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Sports Heroes Who Served: Soldier Sets Sights on Competing in Tokyo Olympics

April 6, 2021 | BY Joseph Lacdan, Army News Service

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

A day after Samantha Schultz learned she had been just points from realizing an Olympic dream, she went on a long jog alone through the streets of Moscow.

On a 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 in Moscow — a test of athletic skill in fencing, swimming, equestrian show jumping, laser-pistol shooting and running.

She had won a national championship in 2015, and her performances had been peaking. At Moscow, she finished behind USA teammate Isabella Isaksen — just one place shy of qualifying for an Olympic bid.

Although she lacked sleep and her muscles still ached from the grueling contests, she put on headphones and her running shoes. With music blaring, Schultz ran to a town square in the middle of the Russian metropolis.

Two women shoot handguns at a competition course.
Shooting Competition
Army Sgt. Samantha Schultz competes in the running and shooting race of the modern pentathlon. During the event, competitors must hit targets with laser pistols and then complete a 3,200 meter cross-country course.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 210316-O-ZZ999-006

''I kind of knew at that moment that essentially, I'd failed,'' said Schultz, 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?''

For years she had trained herself to do more; to run an extra mile or to do more repetitions — reps — when her body told her no.

But 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,'' Schultz 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. It exacts a mental and physical toll, and it is an emotional rollercoaster.

When she learned she had been named an Olympic alternate for the 2016 Games, the regret sunk deeper; still, she cheered on fellow teammates in Rio de Janeiro.

Before traveling to the games on the Brazilian coastline, Schultz had been in a deep funk and even considered walking away from the sport, but she still managed to win her third national title a month later.

Seeing the closing ceremonies of the 2016 Games reignited her desire to compete.

When Schultz returned to Colorado Springs, Colorado, she spent time away from her rigorous training, which requires athletes to be in impeccable shape to weather the stresses that come from competing in 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.

A woman holds a fencing sword.
Fencing Face
Army Sgt. Samantha Schultz, a pentathlete and member of the Army's World Class Athlete Program, initially struggled in the fencing competition, but Army Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Bowsher, Schultz's coach, said the pentathlete has made strides at becoming more aggressive.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 210316-O-ZZ999-003

Schultz was skilled at nearly all the events, except fencing.

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, although she placed 15th overall.

With the Olympic Games in Tokyo approaching, Schultz knew she had to change her training regimen or she might suffer from burnout.

Schultz had dedicated her life to the pentathlon. Training nearly every day meant little time for going out with friends or visiting family. Admittedly, she didn't have much of a life outside the sport.

Rocky Mountain Strong

As a child growing up in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Schultz 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 was 4, and she would position cardboard boxes in the family's living room pretending to maneuver a horse at 7.

Dave Achterberg, Schultz's father, recalled that she wanted to be like older sister Mandy, who played multiple sports.

''Sammy didn't want to just be tied down to a single sport,'' said  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 Schultz — 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.

A woman rides a leaping horse.
Equestrian Jump
Army Sgt. Samantha Schultz began taking equestrian lessons at age 8, which prepared her for the equestrian show jumping in the modern pentathlon.
Photo By: Army
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Schultz 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 when an equestrian coach convinced her to attend a pentathlon camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. There, the 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 failing to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.

New Life

In 2016 she began dating Karl Schultz, an Alabama native who shared her love for hunting and the outdoors. He encouraged her to try things outside of pentathlon training, including reading and dancing.

On weekends and the few days she didn't have training, she and Karl would twirl on the dance floor. She learned to two-step and salsa.

"Dancing kind of took me out of my athlete bubble,'' said Schultz, 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.''

A man and woman dance.
Wedding Dance
Army Sgt. Samantha Schultz dances with her husband, Karl Schultz, at the couple's wedding in 2019. Samantha credited Karl with helping her refocus after narrowly missing the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Samantha Schultz has qualified to compete in the Olympics in Tokyo.
Photo By: Army
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Schultz began to pay closer attention to recovering from the stress of competing, using yoga and Pilates to help heal her body. She took more time in the training room and chose her meals more carefully.

Following the lead of many of her Team USA squad mates, she joined the Army and went into the WCAP program in 2017; it 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,'' Schultz said. ''But that was one of the hardest things that I've ever done. Joining the Army changed my whole perspective on life.''

Schultz completed advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, as a motor transport operator.

Leading up to the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, Schultz had posted one of her best years as a pentathlete, placing in the finals in three of four World Cup qualifying events.

On a cool July day at the Pan Am Games, Schultz finally seized the opportunity that had eluded her in Moscow. During the run and shoot, Mexico's Mariana Arceo was too far in the distance to catch, but Schultz had a lead over Leydi Moya of Cuba.

The day had started ominously, though, with Schultz 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.

Three women wearing sports uniforms and medals around their necks hug one another.
Medal Ceremony
Army Sgt. Samantha Schultz, left, shares a happy moment with Mexico's Mariana Arceo, center, and Cuba's Leydi Moya during medal ceremonies of the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. Schultz's silver place finish qualified her to compete in the Olympic Games in Tokyo, but she must still be formally selected to compete in the games.
Photo By: Army
VIRIN: 210316-O-ZZ999-005

''All of her riding technique really came out in being able to manage the horse around the arena,'' Achterberg said. ''She understood what the horse was telling her.''

The other hurdle Schultz had to overcome: not being aggressive during fencing bouts. Coaches had praised Schultz for spending time with teammates and helping them refine their training or technique, but she would need to leave that inclination behind to best her competitors.

Schultz gradually gained strength performing in the run and shoot events. She also posted one of her best scores in fencing, the event that had always posed the stiffest challenge. Her coach said she adopted a more aggressive mindset.

''She's very friendly, very personable,'' said WCAP coach Army 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?''' Schultz 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 Schultz, where she 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.''

Schultz 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 developed in childhood, helped her achieve a new level of fitness. And she learned to optimize her training as she grew older. In addition, she  credited Karl, who became her husband later that year, with helping her maintain her focus during training.

With her physical training on track, Schultz sought the help of a psychologist, realizing she also had to prepare mentally for the games.

Then in March 2020, only months from when the 2020 games were scheduled to start, the pandemic dealt a blow to her Olympic dream.

A woman wearing a competition jersey holds a pistol used in competition.
Army Sgt. Samantha Schultz
Army Sgt. Samantha Schultz, a member of the Army's World Class Athlete Program, has qualified to compete in the pentathlon at the Olympics in Tokyo. The modern pentathlon combines five sports disciplines into one competition: swimming, equestrian show jumping, cross country, fencing and laser-pistol shooting.
Photo By: Army Maj. Nathaniel Garcia
VIRIN: 210316-O-ZZ999-001

COVID-19 forced the shutdown of WCAP's training centers. Schultz and other WCAP athletes had to resort to alternative means of maintaining their top physical condition.

When the Olympic Committee announced that the 2020 games would be delayed until this summer, it left athletes scrambling to find ways to train at home.

Fortunately, Schultz and her husband had collected enough weights to build a makeshift gym at home. She made a laser shooting range in her garage. She hung a tennis ball from 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 made swimming motions against the resistance. ''It was awful,'' Schultz said. ''But I needed to remind those muscles what [swimming] was like.''

Schultz 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 she 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.

Schultz has opted to skip the Hungary tournament and plans to compete at 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.''

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