REDEMPTION is the most potent plotline in sport. After her heart-breaking meltdown at last year’s Olympics – the sort of reversal of fortunes which could have broken a lesser athlete – few would begrudge Mhairi Spence some good fortune when the 27-year-old from Inverness saddles up in Rio de Janeiro this week at the modern pentathlon world cup.
If her story has escaped you, rewind for a moment to London on 12 August. It was the last day of an Olympics that had already defined itself by British victories. With 29 golds, 17 silvers and 19 bronzes, there were so many feelgood stories of British successes against the odds that few spared a thought for those who had arrived with dreams of sporting immortality and left empty-handed and broken.
Chief amongst those was modern pentathlete Mhairi Spence, the sport’s reigning world champion and an athlete who only had eyes for gold. Instead of glory, however, her haul was a bucket of despair. Lying ninth as she entered the showjumping arena at Greenwich after having competed in the running, swimming and fencing, it all fell apart. Her horse Coronado’s Son, the headstrong grey she drew in the random ballot, had already been over the course several times and thought he knew where he was going. A little over a minute later, he had crashed through four fences and Spence’s Olympic dreams lay in tatters. A faulty shooting target in the final event rounded off a miserable day as she finished in a hitherto undreamed of 21st place.
“For me, it was a disaster, I can’t describe it in any other way,” she said afterwards. “I felt it destroyed part of me. When I qualified for London I felt like somebody, I felt like I was good enough, that I was the person I was trying to be for so many years. I climbed off the horse and there was nothing to say except ‘I am done, my heart is broken’.”
Spence had almost quit the sport once already, when she qualified for Beijing in 2008 but missed out on selection and sat on the sidelines as team reserve. Only constant coaxing and advice from her sports psychologist Deirdre Angella managed to help the emotionally fragile 22-year-old over the disappointment of Beijing, and Angella has been key to Spence bouncing back from the calamity of London.
“I’ve been working closely again with Deirdre, and she won’t ever leave me – I won’t allow it,” joked Spence. “I think she’s my permanent psychologist for life. Even when she or I is not in the country we have continual Skype and email conversations. I really needed help to work through last year’s events and to deal with the fallout. That’s not something I could have done on my own.”
Spence also decided that, having been in the sporting goldfish bowl since she was a teenager, she needed to get away from it all, so spent almost five months backpacking around Australia. It had a cathartic effect, and Spence came back raring to go. Her chat is punctuated with talk of four-year cycles. Rio 2016 is firmly in her sights.
“I’ve got so many mixed emotions, but then I think no matter how you did at London we all got post-Olympics fallout, this Olympic blues,” she said. “I had to work through that and this crushing disappointment. The problem is that, for four years, you’ve focused on this huge thing, and on nothing else, and then all of a sudden it’s over and you have to pick the rest of your life back up again. One minute you’re in this Olympic bubble and the next it’s gone.”
But the competitive spirit is strong in Spence. Although modern pentathlon isn’t in next year’s Commonwealth Games, “Fencey Spencey” has already won medals for Scotland at the Commonwealth Fencing Championships – a championship generally held alongside the Commonwealth Games – at Belfast in 2006 and Melbourne in 2010, and is considering trying to make the team for Glasgow 2014. She’s even considering trying out for the shooting, one of the modern pentathlon disciplines which is also a Commonwealth Games sport in its own right.
But it’s clear that the Olympics is her main focus and that Rio is the first stage of her four-year plan. She is the only one of the four outstanding Scottish pentathletes based in Bath – the other three are Olympic reserve Freyja Prentice, 18-year-old Jo Muir and Kerry Prise – to travel to Rio, so she intends to make the most of the experience. She said: “I’ll get a sense of what to expect at Rio 2016, but I’m a little bit apprehensive because I haven’t competed since the Olympics.
“I’ve only been training for three months, so it’s pretty daunting, but I’m looking forward to getting back on the horse and seeing how I feel. I should feel all excited but I’m not sure yet: I’m hardwired to win and am usually only happy when I’m on top, whereas finishing in the top ten in Rio would be a decent result.”
Spence still professes undying love for the sport designed 100 years ago by Olympic founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin to ape the five tasks a French soldier went through to deliver a message and with which she became enraptured while watching Ayrshire’s Steph Cook, left, win gold at Sydney in 2000. Spence says she has reconciled herself to the potential unfairness of being paired with a random and occasionally unsuitable horse.
“Mentally, I’m actually in a really good place right now – I’ve come to terms with everything that happened last year,” she says. “I went into the Olympics with such high hopes that to move on has been tough. But I’ve been training hard, enjoying it and life is good. Most of all, I never forget how good it is to be living the life of a fully-funded athlete. I’ve had some hard times but I am blessed.”