Ireland's Natalya Coyle produced the best all-round performance of her career to finish in an impressive 20th position at the 2011 Modern Pentathlon World Cup final on Sunday.
The competition, held in Greenwich Park, was the test event for the Olympic Games and saw the winner, current Olympic champion Lena Schonborn (GER), qualify for an automatic place for 2012.
While Olympic qualification for modern pentathlon is a year-long process - finishing on 1 June 2012 - this result for Coyle sees her move up to 42nd in the world rankings and is a significant boost to her chances of being on the startline in Greenwich in 12 months time.
Coyle commented: ‘It’s fantastic to have placed so high, it really gives me a confidence boost for the rest of the season. I’m really starting to believe in myself and when you do that anything’s possible. London is so far away but this is a step in the right direction for me.’
Coyle started the fencing event in a nervous fashion, winning just four fights in her first 13 encounters. A change in fortune saw the young Irish athlete set off on a huge winning streak, loosing just one fight in the next 12 fights.
She was able to hold her form and finish the three-hour event with 17 victories and 17 defeats for a pentathlon score of 832, placing her in joint-12th position after the first event.
Coyle reflected on her fencing performance, saying: ‘The first few fights I was very nervous, but luckily I raised my game when my parents arrived and was able to show them what I’m capable of.
‘I really enjoyed the whole thing which I think helped my performance, hopefully I can repeat this in my next competition.’
Times from competitions in the last 12 months were used to seed the swim heats. Coyle, who was seeded in the first of five heats which contained the slowest swimmers, led the 200m swim from the gun.
‘She opened up a meter lead after the first stroke and just never looked back,’ explained performance director Lindsey Weedon.
‘We’d talked about her taking the heat on as she’d been feeling really confident about her swim preparations and that’s exactly what she did.
‘She must have had a six-meter lead at the end of the 200m, it was really impressive stuff.’
Coyle posted a personal best time of 2:20.20 and was the 17th quickest in the field, that gave her 1120 pentathlon points.
Coyle commented: ‘I knew from the start I was going to swim fast as Dave Malone, my swim coach at NAC, has been pushing me hard in training.
‘I took it on from the start and it was really tough on the last length when there was just clear water around me, but I kept thinking of my time, I wanted to break my personal best so much.
I’m just delighted, but I know I can go much quicker.’
Coyle was placed in 19th position after two events, but a tricky draw in the ride nearly saw the day end in disaster. Her horse, According to Oscar, had knocked a few poles in the test round a few days earlier so Coyle needed to bring all her year’s riding experience into the arena.
The 20-year-old said: ‘I drew a sticky horse, and unfortunately he wasn’t kind to me knocking a fair few poles.
‘I was disappointed with my ride score, but it’s the nature of the sport.
‘I learned to ride through the Pony Club and I’m used to dealing with their [horse’s] unpredictable nature.
‘I know I did my best with the horse I had so I was able to put the disappointment behind me and get on with the combined.’
Five knockdowns saw Coyle finish 100 points off the perfect score with 1100 points and drop down to 21st position overall.
The leader of the competition after three events was Elodie Clouvel of France with Coyle starting one minute six seconds behind in 21st position.
Recent competitions have shown that positions can change dramatically in the combined run/shoot event with huge gains being made by athletes that can hold their nerve in pressure situations.
Schonborn is one of those athletes. Starting in seventh position and 29 seconds behind Clouvel, she was able to get herself into medal contention during the shooting phases, and take the lead on the final run lap. In doing so she gained that all-important Olympic qualification place.
Other athletes who made impressive charges up the leaderboard in the final event were Eva Trautman (Germany) who came from 15th to fourth and Freyja Prentice (Great Britain) who moved up from 24th to 12th.
Coyle was consistent throughout the three-shoot series, hitting the five shots down in 21, 27 and 18 seconds respectively.
Strong running by the Irish athlete saw her move up one place in the field and cross the line in 20th place.
‘I’m pretty happy with my shooting. I know I can shoot well, but I’ve never been in such a high pressure competition, so it’s nice to know that I can perform when it matters most.
‘Competing in front of a big crowd was nerve-wracking, but I’m glad I didn’t let it get to me in the shoot and they really helped on the last run lap.
‘I’ve been in good running shape recently, but that course was really tough and the crowd helped me home.’
Coyle, the fourth youngest in the field, has improved dramatically in the last two years, with 20th place being her best performance yet.
Coyle seemed to be significantly boosted by the presence of her family at the event.
‘I was just brilliant to have all my family there. They’ve supported me so much over the last few years and I’m just thrilled to have them there to be a part of today.
‘I’ve come so far in the last year and a half and it’s really due to the fantastic support I get back home in Dublin.
‘I have really great coaches and a good support team behind me.
‘I’m delighted with today’s performances and the result that came with it, but I know there’s so much I need to keep working on to make London a reality.
‘It’s going to be a long road, but it really would be phenomenal to be on the start list for the Olympics and I’m going to do all I can do to get there.’
Coyle will now head to Hungary to continue with her training preparations for the European Championships to be held in the UK at the end of this month. This is the continental qualification competition which will see the top-eight placed European athletes gain automatic qualification for London 2012.