MODESTO Let's face it. There's a better than 50-50 chance that Rachel Coleman is a spy.
The signs are all there.
It doesn't matter that the Beyer High freshman is only 14. That's probably part of her cover.
And as the youngest member of the United States modern pentathlon team at last month's World Cup in Palm Springs, she displayed proficiency in skills fencing, swimming, horse jumping, running and shooting that James Bond has utilized in 50 years of 007 movies.
She has two passports, with dual citizenship in the United States and Canada (her father, Paul, was on the Canadian national luge team). How many 14-year-olds do you know that even have one passport? Most 14-year-olds don't have a library card.
She's learning another language, too. Taking French, getting straight A's.
Oh, and get this, she says that someday she'd like to work for the CIA or the FBI.
Someday. Yeah, right.
In the meantime, Coleman is honing her skills in a sport that basically tested the 19th-century version of secret agents. If a cavalry soldier or courier was trapped behind enemy lines, he might have to ride a strange horse, fight off enemies with a pistol or a sword, swim across a river or run several hundred yards to reach safety or deliver a message.
Still buying that high-school-freshman, straight-A-student story?
"I like watching 'Criminal Minds,' " says Coleman of the CBS drama that centers around a team of FBI profilers. "They're all very athletic and they use their minds a lot. It's really cool."
Utilizing mind and body is the quintessence of the modern pentathlon.
Athletes compete against one another in fencing, then swim 200 meters, followed by horse jumping over 12 obstacles on a horse they've never ridden before. Points are awarded based on performance. The score in those events determine starting position for the running/shooting event.
At four different stations during a 3,200-meter run, athletes must stop with heartbeats pounding and adrenaline pumping and hit a 60-millimeter target five times from 10 meters. There is no penalty for poor marksmanship, per se, but if the first-place runner can't hit the target a fifth time too bad! she's stuck there trying until she hits her mark (after 50 seconds, the judges set you free). The last-place runner might hit the target five times in 10 seconds and is free to run again. The first to cross the finish line wins.
Coleman got involved in the sport when her parents had to rein in her equestrian ambition.
"We just kinda presented her the facts on the situation," said Mary Lou Coleman, Rachel's mom.
The situation was this: Dressage and show jumping are très expensive. It can cost well over $10,000 to ship a horse across the country for competition, and a top-of-the-line horse can run several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Queen Elizabeth's granddaughter, Zara Phillips, won silver at the London Olympics in eventing. That's what kind of money it takes.
Coleman always loved horses and harbored Olympic dreams, but unless she were taken in by a Rockefeller, competing at an elite national level was out of the question.
So, Rachel was presented with an alternative.
"It's something I never thought I'd be doing," she says. "It's a little out of my comfort zone, but I definitely like it."
Naturally, she had to learn four new disciplines, but she could still ride.
"We knew it was prohibitive taking (equestrian) to a higher level," says Mary Lou Coleman. "But as long as she could keep riding, she was OK trying the other things."
Ah, yes. Those other things.
The family turned to the Delta Fencing Center in Stockton, where the Serbian husband-and-wife team of Zoran and Maja Djurisic began teaching Rachel the centuries-old sport.
"She is extraordinary," says Zoran Djurisic, who with his long, dark hair and Van Dyke beard looks like a character from an Alexandre Dumas novel. "She's determined and setbacks do not get to her.
"We have about 50 active members in our club. Of our 50, Rachel is the most successful."
Successful enough to beat a pair of 2012 Olympians in Palm Springs.
Modern pentathlon fencing bouts are difficult because they're one-touch bouts you get hit by the electronic sensor on the tip of the weapon, you lose whereas in regular fencing, you might have a 15-touch bout. In other words, there's no time for pentathletes to feel out their opponents.
"Rachel's mindset right now is perfect for this," says Djurisic, who also runs a fencing center in Riverbank for beginners. "She doesn't hesitate. She goes for the attack."
