Over two days Damian Warner not only won gold in the 10-event decathlon in Toronto, he also broke the Pan Am Games record and the long-held national mark by Canadian athletics legend Michael Smith.
See the full recap here.
The decathlon is the most grueling event in athletics. It’s a two-day track and field marathon composed of 10 events in sequential order. Day one features the 100m dash, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400m. Day two begins with the 110m hurdles (Damian’s best event), followed by discus, pole vault, javelin and last but not least, the 1500m.
Competitors are scored based on a point system determined by time in the track events and distance in the field events.
It’s such an extreme test of strength, skill and endurance that traditionally the winner of the Olympic decathlon is referred to as ‘The World’s Greatest Athlete’.
Learning & Growing
Damian never set out to be a decathlete. He began his athletics career as a long jumper, but became frustrated after a couple of seasons where things didn’t go according to plan and he under performed. Two high school coaches (who he’s still with to this day) suggested that he try the decathlon.
“I trusted them and figured I have nothing to lose.”
And he never looked back. Damian fell in love with the sport but it wasn’t without its challenges.
“When I learn something I kind of expect things to come quickly. But I learned pretty quickly that in the decathlon you have to be patient. Progress doesn’t come quickly. You have to keep working add training, knowing that progress will come in the future.”
The decathlon is notoriously tough to train for. Do the math – there’s 10 events and there’s only 7 days in a week.
“I train six days a week, every day except Sunday,” says Damian. “I’m at the track for 2-3 hours a day. Throughout the week my coaches and I try to hit all 10 events in a week. We prioritize the events that need a little bit more work. It’s a challenge – we’re always trying to play to my strengths, but also improve my weaknesses.”
Before Damian began competing in the decathlon, he was a runner and jumper. Those are still his strongest events and where he earns most of his points (his 13.44s run on Thursday morning was the fastest 110m hurdles run by any decathlete, ever).
On the other side, Damian is relatively new to the sport. The Pan Am Games is just his 17th decathlon and the technical, more experience-based events like shot put and pole vault sometimes cause him to falter.
But Damian loves both the challenge and variety that decathlon brings. Where Damian’s strengths are his running and his jumping, he goes up against competitors who have other combinations of strengths. He says it’s all about being well-rounded and weighing the odds.
“You have to be really versatile. Someone might be able to throw the shot put a mile, but that same guy would struggle to get over the hurdles.”
Track athletes are notoriously superstitious, but in speaking with Damian he exudes a quiet and focused calm.
“I get my confidence from my practices. If my training is going well, I feel good heading into a competition and I’m prepared to perform,” says Damian. “I’m a pretty laid back guy, I’m kind of quiet. It probably helps me in the decathlon. I can get excited when I need to but for the most part I try to stay focused and neutral.”
That being said, there’s no such thing as a perfect decathlon. And when things don’t go well, it’s easy to get into a slump. It was a lesson that Damian learned quickly.
“No matter how prepared you are, and how well you compete, there’s always going to be a setback. My coaches compare it to golf – it’s not just a one-hole game and you can’t let a bad hole effect the rest of your performance. You have to move on.”
Sometimes it’s easier said than done. Earlier in his career, Damian used to play the numbers – ‘I need this score to do this, or if I don’t get x score in this then I won’t pull ahead’ – but he eventually realized that messing around with calculators wasn’t doing him any favours. Now he just tries to win each event.
“Before a decathlon even starts, I think of myself as a 100m sprinter because that’s the first event. I try to win that race and then as soon as it’s done I’m a long jumper. I try to take it one event at a time and not think about what’s coming up next. If I take care of each individual event then the score should work itself out in the end. ”
Interestingly, the decathlon is set up to test the athletes in exactly that same way. The sequence of events force participants to switch gears from explosive-fast events like the hurdles, to the exaggeratedly slow twirl of a discus throw. It’s hard, both physically and mentally.
“When things go extremely well, you can celebrate it but you have to bring yourself back down quickly for the next event. Managing your rhythm is so important in the decathlon.”
Damian’s Pan Am record and national mark are all positive signs as he aims for a podium performance at Rio 2016. His goal for the rest of this year is to obtain as much experience against the best athletes as possible.
The best is American Ashton Eaton. Like everyone else, Damian is chasing the world record holder.
“Aston has established a pretty good lead over the rest of the competition,” says Damian. “It’s sort of him and then the rest of the pack underneath him. This year I want to pull away from the pack and narrow the gap between me and Eaton.”