Modern Pentathlete Kelly Fitzsimmons: On Riding a Bike Instead of a Horse

Sometimes the most effective progression is to take a step back in order to move forward. Team Atomica’s Kelly Fitzsimmons reflects on the ways slowing down has helped her to refocus and get stronger.


Suzanne Zelazo: I must admit, I’ve long-thought you’d make a kick-ass triathlete. As a Modern Pentathlete you have the swim and run down, but you’ve never been on a bike seriously until recently. How did that come about?

Kelly Fitzsimmons: Haha, well, I do own a bike, to start! It’s a Specialized Allez that I bought back in university. These days I mostly use it to get around town, but I’ve done a couple spur of the moment triathlons over the past 5 years. Having said that, I’ve never properly trained my cycling, or even used clipless pedals for that matter! I didn’t even know what FTP was, or what watts or cadence to aim for. I was a total newbie.

This year, my goal was to qualify for Tokyo 2020 in my sport, Modern Pentathlon. I had just started our World Cup season when everything shut down due to COVID. Four days after Tokyo was postponed, I sprained my ankle really bad while running close to home. It was quite a shock to my system to go from being in such great condition about to head off to my next World Cup… and then not only have the season cancelled, but also be injured. Luckily, I had a couple of guardian angels. My friends Jenn and Peter Schindler kindly opened their home to me this season. Jenn is a track teammate of mine with Monarch Athletics, and her husband Peter is a cyclist. Both of them have competed in duathlon at age-group world champs as well. They helped me make the jump to cycling on their Zwift training setup. I’ve been so thankful for their support and encouragement in so many ways. They have even cheered me on at the end of hard Zwift races!

In terms of cycling benefits, from April to June I went from 0 kms to over 1500km and saw a 20+ FTP increase. More importantly, I found a great activity to keep me mentally and physically healthy as an injured athlete in lockdown. It’s also been amazing to be a newbie at something again. I love the process of learning new things… and you are always improving! It’s a fun boost!

SZ: You’re the National Modern Pentathlon Champ, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that you know how to go big or go home. From a few short trial rides on the trainer, you made a big mileage jump on your recent 35th birthday. Tell us about your birthday set and how it went.

KF: The idea was to cycle my age in miles (35 miles = 56.33km). Keep in mind that I’d never cycled more than 40 km before, and most of my rides were around 20km, so it was a mental leap! My goal was to stay steady and have fun. I was super excited to see a friend from the UK join me in the last 10km. It was a fun challenge and we celebrated after with some delicious Thai food, champagne and cake!

SZ: Aside from taking up cycling, how are you navigating training while so many facilities remain closed?

KF: As my injury improves, we’ve (we = coach Darian Silk and I) been tailoring the plan to decrease cycling and increase my run mileage again. My injury happened at the end of March and since then I spent countless hours on rehab, prehab, functional exercises to help build me back stronger. It’s a really great time to work on all those little things that you don’t normally spend time on when you are actually practicing your sport. Stretch cords and bands have been my friends!

SZ: Has the pandemic changed your mindset with respect to your sport?

KF: With the injury and the lockdown I’ve had to step back, assess all my strengths and weaknesses and build back up. And I don’t just mean the physical part. I’ve been spending a lot of time working through my mental game. Having the extra time has allowed me to look deeper and work with my sport psych on the little things. This has helped me return to the process and find joy and curiosity in the small things we do in training. Yes, I still have big goals, and yes, there are still a lot of unknowns with what will happen over the next year. This means we still have to be open minded to change. Either way, I do feel confident that no matter what happens over the next year, I’m taking the time to learn and grow in ways that will help me as both as an athlete and a person.

SZ: How has the Olympic qualifying process changed? 

KF: If all goes according to plan over the next months… the Olympic qualifying process will pick back up in March-June 2021 with the remaining World Cups, World Cup Final and World Championships to solidify the qualifying. In Modern Pentathlon, only 36 women in the world will qualify for the Olympics. This means that countries are not guaranteed spots, rather international athletes compete against each other for the top spots.

The other important thing to note is that most people don’t realize that Tokyo isn’t just about running one event. All of the sports federations still have to complete their qualifying cycle to determine the athletes in attendance. For us, that still includes 4-5 international events that need to happen to lock in the Olympic field. To be continued.

SZ: What are three things this precarious moment has taught you? 

KF: I really believe that this time of COVID and lockdown has forced us all to get creative, be open and take a step back. As a pentathlete, I’m always training so many different things, but the demands of my training mean I don’t often get the opportunity to settle into something new or different. The perspective I’ve gained from stepping out of my zone and immersing myself in cycling, self-care and the mental game has been valuable to my overall development as an athlete. It’s helped me learn focus, use different muscles and maintain my fitness. It’s helped me better understand myself as a person and competitor. And importantly, it’s been FUN. I’ve also enjoyed the fun of the virtual community of Zwift and the personal discovery. Getting new PRs in a new sport (cycling) was fun too! I don’t think I would have had this experience if I wasn’t injured, or if we weren’t in a lockdown. It’s really helped me reset in an unprecedented way. Turning lemons into lemonade is the name of the game right now.