Damian Warner, anonymous superstar

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With the Olympic flame ablaze in the distance, a roar worked its way around the entrails of London’s Olympic Stadium like a current, building louder and louder as the best decathletes in the world approached the starting line for the 1,500-metre—the 10th and final event of this gruelling sport that would determine the world’s greatest athlete.

In third place there was 24-year-old Leonel Suarez, a Cuban with an Olympic bronze on his resumé. American and two-time world champion Trey Hardee sat second, closing in on his first Olympic medal. Hardee’s teammate Ashton Eaton, the world-record holder slash celebrity, was comfortably in first, all but assured the gold medal. And then there was a slender kid from London, Ont., named Damian Warner, the youngest in the heat and the third-youngest in the entire competition at 22, in only the 10th decathlon of his life and sitting just off the podium in fourth.

Eaton and Warner knew each other well. They’d competed at international events and trained together in California during the off-season; Warner the rookie, Eaton entering his prime as the standard-bearer in the sport—one of the best ever and only the second man to score more than 9,000 points. Warner looked up to Eaton like an older brother. So, before the race, he asked Eaton what he was trying to run. Eaton said he was going for 4:30, which would give him the overall Olympic decathlon record. Warner had never run the 1,500 in 4:30 at any competition, but decided he was up for a challenge. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll go with you.”

Warner drafted off Eaton for the first three laps, speeding up when Eaton sped up, slowing down when he slowed down, passing when he passed. But when the pair hit the final lap, Warner glanced at the clock and did the math. It didn’t add up. Eaton wasn’t going to make it. So Warner picked up his pace and closed 10 metres on the champion in seconds. Warner could hear Eaton’s breathing; he could feel the fatigue. That’s when, over the din of 80,000 screaming fans, Warner turned to Eaton and yelled, “You’re not going fast enough!” and took off.

Warner was right. Eaton fell three seconds short of his goal and the Olympic record, watching helplessly as Warner crossed the finish line in fourth place, with a time of 4:29. Eaton still won the overall gold, while Warner wound up in fifth, an incredible result for a relative unknown whose previous international finish was 18th at the World Championships. But what’s more is that Warner had taken on his close friend’s goal and did him one better. He’d fired a shot across the bow of the world champion. He had shown what he was capable of and screamed to the world what had always been clear to him.

Ashton—you’re not going fast enough.

***
Nestled into a suburban neighbourhood bordering Western University in London is a long, narrow street that starts flat but quickly inclines upward into a 250-metre hill. Bungalows and lampposts run along one side of it; a snowy field borders the other. Under the blue-grey tinge of a late-afternoon sky, Warner and his girlfriend—Jen Cotten, an accomplished track athlete herself who finished fourth in the women’s heptathlon at this year’s Canadian Track and Field Championships—run sprint after sprint up the hill, their panting breath leaving trails of white exhaust like skywriters. “We had a third,” Warner says, “but he left to go puke.”

This is the labour you don’t see. The delicate knifework in the athletic kitchen that produces a finely composed Olympic performance on your plate every four years. Built sleekly powerful like a greyhound, the six-foot, 183-lb. Warner—one of Canada’s top medal hopefuls going into the 2016 Olympics in Brazil—trains hard six days a week, often twice a day. It’s his job now. And while chances are you haven’t yet heard of him, rest assured, you will. In 2013, he won two of the world’s highest-profile meets, landed a bronze medal at the World Championships (the first Canadian decathlon medal since 1995) and inched within 114 points of breaking Mike Smith’s 18-year-old Canadian record. Some say he’s the greatest athlete in the nation today.

But before we go on, it’s important to understand that decathlon at the Olympic level is for freaks—the most versatile, athletic, innately talented people on the planet. The top one percent of the top one percent. The training alone is hell, and that doesn’t compare to the strain of competition. A two-day decathlon features 10 events, each requiring its own unique combination of speed, agility, power and skill. You need to be fast enough to sprint 100 metres in 10 seconds while durable enough to run 1,500 metres in four and a half minutes; you need the agility to leap over hurdles at high speeds, plus the strength to reach 14 metres in the shot put; the leaping power to soar over two metres in the high jump and the complex dexterity to throw a discus more than 45 metres. There’s no room for being subpar at any of the disciplines—one bad event can sink a competition. It is excruciating—both physically and mentally. There’s a reason why, if they can stay healthy, the best decathletes only compete three or four times a year. It’s hell.

