Jim Gregory was a former James Madison University swimmer and aspiring artillery officer when it was suggested he try the modern pentathlon, a smorgasbord sport that involves pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, horseback riding and cross-country running.

Despite his athleticism and determination, Gregory was not an obvious candidate. At that point in his life six years ago, the 1988 Potomac High School graduate had never ridden a horse, shot a pistol or fenced, three pronounced disadvantages for any future pentathlete.

"They said, 'No problem, we'll teach you,' " recalls Gregory, 29.

As it turns out, James O. Gregory, now a captain in the U.S. Army, was a quick learner. He is one of the top pentathletes in the world, with an eye toward the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Gregory, who was an alternate to the lone U.S. pentathlete at the 1996 Olympics, last month won a silver medal at the Conseil International du Sport Militaire championship in Warsaw. His three-man U.S. Armed Forces Modern Pentathlon team won the gold medal.

The pentathlon "was just something to go for, and I've never turned down a challenge," said Gregory, who had braved air assault, airborne and field artillery training before beginning to focus on the pentathlon in November 1993.

"It was basically a crash course, and I don't mean that figuratively," he said with a laugh, in reference to the equestrian work. "I crashed through many, many jumps."

The pentathlon is steeped in military tradition. In the early 1900s, Baron Pierre de Coubertin modernized the sport with soldiers in mind, drawing on the skills a French messenger might call upon to deliver a bulletin in time of war: He would need to ride an unfamiliar horse on difficult terrain, battle an enemy with a gun and sword, swim across a river and run through the woods.

World War II General George S. Patton, at the time a second lieutenant, finished fifth in the first modern pentathlon in 1912.

The sport tests a variety of unrelated skills, with each of the five events worth a standard of 1,000 points. Additional points are accumulated for excellence or deducted for subpar performance.

Besides the honed versatility needed to complete a successful pentathlon, the athlete needs a marked element of luck in the horseback riding competition. Trained horses are assigned by random draw before that event, giving the pentathletes, most of whom are not expert riders, just 20 minutes to develop a stable relationship with their mounts.

That short courtship culminates with the rider guiding the animal through a 400-meter stadium jumping course. Points are lost for knockdowns, refusals, falls and slowness.

"All year long I've drawn a really difficult horse," said Gregory, based at the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program in Fort Carson, Colo., near the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. "It's really frustrating."

"His overall results are down because he's had unbelievably bad luck drawing very bad horses," said Janusz Peciak, one of Gregory's instructors. Peciak, who is from Poland, won the gold medal in the pentathlon at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. "The horse can ruin everything."

Gregory, an adept air pistol shooter who regularly nails the stationary target that looms 10 meters away, also excels in the swimming competition, the 200-meter freestyle. The event for him that is just as difficult to master as horseback riding is fencing, a sport completely foreign to many athletes in this country. This is the only head-to-head portion of a pentathlon. The competitors, in a series of bouts, aim for a single "touch." If neither fencer accomplishes one, it is considered a loss for each.

The final event is a 3,000-meter cross-country run. The pentathletes begin the course one at a time, with handicapped starts based on their ranking through the first four events. Because of the staggered starts, the runner who finishes first is the pentathlon winner.

Gregory passed two competitors to finish second in Warsaw in August with 5,379 points, just 18 points behind Czech Republic gold medalist Libor Capalini.

Beginning with the 1996 Olympics, that long run seemed to grow even longer. To make the pentathlon more spectator- and television-friendly, the five-event competition was compressed from four days to one, resulting in a 12-hour athletic marathon. And in recent years, the number of qualifiers has been reduced to 32 from 96, with the events slightly tweaked, as well.

Even with his accomplishments in the pentathlon, Gregory is not the most celebrated alumnus of the QDD swim team that he competed for locally. That distinction belongs to Jeff Rouse, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter backstroke. Rouse won the silver in that event in 1992 and swam on the 400-meter relay teams that won the gold in '92 and '96.

Gregory would like to earn similar Olympic status next year in Sydney or in 2004 in Athens. The "really cool experience" of hearing his national anthem during the awards ceremony in Warsaw made him eager for a star-spangled encore.

No American has ever won an Olympic gold medal in the pentathlon. But renowned fencer Elaine Cheris, another of Gregory's six coaches, believes the Dumfries native has both the ability and the time to do so.

"Twenty-nine is a young age for a pentathlete," Cheris said. "It takes a while to mature. He may not be the best runner, or shooter, or swimmer in the world, but he's going to be a world champion.

"If he doesn't win an Olympic gold medal or a [world title] in the next 10 years, I'd be very shocked."