Modern PentathlonNewsJessica Davis

Modern Pentathlete Jess Davis Qualifies for Paris 2024 at Pan Am Games

by Peggy Shinn

Jessica Davis competes during the showing jumping stage of women's modern pentathlon competition at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Oct. 23, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

Jessica Davis has been a multisport athlete for well over two decades. As a kid, she competed in three-day eventing, an equestrian competition combining dressage, cross-country and show jumping. In high school and college track and field, she competed in three, sometimes four events. Then Davis became a triathlete.

But she has found no sport as beautiful or fulfilling as modern pentathlon — which combines riding, fencing, swimming, running and laser shooting. 

Now, at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 in Santiago, Chile, the 31-year-old pentathlete qualified for her first Olympic Games.

From her home in Litchfield County, Connecticut, Davis talked about how she discovered pentathlon, what it’s like to train for five sports, and what has kept her in the sport for almost a decade.

Raised in Connecticut, Davis grew up in an athletic family. Her mom was a professional equestrian and had her young daughter “on a horse from the moment I could be on a horse,” said Davis. By the time she was 13 or 14, she was competing in three-day eventing.

In high school, Davis competed in track and field. She had tried soccer and softball when she was younger, but as a tall, lanky kid, she “wasn’t very good at any of it.” She liked the field events — pole vaulting, long jump and triple jump — and continued to compete in track and field at Central Connecticut State University. 

Davis still holds the university’s indoor and outdoor pole vault records (2.99 meters set in 2012 and 2.9 meters set in 2011, respectively). 

As her college career was coming to a close, Davis looked for other sports to channel her competitiveness. She wanted to find a lifelong sport, so she took a cue from her dad, who competes in Ironman triathlons. Davis liked competing in three separate sports and “hit it out of the park right off the bat,” she said.

Then one day, she was approached by 1996 Olympic fencer Suzie Paxton.

“We met at a house party, and she told me about this crazy sport, modern pentathlon,” explained Davis. “She got me involved very quickly with the New York Athletic Club (to learn to fence), and I just kind of ran with it.”

Jessica Davis competes during the swimming stage of the women's pentathlon competition at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Oct. 23, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

Of modern pentathlon’s five sports, Davis already knew how to ride, run, and swim. Accurately shooting a pistol, she discovered, would take repetition. And fencing would take time to master. Nut she had “all the building blocks to figure out the sport pretty quickly.”

Less than a year after she had graduated from college, Davis was competing in a UIPM Pentathlon World Cup in Sarasota, Florida.

While many new pentathletes struggle with the time commitment of training for five sports, Davis was already used to spending hours in a sport. As a kid when she was riding, she would often spend up to six hours at the barn riding, then caring for horses. 

“I was always mentally able to spend a lot of time on whatever sport I was doing,” she said. “It’s a lot of time out of every day to be dedicated to this, and I was already pretty well calibrated to that kind of scheduled, so it was easy to just jump into a different schedule but the same amount of time.”

In a typical day, Davis will train three of the five sports. For example, on a hard day leading up to the 2023 Pan Am Games, she did a tempo run in the morning. Then in the early afternoon, she and teammate Brendan Anderson, who lives in Davis’ home, drove two hours into New York City to swim and fence at the NYAC. Other days, they work riding and shooting into the mix, and six days a week, they swim and run.

Davis’ strength in pentathlon has turned out to be fencing — surprising given her history with riding, running and swimming. In July 2023, she won the Division 1A national fencing title in épée (Division 1A is the open division, one level below elite, and the women’s Division 1A épée had one of the largest senior women’s fields at nationals, with 123 competitors).

In fencing, Davis has found a good channel for her competitiveness. And she likes the fluidity of the sport. 

“Running, running and swimming, it's just who's the fastest,” she said. “With fencing, you may not technically be the best fencer, but you could have the score because there's something about you that's tripping people up.”

“Good day or bad day, I just like the sport,” she added.

Jessica Davis looks on during the fencing stage of the women's pentathlon competition at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Oct. 23, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Joe Kusumoto)

Davis’ strength in fencing bodes well for her modern pentathlon results. Scores are based on a point system, with the start for the final leg (running and shooting) based on points behind the leader. For example, a pentathlete who is 10 points behind the leader starts the running/shooting leg 10 seconds after him/her.

“Fencing is the variable that can really determine a lot of pentathletes’ days because it’s the place where you can make up a ton of points, but you can also lose a lot too,” explained Davis. “Everyone’s really fast in running right now, so if you drop too many points in the fence, then it’s really hard to run your way back up (to the front).”

At the 2023 UIPM Pentathlon World Championships in the mixed relay, Davis and Anderson finished fifth in fencing (before coming in eighth at the finish).

Qualifying for an Olympic Games has been Davis’s biggest motivator over the past decade. But she also appreciates the beauty of modern pentathlon. It’s a sport that modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin devised to show the complete athlete, combining five skills considered essential skills for a 19th century cavalry officer.

“It’s one of those sports where when you do put it together and have a really good day, there is really no feeling like it,” said Davis, who believes that modern pentathletes are some of the best all-around athletes in the world.

The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were a long shot for Davis. But now, after eight years in the sport and six UIPM pentathlon world championships, Davis feels ready. At 2021 world championships, she made the final — one of few U.S. women to have made a modern pentathlon world championship final in the past decade. Then in August, Davis and Anderson finished eighth in the world championship mixed relay (her previous best world championship mixed relay result was 20th place).

“It’s an accumulation of building experience and learning how to train correctly,” she said. 

She also knows how to handle the rigors of competition day. 

“There’s no more apprehension,” she said. “I know what’s going to happen, and I know how to handle myself on competition days. I know what to eat, how to sleep, how my energy needs to be, all the little things that really make a huge difference.”

In October, Davis competed at the Pan Amsand secured her spot on the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team. 

“We’re superstitious and humble,” she said. “We never want to say anything. But I do trust my training and my coaches, and my body. I’m feeling confident, happy, and excited about it.”

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