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Trials of a busy pentathlete
Alice Higgins
August 28, 1967
Young John du Pont, host to the national championships, found that organizing the event could be a handicap for a dedicated competitor
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August 28, 1967

Trials Of A Busy Pentathlete

Young John du Pont, host to the national championships, found that organizing the event could be a handicap for a dedicated competitor

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At Saratoga last week a lot of people were interested in the news that John du Pont had bought a Bold Ruler filly for a record-breaking $190,000. At Newtown Square, Pa. the crowd watching du Pont's doings was much smaller but even more interested. He was playing host to the National Modern Pentathlon Championships, and he was also competing in the events—fencing, shooting, swimming, running and riding—which that strenuous sport requires.

It also requires money. As host the 28-year-old du Pont had to invite and organize the experts who judge and patrol the different events, provide four specially constructed fencing strips, build a shooting range with moving targets, construct a splendid 50-meter, six-lane indoor swimming pool, lay out a 4,000-meter running course and a 1,200-meter riding course on his Foxcatcher Farms, and also provide horses for the 29 competitors. The entrants included four Swedes who, of course, were ineligible for selection to the U.S. team but could compete for the U.S. championship.

Although du Pont says candidly that he wants to make the U.S. pentathlon team in the Olympics, he adds: "My interest in the pentathlon isn't just for myself. It's such a little-known sport, and I think it is high time we won a gold medal or a world championship." The U.S. has never finished better than second, regularly outclassed by Russians, Swedes and Hungarians. "Being second," said du Pont, "is just like all other places. Not first."

In his dual role as administrator and participant he revealed a little inexperience on both counts. On the lawn before his house, with the flags of various nations and the blue-and-gold Foxcatcher emblem fluttering from poles, he busied himself with last-minute preparations of the organizing committee as J. Eleuthere du Pont. Then, as plain John E. du Pont, he stood in line with other pentathletes to draw his starting numbers from a silver bowl. Between these activities he directed the Pinkerton guards and the movie crews filming the events.

When the first event, fencing with the �p�e, began in the Villanova University field house, du Pont was still dividing his time between fencing on the strip and checking on organizational matters, which may have had something to do with the fact that he was touched frequently. "I'm worried," he said, after a bout in which he was almost instantly skewered, "about what to do with the strips after the competition is over. Maybe some school will take up fencing and I can donate the strips and solve the problem."

He dismissed such concerns from his mind when he met Bill Sickels, who formerly worked for him preparing the championship facilities at Foxcatcher Farms and who was discharged two weeks ago. It was a bout that looked as if it might be for real, but if Sickels was seeking revenge he was frustrated. After a brisk exchange, du Pont won. Both these American contenders, however, finished behind the seasoned Swedish entrants, Ferm and Brandelius.

Rain threatened that afternoon, when the shoot was scheduled. But it did not deter the increasingly large crowd which filed past the misspelled "pentathalon" sign at the gate of Foxcatcher Farms. Americans won the first five places, although the day ended with Sweden's Ferm still the total-point leader.

The 300-meter swim began the next morning, and swimming is du Pont's strongest sport. Inside, the new pool sparkled in the light from the windows that formed the long walls. Du Pont swam the distance in 3:41.5—which only 10 years ago would have been a pentathlon record. But Bob Freshley did it in 3:41.2 and won.

After the 4,000-meter cross-country run, Ferm—who finished fourth—was still in first place in the overall standings. Captain Donald Walheim led the Americans and was second in the overall. Lieut. Bill Matheson (who won the run) moved up from ninth to third place.

The suspense of the last day's event—a ride over a 1,200-meter course with 17 jumps—was heightened because it was held in two flights, one at 8 a.m. and the other at 4 p.m. Walheim was in the morning group. He had a fall when his horse hit a fence hard, as well as several knockdowns. Matheson, on the other hand, had the best go of the morning, with only one knockdown. He took second place, and thereby insured that he would be the highest-scoring American entrant. Ferm rode well enough in the afternoon to keep his first place in the overalls. The only perfect ride of the day was made by Bill Sickels. It did not win the meet for him (he finished 12th) but it did put him ahead of du Pont in the final standings. So Matheson, Walheim, Louis Cotton (who finished as an upset winner) and 30-year-old Dr. Robert Beck (the 1963 Pan-American Games gold-medal winner) became the team that will go to Sweden next month to try for the world championships. Host and loser du Pont, who finished 14th, left for Sweden with the Scandinavian athletes to sharpen his skills and gain some experience by competing in the Swedish national championships.

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