Schrimsher, 24, is the sole male member of Team USA’s modern pentathlon squad and will be among about 10,500 athletes participating in the Summer Games, which run Aug. 5-21.
The modern pentathlon, by the way, should not be confused with the ancient pentathlon first held by the Greeks in roughly 700 BC: “That’s when they’d wrestle to the death,” Schrimsher said, only slightly exaggerating.
Schrimsher and 35 other pentathletes from around the globe will be vying for Olympic glory Aug. 18 and 20 in a sport that has five disciplines — fencing (his favorite), swimming, equestrian, pistol shooting and running.
Although no one has ever won gold in the event from the U.S., the sport has attracted high-profile competitors. In 1912, for instance, the first time the modern pentathlon was conducted in the Games, the fifth-place finisher was future U.S. Gen. George S. Patton.
The modern pentathlon, which rarely gets prime-time TV attention, has a military background based on what a 19th century cavalry soldier would be required to be skilled at, Schrimsher said earlier this month in an interview at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
“He had to have the ability to ride a horse he had never met before, to be able to cross land or water by running or swimming, and then be able to defend himself with a sword and gun to deliver the message across enemy lines to the commander,” he said.
It’s been through the military that Schrimsher has been able to train.
“I’m in the World Class Athlete Program, which allows soldier athletes to compete and train in their respective sports with the goal of going to the Olympic Games and winning gold medals,” he said. “There are about 80 of us in it. The Army has supported me for three years. Without that support it would be extremely hard on me. But it’s an honor to be able to represent not only my country through athletic perspective, but to represent the Army is awesome.”
An early start
Unlike most Olympic athletes, Schrimsher’s athletic roots were spawned by a flash flood.
It was about 12 years ago when a summer storm hit the Roswell area and created a torrent through the 3,000-acre Schrimsher ranch Nathan lived on with father Keith, mother Micki and younger brother Lucas.
“The water would run really strong and my brother and me, not having a clue how dangerous it was, wanted to go swimming in it,” said Nathan, who was home-schooled along with Lucas. “That sparked my mom to get us swimming lessons. We even joined a swim team (at New Mexico Military Institute).”
Their swim coach was Jan Olesinski, who competed in modern pentathlon for Poland at the 1980 Games in Moscow, finishing 11th. In no time, he had the brothers involved in his favorite sport, with both now on Team USA.
Said Olesinski in a phone interview: “You could see at a young age that they were easygoing, excited about life and looking for a new adventure. You look for potential. And they had great support from their parents.”
In March 2015, Keith Schrimsher died suddenly at age 59.
“It hit us like a bullet in the head because it came out of nowhere,” Micki said. “It made me physically ill.”
The brothers paused to rethink their priorities.
“It happened a week before we had a major World Cup competition in Rome,” Nathan said. “I got that call, went home, took care of all that stuff that goes along with the situation, and my brother and I were like, ‘What do we do?’
“We knew our dad would want us to keep going and not stop for him — he was one of our biggest supporters — so we left after a few days and kept going. I qualified for the Olympics about two months later. If I would have crawled into a shell, I wouldn’t have qualified. And I’m glad I didn’t stop because the Olympic thing kind of gave everyone a little life.”
Micki still marvels at Nathan’s drive.
“He’s shown amazing strength,” she said. “I know he’s feeling his dad’s presence out there.”
Micki said her boys also have her on their minds: “They call me two or three times a day to check up.”
There has been little downtime recently since for Nathan, who did find a few hours to attend a KISS concert Monday.
“The past four years I haven’t had a lot of time off,” said Schrimsher, who was the first athlete from Team USA to earn an Olympic berth when he finished third in the Pan Am Games in Toronto last July. “When I first moved to Colorado, I knew it was going to be real tough and if I wanted to make the Olympics and make a good showing. I knew I would have to give up a lot of things. I enjoy skiing, doing fun stuff. And I wouldn’t be able to go home on a regular basis.
“This year, from about February to about June, I went to Egypt, Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Hungary and Moscow. That was the world tour we had. We were training where we could. It was competition, training, competition, training.”
Although he said Team USA doesn’t throw up stop signs for athletes who would want to sky-dive or play flag football, Nathan said he learned the hard way to steer clear of hazards.
“About five years ago I was kind of stupid and liked doing reckless stuff,” he said. “So I went water-skiing before a major competition and tore my hamstring really bad. I was out six months.”
Then there was the episode in January when Nathan and Lucas went to a Denver sports bar to watch the Broncos play the visiting Patriots in the NFL playoffs. Lucas probably should have kept his Patriots jersey in the closet.
Nathan warned his brother, too.
“I said, ‘Lucas, if the Patriots win, we’re in a bar that’s a sea of orange and, like, you’re going to die. I’m not going to be able to help you.
“Thank goodness the Broncos won, because people were giving him mean looks.”