Never a moment's rest
Rachel goes to fencing practice twice a week, and from there it's on to the Modesto Rifle Club, where the duo of Don Clark and Pete Camarena both former law enforcement officers have taken her on as a special project, donating their services several times a week. Rachel owns a state-of-the-art laser pistol manufactured in Germany that can be converted to an air pistol for pellets, since some competitions don't have the laser technology.
"The thing that impresses me is her attitude and sense of discipline," says Clark, who has been working with Rachel for about six weeks. "She's like a sponge; just soaks up everything. She's been a joy to work with."
Camarena agrees, and sees shooting as the area where Coleman can get more bang for her athletic buck. She can cover two miles in just over 15 minutes, but the fastest she's ever finished the combined events is 18:49. That's about three minutes spent at the four target stations.
"It usually takes two to three seconds per shot when shooting with a laser pistol and five to six when shooting pellets," says Camarena. "We need to get her to where she's hitting (five) in six or seven tries, or less."
Swimming is another area where Rachel can slice off huge chunks of time. Although she was a recreational lap swimmer, she's come to competitive swimming late in the game.
"She's a fairly novice swimmer," says Kurt Olson, Modesto Junior College coach and Rachel's instructor with the Blue Tide Aquatics youth program. "But she's dedicated herself to this and she's here at the pool almost every day for two hours, swimming 6,000 to 8,000 yards every day. I'm so happy with her work ethic and her stroke has improved dramatically.
"To be honest, from a swimming standpoint, she's already qualified for (Sac-Joaquin) Sections in frosh-soph. Any time you can do that, you've got a future."
Rachel's parents are runners Paul was a decathlete in college and they supervise her running workouts.
"Running is probably my least favorite event," says Rachel. "It's the one I train for the least because I struggle with asthma."
Still loves riding
It's the work on the horse Rachel's first love where she really shines.
In modern pentathlon, riders are assigned horses. They're given a few minutes to watch the horse work, and then a few minutes to ride their equine partner. Then it's off to the competition ring.
Janelle Dunn, Rachel's coach and owner of Maxfield Equestrian in Turlock, says Rachel's background in show jumping and dressage give her a solid base to make crucial judgments about the animal.
"Number one, is the horse going to go forward when I close my leg?" says Dunn, explaining what a rider might look for. "Do I have steering and brakes? Will the horse go right or left when I tell him? It doesn't sound like much, but it's a lot to determine in 20 minutes."
And that's the thing about modern pentathlon. Not only is it physical, but it requires great technical mastery. And, most obviously, a lot of time.
Keeping energy high
"At this stage of her training, we're just concerned with burnout," says Paul Coleman, an anesthesiologist who practices at Memorial Medical Center in Modesto.
A typical week for Rachel, including travel back and forth to workouts, is 18 to 24 hours of practice. Sunday is her off day.
"I miss hanging out with my friends, other than at school, but they understand," she says. "And I do get run down sometimes, but after a competition I usually feel energized again."
Rachel's goal is the 2024 Olympics, when she'll be 26.
"Young athletes have to have a little balance or they start to feel like their life is taken away from them," says Paul Coleman. "In this sport, athletes are best in their late 20s. This is not the time to go all out."
This is the time for Rachel to see if she's got what it takes, although she may have a pretty good idea after winning the 14-under division at the Canadian Nationals in British Columbia last summer.
"If things really aren't going well, if I'm not improving at all, then maybe I'd think about giving it up," says Rachel, who finishes competing today in a regional youth competition in Novato. "But I've been improving at each competition.
"I think I'd be happier going to the Olympics in pentathlon than in equestrian. It's really an exciting sport."
Exciting, sure. But then again, so is espionage.
Yes, the time has come to just blurt it out and confront her.
"Rachel, you're not really a modern pentathlete you're actually a spy, aren't you?"
"Yeah," she replies with a smile. "Of course."
Bee staff writer Joe Cortez can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2302.