You can train all you want, but somewhere within you, on a molecular level, you have to be born for this—naturally selected. It appears that is the case with Warner. He grew up poor in the northeastern corner of London, helping to raise his younger brother and sister while dreaming of someday growing up to be just like his hero, Vince Carter. His mom, Brenda Gillan, worked two nursing jobs in retirement homes in order to provide for the family. His dad, Kevin Warner, wasn’t around. He worked on a cruise ship in Barbados, exiting his son’s life when Warner was a child.

As a student at Montcalm Secondary School, Warner had tremendous success at nearly every sport he tried. A star on the basketball team, he was pulling off windmill dunks in Grade 10 and served as the squad’s primary defender, matching up against the opposition’s best player because no one was fast enough to get around him. “He would run the basketball court like he was on wheels,” says Gar Leyshon, Warner’s high school basketball coach who now coaches him in decathlon. “He was so smooth. You couldn’t imagine him doing anything clumsy. I’ve seen him wipe out and it looks beautiful.”

When Warner was in Grade 11, Leyshon and another teacher at the school, Dennis Nielsen, started a track and field team. Just 10 kids came out, one of them being Warner, then a quiet introvert who relished the opportunity for a legitimate reason to miss class. He went out for the long jump, high jump and triple jump, competing in basketball shoes and shorts because he couldn’t afford spikes, and refused to wear spandex.

His track career sputtered for the next three years as Warner tried his hand at a bevy of events, never finding a good fit, missing qualifications by a centimetre here or a millisecond there. That’s when Leyshon, who stuck with Warner as he trained out of the London Legion Track and Field club, had an idea. Instead of just doing one event, why not do all the events? Warner already had a good long jump, high jump and 100-metre time. The hurdles would be an easy transition, as would the 400-metre and 1,500-metre. He figured that if Warner got even reasonably good at the rest of the events, he could be competitive in the decathlon, a sport most athletes are too scared to attempt. And above all else, as a 20-year-old wallflower with little interest in school who had hit a brick wall in every event he’d tried to specialize in, he had nothing to lose.

***
The first decathlon of Damian Warner’s life was on a windy, rainy pair of days at York University in Toronto in 2010. Warner had been training for the event with little understanding of what he was doing. He had the raw ability, but little fine tuning. Leyshon spent his evenings researching decathlon coaching techniques and searching for drills on YouTube. They leaned on Nielsen, who had experience coaching track but never decathlon, and the volunteer coaches at the London Legion, but there was never any direction. Warner had just recently pole vaulted for the first time and learned how to throw a discus, javelin and shot put on the fly.

Like the weather at York, Warner was miserable. He felt under-prepared and didn’t want to compete for fear of embarrassing himself. But Leyshon convinced him to, and, incredibly, Warner won the competition—finishing just four points off the Pan American Games standard. The Canadian Championships took place the week after, and Warner finished second, scoring 7,449 points. “Not a lot of people can do that in their second decathlon,” Leyshon says.

Suddenly, the insular world of Canadian athletics began to take notice of the kid from London blowing the field away. Combined events guru Les Gramantik—Athletics Canada’s senior national program coach—got involved. Vickie Croley, Western’s track coach for the past 20 years, joined Warner’s inner circle to help him with the finer points of his technique. Dave Collins, a pole vault specialist, came aboard. Brett Lumley, a coach at the University of Windsor, invited Warner to a training camp he was running ahead of a meet in Phoenix that Athletics Canada eventually agreed to send Warner to. He won in Phoenix, scoring a personal best that he would quickly top at a meet in Jamaica weeks later. With each passing competition, Warner’s scores kept climbing, leading into the 2011 Canadian Championships where he scored 8,100—a total that would have landed him in the top 15 at the Olympics three years earlier—winning the event and qualifying for the World Championships later that year in South Korea.

