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The Right COMBINATION : Kirkwood, Who Helped U.S. Capture Silver Medal in 1964, Laments Demise of Modern Pentathlon in Olympics

August 21, 1997|ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTH HILLS — David Kirkwood's job history does not lack variety. Among a myriad of occupations, he has been a juvenile hall counselor, a launch crewman at a nuclear missile site and an actor in television and films.

But his most memorable work was performed on the world stage more than 30 years ago.

As an awe-struck competitor in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Kirkwood helped the U.S. win a silver medal in the modern pentathlon, an event with a long Olympic history but no future.

The modern pentathlon was eliminated from Olympic competition last year after the Atlanta Games, joining other discontinued events such as the standing broad jump, croquet, tug of war and live pigeon shooting on the Olympic junk heap. It will be replaced by the triathlon starting with the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.

Kirkwood, 61, of North Hills, mourns the passing of the modern pentathlon while acknowledging that the triathlon--which combines swimming, cycling and running--has become more popular than his former event, which combines five skills simulating the actions of a 19th-century military courier.

Every four years, Kirkwood enjoyed comparing his marks against those of subsequent Olympians in the modern pentathlon's horseback riding, fencing, shooting, swimming and running competitions.

Now all he has are memories.

"I think it's a tragedy," Kirkwood said. "[The modern pentathlon] is the most exciting historical story of the whole Games. . . . Every other combination event grew out of this--the decathlon, the heptathlon, the three-day equestrian all took their cue from this event."

The first prominent American to compete in the modern pentathlon was ol' blood and guts himself, George S. Patton. The man who would rise to fame as a general in World War II took fifth place behind four Swedes in the individual competition at the 1912 Games in Stockholm and might have won the gold medal if not for a poor mark in, ironically, shooting.

That was the best finish for an American until 1932, when Richard Mayo won the bronze medal at the first Los Angeles Games. After that, Americans were consistently in the hunt for medals in individual and team competition, which was introduced at the 1952 Games in Helsinki.

But interest in the modern pentathlon, whose participants traditionally came from the military, waned over the last three decades, leading to its Olympic demise.

"[The modern pentathlon] has a marvelous history, but the reality of the need to sell tickets is more of an issue," Kirkwood said. "The triathlon is more acceptable as a participatory and spectator sport. You have to yield to that."

*

Born in Jackson, Miss., Kirkwood moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was a child. He competed in swimming at Dorsey High, where one of his classmates was former major league manager Sparky Anderson. Dorsey was a baseball power in the late 1940s and early '50s but the school did not have a pool and was weak in swimming.

"We had to drive over to L.A. High and we got to practice for 40 minutes in their pool," Kirkwood recalled. "It was barely enough time to get in a workout."

After graduating in 1952, Kirkwood enrolled at Pepperdine when the school was located in South Los Angeles. He pursued other sports in college because he was burned out--literally--on swimming.

"Goggles had not been invented yet and you burned your eyes out at every practice," he said. "It was torture."

Kirkwood tried football and basketball at Pepperdine but when they didn't work out he became a cheerleader for two years. He also took acting classes while studying to become a high school teacher.

Graduate school followed his graduation from Pepperdine in 1956, as did a series of odd jobs. He worked as a pool lifeguard, a camp counselor at Griffith Park and a juvenile hall counselor.

Then, feeling the pressure of the draft, Kirkwood enlisted in the Air Force in 1958. A year later, he read a newspaper article about the modern pentathlon and became intrigued.

"I had never heard of such a thing," he said. "It sounded like quite a swashbuckling thing, an Errol Flynn type of thing."

While stationed in Topeka, Kansas, Kirkwood wrote to the Amateur Athletic Union and the Army expressing an interest in the modern pentathlon. Impressed with his athletic background, the Army invited him to a 30-day tryout at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where most of the U.S. candidates for the 1960 Games in Rome were training.

Kirkwood wasn't a factor in the 1960 Olympics trials--he had little riding experience--but the Army coaches were impressed enough to arrange to have him permanently train at Ft. Sam Houston in preparation for the 1964 Games.

"It was a wonderful experience," Kirkwood said.

That would depend on your taste for nonstop workouts. Kirkwood and his colleagues trained nearly every day for four years, starting with riding practice at 7:30 a.m. and finishing with running at 4:30 p.m. After dinner, Kirkwood and a few others would get in additional fencing.

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