Edward Fernon has booked his place at the Tokyo Olympics – and it was a wild journey of guns, swords, and a long ride through Mongolia.
Edward Fernon has booked his place at the Tokyo Olympics – and it was a wild journey of guns, swords, and a long ride through Mongolia.

The wild story of Aussie athlete’s journey to Tokyo

Waiting another year to get to the Tokyo Olympics hasn't fazed Edward Fernon, Australia's male entrant in modern pentathlon.

He's always taken the road less travelled anyway.

Once, in 2012, to raise awareness about depression in the bush and money for the Black Dog Institute, Fernon rode a horse 1100km from Braidwood to Melbourne and back - the same journey, legend has it, that Archer took when he won the inaugural Melbourne Cup in 1861.

Another time, in 2017, Fernon entered and won the Mongol Derby, the world's longest horse race where competitors ride native steeds along the same postal messenger route established by Genghis Khan in the 13th century.

His odyssey to double Olympian has been just as wild.

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Fernon grazes his horse Archer on the lawn outside Parliament House in Canberra in 2012. Picture: AAP Image/Alan Porritt
Fernon grazes his horse Archer on the lawn outside Parliament House in Canberra in 2012. Picture: AAP Image/Alan Porritt

 

A quirky sport incorporating fencing, swimming, show jumping, pistol shooting and cross-country running, Fernon took it up for one singular purpose.

A jack of all trades, with a particular love of horse riding, he had always wanted to be an Olympian, and when he first looked into modern pentathlon, he liked what he heard.

"I was told not to waste my time unless I wanted to go to the Olympics," he said.

"That's exactly what I wanted to do, so I was happy to accept the challenge."

Because it's an Olympic sport, there's a national federation in Australia, but not a network of clubs scattered all over the country or piles of sponsorship dollars, even after Chloe Esposito's historic gold medal success in Rio de Janeiro.

For anyone who wants to compete in modern pentathlon, the reality usually means signing up for five separate sports and finding the time to master each one.

"It's still a small sport in Australia so there's very little support and structure so you've got to find your own way," Fernon said.

"It's almost like an entrepreneurial pursuit because you're trying to navigate a new way of doing things with different coaches in each sport."

 

Fernon during the Mongol Derby in 2017. Picture: Julian Herbert
Fernon during the Mongol Derby in 2017. Picture: Julian Herbert

 

Fernon's doggedness paid off when he was selected to represent Australia at the 2012 London Olympics, finishing 27th in a hot field, but facing an uncertain future in the sport.

He'd fulfilled his ambition to be an Olympian but his focus on qualifying for London had prevented him from devoting enough time to starting a professional career even though he'd completed a commerce degree at the University of Sydney.

He got married in 2015, ,and wanted to start a family, so when he missed selection for Rio he decided it was time to retire.

"The only problem was I really missed competing and putting myself in uncomfortable situations so I decided to set myself a new challenge every year," Fernon said.

"So I climbed Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere) in 2016 and did the Mongol Derby in 2017 then my coach, Dean Gleeson, rang me up one day and asked if I was interested in a comeback.

"There was only three months to go before the Olympic trials so I was petrified by the idea because I knew how much work I had to do.

"But if a goal gets me excited and scared at the same time, it's usually a sign that it's worth pursuing so I spoke to my wife and she said 'why not, you've got nothing to lose'."

 

Fernon at Centennial Stables with ‘Wombat’. Picture: Adam Yip/Manly Daily
Fernon at Centennial Stables with ‘Wombat’. Picture: Adam Yip/Manly Daily

 

Fernon won the New Zealand Open in September 2019 but needed to win the Oceania title to be guaranteed of a place at the Tokyo Olympics and the qualifying event was taking place in Wuhan - a month before the first cases of COVID-19 were detected.

Fernon's makeshift planning almost came unstuck before the race even began when he discovered the laser pistol that he had borrowed for the competition was too light so didn't comply with the regulations.

Needing to quickly improvise, he bought 30 drill pieces that he strapped to his handgun using electrical tape to increase the weight.

 

Fernon practices his fencing skills at Sydney Boys High ahead of the London 2012 Olympics.
Fernon practices his fencing skills at Sydney Boys High ahead of the London 2012 Olympics.

 

 

The Chinese officials approved the weapon for use and he duly won the Oceania qualifying event only for his trip to Tokyo to be delayed by the global pandemic.

"That's not a bad thing for me because I can use that extra year to train knowing I've already qualified," he said.

"I think everyone knows it's not going to be a normal Olympics but it's still going to be a great opportunity for the world to come together.

 

 

"For me personally, it's going to be very special because I have a greater understanding of what the Olympics means and the impact that it has on the people around you.

"The first time I went, I was literally broke and focused only on training to be an athlete, whereas now I'm 33, I've got two young kids, I'm running a business, and I've got a very different perspective.

"It's incredibly satisfying because of so many reasons, not just the unknown of whether I could do it and having to overcome all those fears and doubts. It's a good reminder for everyone."

Originally published as The wild story of Aussie athlete's journey to Tokyo

Edward Fernon during a swimming and running session in 2009.
Edward Fernon during a swimming and running session in 2009.
Fernon with other Olympians before the London Olympics. Picture: AAP Image/Dean Lewins
Fernon with other Olympians before the London Olympics. Picture: AAP Image/Dean Lewins

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