Modern pentathlete, Olympic gold medallist, Rio 2016
Olympic gold medallist Chloe Esposito chose one of the toughest sports in the world to compete in–the one they nickname 'the James Bond' of sports.
Olympic gold medallist Chloe Esposito chose one of the toughest sports in the world to compete in – the one they nickname 'the James Bond' of sports.
But in the end, it wasn't the swimming, fencing, show jumping, running and shooting of the modern pentathlon that caused her the most problems in the run-up to the 2016 Rio Games; it was some of her fellow athletes.
'We're training for not one, but five different events, and so you end up having four or five training sessions a day, and then trying to squeeze in a bit of gym too,' says Chloe, now 25. 'It's so diverse, and you work so hard, training for more hours and over so many more kilometres than anyone else, it can feel insane.
'I remember some of the other athletes, though, saying we just train too hard and it's a ridiculous amount of work we have to do, and we must be crazy. Yes, to be honest, it is tough, but it's hard when others are being so negative about you.'
Chloe resolved, however, to take no notice of them at all. She'd decided at the age of ten that she wanted to compete in the modern pentathlon like her dad, Daniel, who told her about his own journey to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She knew in her heart that, if she worked hard enough, she'd succeed.
She wouldn't allow anyone, or anything, to put her off. In the gruelling modern pentathlon, athletes have to fence, swim freestyle for 200 metres, ride a horse over a 12-jump course, then take part in a combined 3200-metre running and shooting event – all in one day. Competing was always her dream, and one she wouldn't give up on.
It can hurt you and upset you to hear people saying you can’t do something, but you have to believe in yourself.
'Of course, it can hurt you and upset you to hear people saying you can't do something, but you have to believe in yourself,' she says. 'As well, if someone is going to say bad things about you, then they definitely don't deserve to see that it's hurting you. I just thought maybe they were a bit jealous, and I ignored it.'
They weren't the only detractors Chloe was determined to blank, either. The modern pentathlon has only been an Olympic event for females since the Sydney 2000 Games and the sport had never had much of a profile in Australia as it's an event mostly played in Europe. As a result, some in the sport overseas were incredibly dismissive of a young Aussie outsider treading on their turf.
In 2010/11, she applied to compete in the junior European Championships and it was ruled that, despite living in Australia, she'd be allowed to enter. 'Their attitude was, "This girl's from Australia, so she's not going to do anything!”" Chloe laughs. 'They were adamant that I wouldn't get anywhere in the competition, so they allowed me to compete up to the semi-final stage as they were so sure I wouldn't get there. But I did.
'I guess when people tell me I can't do something that spurs me on to prove them wrong. It's not nice hearing those kind of things, but actions speak louder than words. I'm not the kind of person to say things back. I prefer to let what I do to speak for me.'
- In 2013, Chloe moved to Hungary's capital, Budapest, Hungary to improve her fencing skills
- In modern pentathlon, athletes have to fence, swim, ride a horse, then take part in a combined running and shooting event – all in one day.
These days, after Sydneysider Chloe's stunning win at the Rio Olympics, coming from behind six other competitors to snatch gold – the first-ever Australian medal in the sport – absolutely no one's casting any doubt on her ability to achieve anything she puts her mind to.
She knows this road won't be easy because there have already been plenty of sacrifices along the way. As a kid, she often couldn't go to her friends' parties as she was too busy training, and then catching up on sleep, and eventually they stopped inviting her. In 2013, she moved to Hungary's capital, Budapest, to improve her fencing skills with her dad who was coaching her and younger brother, Max, who'd also taken up the sport. She endured long periods separated from her mum, Suzanne, and younger sister, Emily, who stayed back home in Sydney.
Then, in training for the Rio Games, she had a shocker of a year in 2014 when she was out of action with shoulder and foot injuries, and then a torn Achilles tendon in late 2015 meant she couldn't compete in major competitions, but she continued striving to keep the faith.
'At one stage, I didn't want to compete in the Games because I didn't feel I was 110 per cent prepared,' she says. 'But then suddenly everything fell into place. I think it was experience that got me through. I felt it was my place, and my time.'
She has learnt only to accept criticism when it's constructive, and from those she knows genuinely care about her: her dad, brother Max who, at 19, is a champion fencer and pentathlete, and sister Emily, 23, an accomplished shooter who qualified for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
'Other people might say stuff, but they don't know me, who I am, and what it's like to walk in my shoes,' Chloe says. 'I'm the only one who knows that. If I get something in my head, I know I'm going to do it and if someone says no, then I think, Stuff you! I love the quote, "pressure makes diamonds"'.
Success can be a lot of work and a lot of determination and it's never a path in a straight line.
Right now, Chloe is looking forward to married life with her husband, Matt Cooper, and then she'll start planning for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. 'Success can be a lot of work and a lot of determination and it's never a path in a straight line,' she says. 'It's lots of ups and downs and probably more negatives than positives but you have to stay strong and push through. If you put in the work, then it will happen!'
What is the quality you admire most about yourself?
It sounds a bit clichéd, but I never give up. And I'm not over-competitive. I want to win, of course, and will give it my best every time but if a competitor wins, then I'm happy for them and think they deserve the success. I don't ever get jealous. It's about sportsmanship as well as winning.
You're an athlete, so you compete to win. How do you deal with comparing yourself to others?
I feel very much that I'm my own person and I see the others as competitors. I don't worry too much about what the girl next to me is doing; I worry much more about what I'm doing, and not doing, and what I want to do. I'm in my own headspace, and am competing as much against myself as against others.
What was the biggest barrier you faced in winning your gold medal? How did you overcome it?
In Pentathlon there are a lot of things you can't control. Your horse might not do what you want him to do, or a gun might not work. But six weeks before the Games in Rio began, I didn't have any barriers about self-belief. I had the feeling that I could do it. I knew I would give it 110 per cent and then, on the day, everything fell into place.
How did you stay positive on the journey to the Olympics?
Sometimes it can be hard to stay motivated but I really trained hard and tried to stay motivated. I know it sounds silly but I can't stand swimming and there were days I didn't want to get up and go to the pool. But I told myself to just suck it up and do it.
Looking back, what advice would you give to your teenage self?
Don't put up a fight with Mum and Dad when they say you can't do things! It was hard sometimes when they said I couldn't go to a party or something like that, but they were always right. Look how things turned out for me! I'd tell myself to lose the attitude, and take their advice.
Believe in the Dream Collection by
Sue Williams is an award-winning journalist and columnist who's written for all of Australia's leading newspapers and magazines. She also appears regularly on TV and on radio, and has had her own TV segment on SBS TV's popular Hotline program. Born in England, she has worked in print and TV in the UK and New Zealand, too.