Competing in the Under 17 age group at the Laser-Run World Championships 2017 in Cape Town, 15-year-old Isabelle Woodman sprinted in after her first 800-metre run onto the shooting range in third place, with two of her faster rivals hot on her heels. Her supporters held their breath as she grabbed her laser pistol, needing a near-perfect shoot to give her the extra time on the final run to hang on to bronze medal position. Focusing carefully on the target, she raised the pistol and instantly hit the black centre ring with her first shot, cocked it to reload, momentarily touched it down on the table, then repeated the process four more times.
To the delight of the British contingent, she got five green lights without a single miss in little over 12 seconds, then sprinted back onto the track for the final 800 metres, 30 metres ahead of her pursuers who had each missed several shots, costing them valuable seconds. Despite a gritty two-lap contest as they dashed from the range and surged ever-closer, Isabelle battled gamely and fought off their challenge, narrowly retaining her third place to take a coveted bronze medal.
For Isabelle, a sports scholar at Rossall School, Lancashire, one of half-a-dozen independent schools hosting academies for modern pentathlon and its family of multi-sports including the newest addition, laser-run, hours of painstaking training on the range and track had paid off.
Pentathlon was originally made up of the five separate disciplines of swimming, fencing, shooting, showjumping and running, but in 2009 the exciting and accessible combined laser-run replaced the old shooting and running sections to provide a thrilling finale. It is now becoming a popular event in its own right, with national and international championships run over different distances according to age group and many new recruits competing in their first ever laser-runs at events like the upcoming Midlands qualifier at Malvern College for the popular National School Games Final.
“It’s a great sport as it’s fun and children can get involved as young as eight,” explained Steven Mason, Rossall’s Head of Pentathlon and a former international pentathlete. “The laser pistol is far safer than the old air pistols, and easier to handle, though you still need a lot of focus to produce the really fast, accurate shots that make the difference between the winners and also-rans. We now get curriculum time to do laser-run shooting sessions in PE lessons and often the less athletic kids discover a real talent for it, then develop their running to take part in laser-runs.”
“Laser-run is very user-friendly” agreed Mick Flaherty, Head of the Community Pentathlon Academy based at Leweston School, Dorset, which has produced numerous national champions including rising star Darcy Dryden, 13. “It’s simple, easy for newcomers to pick up and exciting as the first person to cross the line
is the winner. Quite a few of our youngsters who try laser-run end up going into other multisports like modern triathlon [swim, laser-run] and modern pentathlon.”
Other schools with Pentathlon academies specialising in laser-run include Plymouth College, Millfield and Whitgift headed by former British international Laura Gomersall. Four of Whitgift’s powerful squad, including two of their academy girls, competed successfully for GB in last year’s World Laser-Run Championships, Gabrielle Holland from Copthorne Prep taking the World Under 13 individual title and squad members also taking three team silver medals at Under 11 and Under 13 level.
“I drill in self-confidence and get our youngsters to control their breathing and focus on hitting the first target,” added Steven. “I give them trigger words that they say to boost their self-belief and distract from negative feelings. It’s very stressful to be in a world championship with thousands of people watching you shoot. But laser-run teaches you poise and how to handle yourself under extreme pressure. Whether you just enjoy local events or you reach world level though, you’ll learn things that you carry with you for life.”