Lucas laughed off the seriousness of the situation: “I did learn, though, that Denver really likes the Broncos. There was one other Patriots fan there that day, but I don’t think he would have been much help to me. He was only 7. But the Broncos fans turned out to be good sports.”
During Nathan’s crucial July preparation at the Training Center, he routinely works out from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Saturdays, he has only morning duties. Sundays he’s off: “I like to go to church in the morning and just be with the Lord and have my personal day like that.”
On one particular Thursday, at 8 a.m. he met with modern pentathlon head coach Janusz Peciak in the fencing venue. Peciak won gold in the event for Poland in the 1976 Games in Montreal.
“He’s very talented in fencing,” Peciak said of Schrimsher. “On a good day, he could fence very good and be in the top in fencing. The same with swimming, the same with shooting. And he’s a good rider.”
“His weakness is running,” Peciak said. “So we’ll work on that.”
To that end, after fencing practice that day, Schrimsher headed off the track at nearby Colorado College and did a series of 800- and 400-meter sprints, paced each time by a fresh teammate on an alternating basis. By the end of the drills, Nathan was surging past the fresh runners to the finish. He collapsed in exhaustion on the track surface after the last sprint.
The running was followed by breakfast at the commissary, swimming practice (even Olympians have lifeguards watching) and then a short ride at the equestrian center south of town in Fountain.
For Lucas, it was a poor performance in the equestrian in May’s World Cup finals (“My horse had lazy legs.”) that kept him from making this an Olympic brother act.
Said Nathan: “My brother is my best friend and training partner, so it was hard.”
The two also share an off-campus residence and trade cooking duties when not at the commissary.
“When Nathan’s on the grill,” Lucas said, “I stay out of the way. In the kitchen, though, I can whip up good pasta dishes. We work well as a team.”
This will be Schrimsher’s second visit to Rio, following a “test event” in March during the summer season when the humidity was near 100 percent and the temperatures in the 80s. And the air-conditioning wasn’t working at the fencing venue.
“I’ve never been in a climate like that before,” he said. “It was unreal how hot and humid it was. You’ve seen those commercials where someone is drinking orange and they’re sweating orange? Whatever I was putting into my system, hydration-wise, like Gatorade or water and stuff, I could just feel it leaving my system more or less instantly.
“That’s how it was zapping your electrolytes. I felt like I was shriveling. And that was after only a few hours of fencing. I don’t know why, but my brain was going ‘give me some pickle juice.’ I was never able to find any, though. I’ve never been to that exhaustion point before. It was so bad, that the muscle cramps from that lasted for weeks afterward. It took me forever to get over it.”
He won’t be unprepared this time in Rio.
And about the Zika virus scare? He never considered backing out of the Games.
“No, not at all,” he said. “When we were down there, I didn’t see a single mosquito and never got bit. They were giving us bug spray. I guess there will probably be bugs out and stuff, but I’m not worried about it.”
Team USA’s high-performance director, Genadijus Sokolovas, who thankfully answers to Dr. G., echoes Peciak’s comments and said Schrimsher, ranked ninth in the world, has a chance to excel in Rio.
“I would say for sure he’s closer to third than he is to 18th,” said Dr. G, a former Lithuanian pentathlete. “In swimming, he’s one of the strongest in the field. He could finish third there. In fencing, he also looks pretty good. The ones competing in the Olympic Games are not the strongest fencers, so he should be fencing well. And if he fences well, he’ll have a chance to medal.”
Schrimsher said he’s eager to be on the world stage and won’t be overwhelmed.
“I’m ready for it,” he said. “I’m only nervous about finishing my training.”
Yet despite his lofty athletic status in his hometown, he often has to explain to folks exactly what he does.
“All the time,” he said.
A gold medal would be worth $25,000 to Nathan or any other U.S. athlete, but that’s nothing, said Dr. G.
“For example, in a small country like Lithuania, where I”m from, gold medalists receive $150,000 from the government,” he said. And he said it’s common for sponsors to kick in an expensive new car.
“They’ll also receive support for the next Olympic cycle,” Dr. G said. “Whatever they need. If you need to travel to South Africa for training, you go. If you need very expensive training equipment, OK. But in the U.S., no. As an example, our federation is very small and a lot of athletes are paying their own money just to train.”
At the Games
When in Brazil, Schrimsher said he will spend the majority of his time about an hour away by air at a secluded site to focus on training. He’s hoping to keep up his momentum.
“We had a competition in (Sarasota) Florida in early May, in the World Cup final, and I finished seventh, which was the best performance I’ve had as an athlete.
“I didn’t have a very good season up until that, but then I kind of had a breakthrough. Since that was my last major international competition, hopefully I can draw off that high note and go into Rio and see what happens. I’m going to cross the finish line in Rio and not have any regrets.”
And if he does have a podium finish, he won’t have to make a celebration call to his mom to share his joy. He can just give her a hug soon afterward because she’ll be attending the Games with Lucas and coach Olesinski.