Suddenly, there he was—just 21, having only competed for a little more than a year, and representing his country at a World Championships. He was as nervous as he’d ever been for anything in his life, and it showed. “It was a huge shock,” Warner says. “All these incredible athletes that I had watched on YouTube were suddenly behind me in line at the cafeteria and sitting at the same table as me. I was star-struck. It affected my performance a lot.” The pressure of the stage ate at him as the competition wore on, and he wound up 18th out of the 22 athletes who finished. After the final event, Warner found Leyshon in the crowd and nearly collapsed into his coach’s arms with a defeated, “God, I suck.”

It was a massively disappointing result—the first true setback of his decathlon career. But Warner thinks it was also something that needed to happen. “I had to get that first one out of my system so I could feel like I deserved to be there,” Warner says. “If it didn’t happen in Korea, it could’ve happened in London.”

London—as in the site of the 2012 Olympics—nearly didn’t happen at all. Warner was reeling after the letdown in South Korea. He seemingly forgot how to throw a discus, watching time and again as the saucer landed 15 metres shorter than it had just months prior. He couldn’t get a feel for his javelin toss either, stepping over the fault line throw after throw. He was in the weeds. “You start to over-think, and when you’re over-thinking you move slower and things fall apart,” Croley says. “The mental side is everything.”

Sure enough, Warner’s discus was, in his words, “atrocious” at the 2012 Canadian Championships, which served as Olympic qualifiers. A substantial personal best in the pole vault and a massive third javelin throw—following faults on his first two attempts and a profanity-laced pep talk from Leyshon—kept him in the competition. But coming into the 1,500-metre, Warner still had to beat the front-runner, Jamie Adjetey-Nelson, by 14 seconds to go to the Olympics. Warner doesn’t excel at the event and, overcompensating for this fact, came out way too fast in his first lap, running 400 metres in 62 seconds when he was supposed to hit 73. His coaches cringed from the sidelines, expecting him to not have enough gas left for the finish. But as he began the bell lap, Warner heard screaming behind him. He was too focused to look back at the time, but as he rounded the next curve, he caught sight of Adjetey-Nelson out of the corner of his eye, lying prone on the infield as his hamstring cramped mercilessly. “That’s when I realized, oh, I’m going to the Olympics,” Warner says. “It’s not the way I wanted to win. I felt really bad. I went over to shake his hand and I was almost crying. It was tough.” It was also the start of something big.

Six weeks later, when Warner arrived for his first ever Olympic event, the 100-metre, he emerged from the tunnel to a massive, imposing, deafening Olympic Stadium. He looked up into the crowd to his right and, among 80,000 people, immediately spotted his mom sitting with Leyshon and Nielsen. He waved and panned across the crowd to his left, where he saw a middle-aged man in a Team Canada shirt staring directly at him. It was his dad.

It had been eight years since Warner had seen him, and a lifetime of longing for him to be there. His father had kept in touch, to a degree, but Warner never felt like he knew anything about the man. “People assume it’s like all the sad dad stories that you hear. It wasn’t exactly like that. Yeah, it was sad. There were times that I cried as a kid and wished my dad was there,” Warner says. “Honestly, I still wish he’d been there when I grew up. But with him and my mom it just didn’t work.”

It would have been understandable if seeing his dad for the first time in nearly a decade in the crowd at Olympic Stadium, of all places, was a little rattling. But if Warner was thinking about it, you never would have known. He finished in the top five in three of the first five events, closing the first day of competition in bronze-medal position and announcing his presence to both the world of track and field and an entire nation back home. “People were pretty shocked, like, ‘Who is this kid?’” Leyshon says. “I think the only people who weren’t surprised with his performance were us.”

On the second day, Warner continued to exceed expectations, finishing 11th or higher in each event and wrapping up his day by finishing fourth in the 1,500-metre, reaching the 4:30 goal Eaton couldn’t. When all was tallied, he sat fifth in the competition with 8,442 points, more than 300 points higher than his personal best. In just the 10th decathlon of his life, Warner had finished only 427 points back of Eaton’s gold-medal-winning score. He had arrived.

