Eli Bremer isn’t the typical jock. He’s not good at one or two sports; he’s good at five.
A major in the Air Force Reserve and graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Bremer is also a modern pentathlon athlete, where he competes in five events: fencing, swimming, equestrian jumping, running and pistol shooting.
He’s good, too. Bremer is a two-time U.S. National Champion, winning in 2002 and 2006; he earned a gold medal at the 2007 Pan American Games; and he won the 2006 U.S. Open Championship.
He is also an Olympian. Bremer competed on the U.S. team in the 2008 games in Beijing, where he finished 23rd.
“That’s something I’ll never forget,” he said. “Having the chance to represent your country in the Olympics is something you only dream about.”
This year, Bremer is hoping that dream comes true again. He’s currently training and competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for this year’s summer games in London. He’s not alone. Joining him in this race to the Olympics are several other Airmen, one of whom is Capt. Dana Pounds-Lyon. She is a fellow academy graduate and is currently one of the top female javelin throwers in the country.
Like Bremer, Pounds-Lyon attempted to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2008, but, unlike Bremer, she didn’t make it.
“I should’ve,” said the acquisitions officer, who works at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., when she’s not training. “But I was too amped up during the qualifying event and I faulted on one of my throws and that cost me a trip to the Olympics.”
She wound up placing second and missed going to the Olympics by just a few points.
She’s hopeful again this year, and now she has an Olympian to train with and take advice from at the Olympic Training Center and the Academy, where Bremer also trains.
“Eli’s been great,” Pounds-Lyon said. “We all respect him and look up to him and it’s great having him here to help us out and keep us motivated.”
To those who know Bremer, this is not surprising. Even though he’s now approaching the age where many athletes hang it up, Bremer is more driven than ever to once again wear his nation’s colors in the Olympics.
It’s a dream Bremer’s had since a chance encounter when he was very young.
“I was four or five and on a plane with my mom, and this guy in an Olympic uniform sat down next to me and talked to me the whole flight,” Bremer said. “I was so impressed with him and the colors of the uniform that from that moment I was like, ‘I want to be an Olympian.’”
Then, during his sophomore year in high school, Bremer met a pentathlon athlete and took a hard look at his own possibilities in the sport. Bremer grew up riding horses and was on both the swimming and fencing teams at the academy.
“I never even knew what the pentathlon was,” he said. “But once I heard of the events, I figured I was already doing three of them, so I had nothing to lose.”
Today, Bremer eats, sleeps and dreams training. When he’s not spending time at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., he’s putting on his Air Force uniform at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., where he works as a contracting officer.
“I’m extremely lucky that both things I do allow me to represent my nation,” Bremer said. “I get to wear one uniform as an Olympic athlete and the other as an Air Force officer.”
The two are really interconnected, he said.
“Being an athlete is merely an extension of my job as an officer,” he said. “Sports allow us to touch people as role models and ambassadors of our country, just like when I wear my Air Force uniform.”
Pounds-Lyon’s road to the javelin wasn’t as cut and dry. She was recruited to play basketball at the academy, but she found it harder than she expected. So, she talked to the track and field coach, who tested her ability by having her throw a ball as far as she could.
“I guess I threw it far enough, because he said he’d see me after the basketball season,” she said.
She started training with the javelin and liked it right away.
“You’d think it’s just picking up the javelin and throwing it, but there’s so much more to it than that,” she said. “I just love how it takes skill, strength, coordination and really your whole body to make a good throw.”
Pounds-Lyon was a two-time NCAA javelin title winner in 2005 and 2006. One of her throws in 2006 was the longest in the nation that year and tied a record for the longest ever by an America-born female college athlete.
Now, she’s busy training for a chance to make the U.S. Olympic team and compete in London. It’s been a hard road. A knee surgery knocked her out of commission for a few months last year.
“It’s taken a while to get back up to speed, but I’m ready and I’m still one of the top females in the country,” she said. “So I have the skill, I just need to go out and do it.”
Skill is something Bremer is also familiar with. Being a pentathlon athlete takes a lot of skill, as competitors have to be incredible swimmers, runners, shooters, horseback riders and fencers.
The competition is no joke, either. Athletes will swim 200 meters, fence against each of the other competitors, complete a course of 15 jumps on horseback, and perform three rounds of shooting and running. Here, athletes start out by shooting five targets with a laser pistol, then running 1000 meters. This process is repeated three times, resulting in a total of 15 shots and 3000-meters in the event. Based on their performance in the first three disciplines, athletes are ranked and handicapped. The leader starts first, and each subsequently ranked athlete starts behind the leader based on how many points behind the leader they are. Then, the order across the finish line after the last 1000-meter dash is the final placing.
“It’s tough to find the time to stay proficient in all these events,” Bremer said. “The typical athlete only has one to train for and be good at, but in the pentathlon we have to be good at all five.”
On a typical day, Bremer will spend a few hours in the pool at the aquatic center, a few hours sparring in the fencing room, go for a run and practice shooting in the indoor range. Between all this, he has to find the time to eat, work out and sleep.
But he trains to get better, and, Bremer said, he has to get better because he’ll be going up against some of the best athletes in the world.
“The guys I’ll go up against are great,” he said. “In any given event first place might be only a few tenths of a second better than the third or fourth place guy. That’s how good you have to be and how important even the smallest of edges can become.”
The majority of these athletes already have a significant edge over Bremer, too. In most other countries, the athletes are paid by their governments and their job is to train, condition and compete. The U.S., meanwhile, does not have a program like this in place. Its Olympic committee is a private organization whose athletes earn the majority of their money through sponsorships and regular jobs.
Until recently, Bremer was able to take advantage of the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program, a two-year program that gives Airmen the opportunity to train and compete at national and international sports competitions with the ultimate goal of selection to the U.S. Olympic team. While in the program, Airmen receive their pay and benefits as usual and are able to concentrate fully on training and competition in the years and months leading up to the Olympics. But, recently, the Air Force, citing budgetary constraints, announced it would no longer offer this program to Airmen in the Reserve or Guard. Pounds-Lyon, who is also part of WCAP, is active duty and therefore still able to participate in it.
For Bremer, this means he has to find time to perform a part-time job and fulfill his Reserve commitment while he is training and competing in events around the world.
“It was a real shock to find out I wasn’t able to be in WCAP,” he said. “And it’s put a lot more pressure on me to find ways to compete, but I’m still on track and I still have that drive to make it and hopefully I’ll be in London this summer as a member of the U.S. Olympic team again.”
Both Bremer and Pounds-Lyon still have to qualify in their respective sports, and they only have a few months to do it in. But they are both cautiously optimistic about their chances
“I know I’m not a shoe-in,” Bremer said. “But I’ll put in the work, do my best and see what happens. My body feels great. I feel great. I made it once, why not again?”