COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- A day after Samantha Schultz learned she had fallen just points from realizing an Olympic dream, she went on a jog alone, through the streets of Moscow.
That spring morning in 2016, lost in her thoughts, she pondered what she could have done better while competing against the world’s best at the World Modern Pentathlon Championships.
Although she lacked sleep and her muscles still ached from the grueling contests, she put on headphones and her running shoes. With music blaring, Samantha ran to a town square in the middle of the Russian metropolis.
“I kind of knew at that moment that essentially, I'd failed,” said Samantha, now a 28-year-old sergeant in the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP. “I just needed to be by myself. I was just trying to clear my head and … figure out what am I going to do next?”
She had won a national championship the year before and her performances had been peaking. At those 2016 World Championships in Russia she finished behind USA teammate Isabella Isaksen, one place shy of qualifying for an Olympic bid.
For years Samantha had trained herself to do more; to run an extra mile or to do more reps when her body told her no.
And when the time came to prove herself in the event that posed her most daunting challenge -- fencing -- she fell short. She only managed five victories, the second-lowest total among finishers in the field. In the modern pentathlon, competitors have 60 seconds to score points by landing hits on their opponents’ bodies.
“Not only do you have to observe what they're doing, you have to change and adapt,” Samantha said. “With the timing, the distance, the technique, there's so many aspects to it; so many moving pieces.”
Pentathletes liken fencing to a physical game of chess. Competitors must battle with up to 36 opponents taking a mental and physical toll as well as a rollercoaster of emotions.
When she learned she had been named an Olympic alternate, the regret sunk deeper, as she cheered on fellow teammates as a spectator during the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
Before traveling to the games on the Brazilian coastline, Samantha had been in a deepening funk and even considered walking away from the sport, although she still managed to win her third national title a month later.
Seeing the closing ceremonies reignited her desire to compete.
“And that's where I'm like, ‘I want to do this another four years,’” Samantha said. “I am going to do anything and everything to be there. And I think that was kind of a transformational moment for me; to give me that fire and that fuel.”
When Samantha returned to Colorado Springs, she spent time away from her rigorous training, which requires athletes to be in impeccable shape to weather the stresses that come from competing the pentathlon’s diverse range of events.
In the pentathlon, athletes must swim freestyle for 200 meters, perform 15 jumps in an equestrian show, duel competitors in fencing and finally complete a combined event that involves pistol shooting and a 3,200-meter run.
Samantha had been bred with skills for nearly all the events, except fencing.
“Once she took the time to absorb and process the disappointment, I think she came back with more hunger,” said Samantha’s mom, Elaine Achterberg.
She would go on to win the 2016 U.S. National Championship months after her disappointment at the world championships. The following year she posted the fastest combined running and shooting time among all the competitors at a World Cup event in 2017, although she placed 15th overall.
With the Olympic Games in Tokyo approaching, Samantha knew she had to change her training regimen or she may suffer from burnout.
Samantha had dedicated her life to the pentathlon. Training nearly every day meant little time for going out with friends or visiting family. She admittedly didn’t have much of a life outside the sport.
Rocky Mountain strong
As a child growing up in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Samantha often couldn’t sit still.
From the time she could walk, “Sammy,” as friends and family called her, lived for physical activity. She began skiing before she turned 2. She hunted deer and antelope in Colorado’s wilderness by the time she turned 4. And she would position cardboard boxes in the family’s living room pretending to maneuver a horse at 7.
Sammy wanted to be like her older sister Mandy, who played multiple sports.
“[Sammy] didn't want to just be tied down to a single sport,” said her father, Dave Achterberg. “She wanted to be active doing different things.”
At age 10, her parents decided on an expensive investment, purchasing a thoroughbred so their daughter could take equestrian lessons. Learning the nuances of equestrian riding, initially daunting for Samantha, became a strength as she formed a bond with her horse through years of training.
At Chatfield High School she competed in swimming, cross country, tennis and even skiing.
Samantha didn’t know then, that her Rocky Mountain upbringing would pay dividends in one of the Olympics’ oldest sports. After she graduated from high school in 2010, her life’s course changed after an equestrian coach convinced her to attend a pentathlon camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. USA coaches asked her to join the program full-time.
She learned the pentathlon came naturally to her.
Throughout her career, she reached several milestones as she became a junior world champion for competing on the women’s and relay teams. She earned six national championships from 2014-2019, but those accomplishments dimmed due to her disappointment at the 2016 World Championships.
In 2016 she began dating Karl Schultz, an Alabama native who shared Samantha’s love for hunting and the outdoors. Schultz encouraged her to try things outside of pentathlon training: including reading and dancing.
On weekends and the few days she didn’t have training, Samantha and Karl would twirl on the dance floor. She learned to two-step and to salsa.
“[Dancing] kind of took me out of my athlete bubble,” said Samantha, who married Karl in 2019. “I think it helped me see a different world and that there was more to me than just being an athlete. And that was very eye opening.”
Samantha began to pay closer attention to her recovery, using yoga and Pilates to help heal her body. She took more time in the training room, while choosing her meals more carefully.
