CAN – High school teachers and a disused ice hockey arena – Warner’s unorthodox path to Olympic gold

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Photo: AFP / Getty Images

Roughly one year before the Tokyo Games, Damian Warner feared his Olympic dream was over.

Having finished fifth on his Olympic debut in 2012 and third in 2016, everything had pointed towards a career peak in 2020. The Canadian decathlete had reached the podium at three of the past four World Championships, and had been one of the most consistent combined events athletes in the world for the best part of a decade, yet was still missing a global title from his medal collection.

But with all the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, Warner’s golden ambitions started to fade.

“When Covid hit, things were shut down for a little while and we didn’t really have a place to go,” says the 31-year-old. “Luckily enough for me, the community of London, Ontario, came together and built a makeshift facility that was serviceable. But even then, I didn’t fully buy into it. There were a couple of times when I nearly broke down in tears because it felt like my dreams were walking away from me and I couldn’t do anything about it.

“I told Gar (Leyshon, his coach), ‘I don’t think this is conducive to an Olympic gold medal. I don’t see my competitors training this way, we’re not able to go to training camps. I just don’t see it working’.

“Luckily Gar and Dennis (Nielsen, assistant coach) are stubborn and persistent,” adds Warner. “They wouldn’t let me give up and they made sure I was at practice, doing what was required. I eventually thought, ‘I want to be an Olympic gold medallist; if this is the only thing I can do, then I’m going to do it’.”

From that moment, Warner became more focused than ever on his Olympic goal. The facilities – a 66-year-old unheated ice hockey arena – and circumstances may not have been ideal, but he did his best to make it work, aware that most of his competitors had to endure similar challenges.

When he lined up to compete at the prestigious Hypo Meeting in Götzis in May 2021 – his first decathlon in almost 20 months – Warner was raring to go. He started with a 10.14 clocking in the 100m, just 0.02 shy of his own world decathlon best, but then entered the record books in the second discipline, sailing out to a world decathlon best of 8.28m in the long jump, breaking the long-standing Canadian record in the process.

Day two started in similar fashion as he sped to 13.36 in the 110m hurdles, another world decathlon best, and – in relative terms to the individual world records – the highest quality performance in decathlon history. After safely navigating his way through the pole vault, it was clear Warner was on for a huge score, but a slightly below-par 59.46m throw in the javelin dented his chances of breaking the exclusive 9000-point barrier.

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SOURCE: WORLD ATHLETICS

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