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How a Groupon Landed James Lenger on Team USA

Ten years ago, competing in pentathlons wasn’t even on the Lake View resident’s radar. Then a personal tragedy pushed him to take the lunge.

James Lenger
At his peak, Lenger fenced so often — four to five days a week for two to three hours at a stretch — that he developed tennis elbow. Photo: Lisa Predko

Not many elite athletes start their careers at age 36. But after four years of training, Lenger qualified for Team USA in the modern pentathlon, which features fencing, swimming, equestrian show jumping, pistol shooting, and cross-country running. Now 43, the Lake View East resident is proving that his versatility extends beyond athletics. When he’s not writing and producing a comedy web series or perfecting his improv acting, he’s teaching adults how to strum at Guitar Cities, a music school he owns with branches in Chicago, New York, and the UK. Here’s how he stays in top form.

Competition motivation

“I was an athlete in high school, coached a little soccer in college, then had a bit of a stagnant period. In 2009, my mom passed away. I decided to train for the pentathlon in her honor after watching the 2012 Olympics. I started by finding a Groupon for fencing.”

Training routine

“I’m not competing anymore — I finished my last World Cup in 2017. But I still swim three times a week. As opposed to 3,000 to 4,000 meters a day when I was training, it’s more like 1,200 to 2,000. I’ll also run three times a week on the Lakefront Trail. I do an hour to build up cardio. It keeps me on my game onstage, where there are so many people who are really quick.”

Eating plan

“When I stopped training as much, I cut my portions down. I’ve gone back to a Mediterranean-style diet. I start teaching early, so I’ll usually just grab a handful of nuts and blueberries. At about 9, I’ll eat a breakfast sandwich — toast, eggs, maybe some bacon. Then I’ll have a granola bar before I swim. I eat a late lunch. I’ll make a shrimp stir-fry, or a sandwich with cucumber, and some fruit. I prep for dinner the day before. I have a fun recipe for baked salmon that I make often. And I experiment with things like crispy kale and Thai peanut sautéed spinach.”

Cephalopod chef

“I cook five to six days a week. Octopus is one of my favorites. It’s $3.99 a pound at the Jewel at Clark and Division, versus $8.99 everywhere else. When it comes in, I’ll buy 10 of them. There’s some in my freezer right now.”

Creative high

“You get so used to the endorphins from training. If you can’t do it as much, you have to find other outlets. For me, those are creative endeavors. I take the bus into work every morning, which gives me a half hour. I fill up a notebook — sketches, song ideas, anything that comes to mind.”

Mobile performances

“When I’m acting, I’ll try to be very physical, just because I enjoy that kind of comedy. I’m known for my stunt lunges — lunging over a chair or doing something else odd. So before I go on, I’ll do a warm-up — the old swimmer shakeout, then dancing awkwardly around — to get my body moving.”

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