Following the lead of many her Team USA squad mates, she joined the Army and its WCAP program in 2017, which reaffirmed her commitment to the team and working toward a common goal. But the Olympic dream that eluded her still lingered.
She said joining the Army provided her with a different type of challenge that became a remedy of sorts. The rigors of basic training and carrying a 60-pound rucksack, while battling fatigue pushed her in a way the pentathlon had not.
“I thought I was pretty tough,” Samantha said. “But that was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done. [Joining the Army] changed my whole perspective on life.”
Samantha completed advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, as an 88M, or motor transport operator.
On a cool July day at the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru, Samantha finally seized the opportunity that eluded her in Moscow.
During the closing event, the run and shoot, the leader, Mexico’s Mariana Arceo, had distanced herself too far to catch, but the Soldier had a lead over Leydi Moya of Cuba.
Leading up to the Pan Am Games, Samantha had posted one of her best years as a pentathlete, placing in the finals in three of four World Cup qualifying events.
The day had started ominously, with Samantha struggling to control her horse and falling off the saddle during the equestrian show warmups. Competitors have only 20 minutes to become accustomed to their horse and get a feel for how it responds to the rider.
However, the Soldier executed her performance nearly flawlessly and leapt over each obstacle without suffering a fall.
“All of her riding technique really came out in being able to manage the horse around the arena,” Dave Achterberg said. “She understood what the horse was telling her.”
The other hurdle Samantha had to overcome: becoming the aggressor during fencing bouts. Coaches praised Samantha for spending time with teammates and helping them refine their training or technique.
Samantha gradually gained strength performing in the run and shoot events. She also posted one of her better scores in fencing, the event that had always posed the stiffest challenge. Her coach said she adopted a more aggressive mindset and won more of her matches in Peru.
“She’s very friendly, very personable,” said WCAP coach Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Bowsher, who competed for the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics. “But in fencing, you can't be that; you have to be aggressive. You have to want to hit your opponent before they hit you.”
In the final event of the day, runners must complete a course where they run and fire laser shooters, she posted the fastest time in the field at 12:06, good enough to finish in second place overall and qualify for the Tokyo Games.
“I just thought, ‘is this real?’” Samantha said.
Emotions spilled as the Soldier embraced her parents who had watched the events in Lima. The silver medal finish in Peru also highlighted a banner year for Samantha, where she also claimed her sixth national championship along with finishing in the top 32 at World Cup events in Cairo; Sofia, Bulgaria; and Prague.
“We recognized how hard she's worked for things,” her dad said. “And so that really moved us. It's kind of like, the first time you hold your child in your arms it’s just incredibly emotional. It's hard to describe.”
Samantha continued her run of solid performances by sweeping the gold medals at the 2019 Biathle/Triathle World Championships in St. Petersburg, Florida, winning both mixed relay events with fellow U.S. teammate, Sgt. Amro Elgeziry. She also won gold in the individual biathle and triathle, which are subevents of the modern pentathlon for training purposes.
“She's a hard worker. She likes to put a lot into her training,” Bowsher said. “And I think it's shown.”
Her tendency to push herself beyond her limits, which she had harbored since childhood, helped her achieve a new level of fitness. And she learned to optimize her training as she grew older. Later that year she married Karl, who she credited with helping her maintain her focus during training.
Samantha sought the help of a psychologist realizing she had to prepare mentally as well as physically for the games.
Then last March, only months from when the 2020 games were scheduled to start, she suffered a blow to her Olympic dream.
The global pandemic forced the shutdown of WCAP’s training centers. Samantha and other WCAP athletes had to resort to alternative means to maintain their top physical condition.
When the Olympics committee announced that the 2020 games would be delayed until this summer, it left athletes in a standstill and scrambling to find methods to train at home.
Fortunately, Samantha and her husband had collected enough weights to build a makeshift gym at home. She made a laser shooting range in her garage. She tied a tennis ball to the ceiling so she could practice the footwork and blade work of fencing with a target.
And since all area swimming pools had closed, she placed rubber bands around her body and a doorknob and simulated swimming motions against the resistance. “It was awful,” Samantha said. “But I needed to remind those muscles what [swimming] was like.”
Samantha made YouTube videos to document her training and to create tutorials for other athletes. She also used her time to attend the Army’s Basic Leadership Course, and graduated in May.
Road to Tokyo
Pentathlon World Cup tournaments resume this week at Budapest as modern pentathlon’s governing body, Union Internationale de Pentathlon Moderne, continues its transition back to major competition with a World Cup event.
Samantha has opted to skip the Hungary tournament and plans to compete at two World Cup events in Bulgaria April 7-11 and April 15-18 to help maintain her world ranking. Despite having qualified for Tokyo, she must still be formally selected for the games.
She will use those tournaments to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics.
“I’ve prepared physically and mentally. And I've done the work. And I've had so much experience in the past,” she said. “I'm going to try to use that as motivation and as drive to get me excited for [the Olympics]. So I'm going to try out things here before the games, so that I have confidence going into the Olympics.”