For two days after his stunning finish, Warner hung out with his father for the first time in his adult life. His mom flew home early so Warner wouldn’t feel pulled between his two parents. “I wasn’t happy about that at the time,” Warner says. “But I realize now it was special of her to do that.” The first few hours were awkward, even with Leyshon there as a buffer.
Past the blood pulsing through their veins, the two men aren’t much alike. Warner is quiet, reserved. Kevin is gregarious, a serial hugger. “People always say, ‘How can he just welcome his father back like that?’” says Leyshon. “Well, he wants to impress his father. What’s wrong with that?”

They ate, went sightseeing and walked around a mall—the kind of innocuous activities those with involved fathers take for granted. Warner was nervous at first, probably more nervous than he was to compete. “It was a weird situation—a really weird feeling,” Warner says. “I didn’t know what to call him.” But as time went on, he settled down and said some things to his dad that had been on his mind for a long, long time. They talked it out, the two men, working through what happened in the past and what would never happen again in the future. For the first time in his life, Warner has a present father, something he didn’t know would ever happen, and, on a cosmic level at least, he has the decathlon to thank for it. He plans to visit his dad in Barbados at least once a year from now on. And the next time both his parents attend one of his meets, Warner has a simple goal; to get a picture of the three of them together. He’s 24 years old, and he’s never had one.

***
As improbable as it may seem, in the 15 months since London, Warner’s career has continued to skyrocket. This past season, he won high-profile meets in Austria and France, and claimed bronze at the World Championships. He set personal bests in six events this year, including three at Worlds where he cracked 8,500 total points for the first time, just 114 points behind the Canadian record and 297 behind Eaton’s gold-medal-winning performance.

The gap between Warner and Eaton—still close friends off the track who will once again train together in California this winter—has been shrinking with each competition. While Eaton is undoubtedly the best in the world, he’s been training at decathlon for nearly a decade and has completed dozens of competitions. Warner’s just wrapping up his fourth year in the sport and has only competed 14 times. In many events, Warner is still incredibly raw.

Croley, the most experienced coach of any in his inner circle, thinks he has anywhere from 10 to 15 technical adjustments to make in the coming year that can only serve to improve his scores. She’s planning to cut down the number of strides Warner takes from the blocks to the first jump in the 110-metre hurdles from eight to seven, and to work with him for the first time in his career on his 1,500-metre running. Think about that. Warner is currently the third-best decathlete in the world; he ran the fourth-best 1,500-metre time at the Olympics. And he’s never even trained properly for the event. Says Croley, “We still haven’t seen what Damian is really capable of.”

What’s different now is that Warner is no longer coming from nowhere. He recently signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Nike and treats decathlon as his full-time job. The international circuit is well aware of his prodigious ability, and, slowly, Canadians are realizing a legitimate contender for world’s greatest athlete could be from Ontario. Eaton is certainly aware of the threat Warner poses as well. Just a week into a training camp Warner attended with Eaton in California last year, Eaton’s coach Harry Mara—one of the most renowned in the decathlon world—came up to Leyshon and told him plainly that Eaton and Warner would finish one-two at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. All that’s left to figure out is the order. “Some people might think that’s a lot of pressure,” Leyshon says. “But that’s what we’ve always aimed for. We’re here to win.”

When Leyshon and Warner began getting serious about decathlon in 2010, they mapped out a detailed plan for Warner’s progression, which culminates with him winning gold in Rio. Now Warner’s setting his sights higher. Only two athletes—Czech legend Roman Sebrle and Eaton—have ever broken 9,000 points in a competition. Warner thinks he’ll be the third. “I feel I can be the best in the world,” Warner says, not a hint of hesitation in his voice. “I’m not just happy to make the Olympic team. I’m out here to win medals. I’m out here for gold. I want to set the Canadian record, the Olympic record, the world record. I think I have what it takes to battle for that world record one day. And I think I’m going to win.”

Forget Ashton—no one in the world is going fast enough.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.