Less than one year after being introduced to the modern pentathlon during the Olympics, Monica Sacco was staring down one of the best in the sport.
The Union Springs native watched on TV as American Margaux Isaksen barely lost out on the bronze medal in London in 2012. Sacco, in just her second time competing, was starstruck as she fenced against her at the US National Women’s Championship last June.
"I had seen her on TV, and I'm like 'Who am I? I've only been doing pentathlon six months,'" Sacco said of the meeting.
The modern pentathlon involves a series of one-touch fencing bouts, a 200 meter freestyle swim and equestrian show jumping with a randomly assigned horse. It ends with a 3,200 meter run with four stops at a shooting range.
Despite limited experience with jumping horses and fencing, Sacco finished 10th. More importantly, she showed the potential to quickly climb the rankings.
"I wasn't upset with finishing 10th, because I was going against the people who had been at the Olympics for the United States," Sacco said. "People in that competition weren't just starting out. They were the real deal."
Isaksen’s advice was to stick with it.
"(Isaksen) was like 'Everyone has to start somewhere, I've been doing this since I was 14,'" Sacco said.
For Sacco, the modern pentathlon just made sense.
The 23-year-old was a three-sport athlete in high school and represented Union Springs at the state track and field championships, but ultimately went on to play soccer at Tompkins Cortland Community College.
She got back into track at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she placed in the top 10 in the 400 and 800 meter races at the NJCAA championships.
"When I was done with college, I wasn't in any sport," Sacco said. "I felt kind of lost, and I felt like I needed to get back into something."
After being inspired by the competitors in the 2012 London Olympics, Sacco began training.
"I figured I'd give it a shot,” Sacco said, “And it started from there.”
Because of the wide range of events, training for the modern pentathlon is unusual by most standards.
While many athletes run, not many have to worry about stopping to fire a laser pistol. And that comes after swimming, fencing and horseback riding.
"Every pentathlete is good at all five sports, but they're usually great at one or two," Sacco said. "You have to be that way. No one is going to be great at all five."
Sacco takes two fencing and riding classes per week, and takes time to run and swim around working full time. Whether it's the finer points of fencing, the proper techniques for swimming, or getting better at controlling horses, Sacco is learning new lessons every day from each of her coaches.
Sacco visits the national training facility in Colorado a few times a year, where the athletes spend six days a week working on each of the five disciplines.
"Ideally, what you want to be doing is all of the sports every day," Sacco said.
Six months after beginning training, Sacco traveled to Minnesota for the Great Prairie Regional Pentathlon.
Not her strong suit, Sacco struggled with the horse randomly assigned to her during show jumping portion. She attempted to slow the horse down, but was awarded zero points after they veered off course multiple times.
Sacco took it as a learning experience.
"It was probably the best thing that could have happened though," she said. "After that, I knew what I had to do to keep horses in line."
Sacco made up for the lost points with the combined running and shooting portion of the competition.
"By the end of the day, it's 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon and your legs are exhausted from swimming and fencing and riding," Sacco said. "You know your run is what's going to get you there."
Sacco advanced to the national championship, where she placed 10th, and decided to make a run to at a position on the 2014 World Cup team. After three qualifier competitions, she was ranked in the sixth and final spot for Team USA.
Then came some disappointing news in mid-February.
Isaksen, who missed time with shin fractures, would join the team on the coach's discretion, and Sacco was bumped to the first alternate position. Instead of having a guaranteed spot at the multiple World Cup events, she would have the first chance to replace an athlete that is injured or otherwise can’t make it.
“They posted the rankings on the USA pentathlon website and I saw I was sixth,” Sacco recalled. “I thought ‘Yes! I’m in World Cup rotation, this is awesome!’ Then they called.”
Sacco is hoping her phone rings again.
The World Cup event in Acapulco, Mexico has already passed, and the second event in Egypt begins April 2. More competitions in China and Hungary are coming in the next six weeks.
"Now I'm just waiting for my call to see which one I'm going to go to," Sacco said.
Even if those don’t come to fruition, Sacco expects to compete in the US National Team Qualifier in Colorado May 9.
There’s still a long road to reach the top, but Sacco is enjoying the ride. Each experience, along with the training that goes with it, inches her closer to everything coming full circle -- being in the Olympics.
"I'm hoping to make it to a World Cup this year, just so I can get experience at that high level," Sacco said. "Everyone at the World Cup, those are girls that are at the Olympics. That's my end goal."