor told the Anderson brothers that if they liked fencing, then they could attend a modern pentathlon camp in Denver and “just do the fencing part.” But the boys liked the other kids in the camp so much that they ran, swam and shot pistols, too. (Juniors do not add riding to the list until they are 18.)
While Ryan liked pentathlon, Brendan not so much. He was the youngest at the camp (Ryan is four years older) and struggled with swimming.
“I could not swim 25 yards,” Anderson confessed.
As for modern pentathlon, he did not love it.
Ryan continued with the pentathlon for another couple of years while Brendan joined a local swim team. As his swim times improved, he was watching his brother and decided to give pentathlon another go. In middle school, Anderson ran cross-country. And their mom also insisted that both boys learn to ride horses, so they would know what they were doing if they pursued modern pentathlon at the senior level.
“It spiraled from there,” Anderson said.
He set a goal of qualifying for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. Most mornings in high school, he would swim laps in the pool at 5:30 a.m., then head to the OTC to practice fencing before school. When the OTC resident pentathletes headed to the pool for their swim workout, Anderson rushed back to school.
“I took all my courses in a row,” he said. “I didn’t have a lunch period. I luckily had some nice teachers at the time who would let me eat in their class.”
At 2:30 p.m., he went back to the OTC to train again.
The effort paid off. Anderson finished tenth at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, then set his sights on the big show — the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
Anderson graduated from high school in 2014 and was accepted at Boston College on a fencing scholarship. But rather than head to Boston after the YOG, he took a gap year to try to make his first U.S. Olympic team. He had good results, like making the final at the 2015 junior world championships. But he was inconsistent and missed making the team.
So in the fall of 2016, he stepped away from pentathlon, packed his bags, and moved east for his freshman year at Boston College. Unfortunately, his NCAA fencing career was curtailed by a herniated disk in his back. And he realized that he was not yet done with modern pentathlon.
Before his sophomore year, he moved back to Colorado and enrolled in the University of Colorado-Boulder (where he finished his degree in international affairs with a business minor in 2020). In Colorado, he would be nearer to his coaches at the renamed U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, and to doctors at the Steadman Clinic in Vail.
Anderson set his sights on making the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team but was again stymied by injuries, this time his hip hurt as well as his back. He continued to “grind it out” though, competing through back spasms and chronic hip pain in his quest to qualify for the Tokyo Games. Again, he missed making the team.
“This time, I had to do a big reflection,” he said.
Anderson decided it was worth continuing to train for a sport that consumed his days and was causing so much pain.
“I’ve been on this long journey where I’ve had to take breaks, where I’ve quit or had injuries and surgery and had to regroup and figure out what I need,” he explained. “What’s always brought me back has definitely been that Olympic aspiration.”
The Path to Paris 2024 Goes Through the Pan Am Games
In December 2021, Anderson returned to the Steadman Clinic, this time for hip surgery. The rehab was long and slow. But again, it paid off. In 2022, Anderson won his first senior national title and successfully defended it this year.
“I definitely feel the strongest and fittest I’ve ever been,” he said.
After years of static performances — an athlete plagued by injuries — he is again seeing improvement.
“Now that I’m finally feeling healthy and trusting my body, I’m able to make more of those gains in training,” he explained.
And the improvement is motivating.
This year, he qualified for his fourth senior world championship team. In the mixed relay, he and Jess Davis fenced well and finished eighth. Anderson has lived in Davis’ Connecticut home since 2019, when he moved back east to train with the New York Athletic Club’s fencing program. He thinks of Davis like a sibling and calls the arrangement a saving grace.
“I couldn’t have continued doing it if I didn’t have somebody like her in my life,” he said.
The world championships mixed relay was the first time the two friends had competed together and was good prep for the 2023 Pan Am Games, where a top-two finish in the individual competitions will earn them tickets to the Olympic Games Paris 2024.
“For Pan Ams, the fencing and the riding are what will ultimately make or break the competition,” he said. “If you have a clean ride and a good fence, then everybody can run. I’m usually a good shot and my swimming is competitive for pentathlon. So it should be good.”
If everything goes well in Santiago, it will be “smooth sailing” to Paris. If not, Anderson will fight for a spot on the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team through the UIMP World Cup season next spring.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he admitted, “but we’re looking forward to it.”