Lessons, legacy, community: A conversation with Damian Warner, world's greatest athlete

Damian Warner, of Canada smiles after winning the gold medal in the decathlon at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (Francisco Seco/AP)

Damian Warner has accomplished nearly everything you can in the decathlon. He’s one of just three athletes to score 9,000 points in a competition. He’s currently the Olympic decathlon gold medal and record holder. And he is still in great form after winning the famous Gotzis meet again this year, giving him seven of the last nine, including six straight.

Often, when you achieve that much success, the knee-jerk reaction is to keep everything the same — either out of the positive reinforcement that the success brings or out of sheer superstition. That isn’t the case for the world’s greatest athlete.

Warner’s path and approach has never been conventional. Now, he’s making a monumental change, transitioning from having Nike as his brand apparel sponsor and instead teaming up with Canadian company Lululemon as their newest global ambassador. Warner joins fellow Canadian tennis superstar Leylah Fernandez as Canadians on Lululemon’s roster of athletes.

A big part of the partnership is around community givebacks — something that is commonplace in Warner’s endorsement deals as he has done work with KidSport Canada, providing grants to kids, and Kraft Heinz Canada, which helps support those experiencing food insecurity in Canada.

Raised in London, Ont., by a single mother, Warner has made a steadfast commitment to uplift the London community but also repay the investment in community members that uplifted him.

His next chance to do so via competition is at the track and field World Championships that are taking place in Eugene, Oregon from July 15-24.

Warner spent time preparing in Langley, B.C., for 10 days before he was off to Eugene.

I caught up with Warner when he was still in London to discuss the impact the London community has had on him and how he’s hoping to utilize his new partnership with Lululemon to give back to that very same community.

Sportsnet: Congrats, there's lots to congratulate you for and every time I talk to you, it's congratulating you for another achievement. But let's focus on the partnership with Lululemon. Why did it make sense?

Damian Warner: It's exciting for us. It's been a under some wraps for a little while. So, it's nice to talk about it and to share it with some friends and family who have been asking questions for a little while. And I have to give him a non-answer, but I feel the partnership with Lululemon comes at the perfect time in my career. Focus on community and who I am as an athlete and partnering with Canadian companies. I think it means much more and makes more sense for my brand.

There are lots of brands interested in you and you could go with someone that's really splashy, or super focused on high performance, but when you think of Lulu, you think of a community, you think of health, you think of wellness, you think of local and a lot of those words are, synonymous to you and your story. So, what's the hope in terms of what you want to do with them?

We've talked a lot about the community aspect. That's obviously really important to me as the community here in London, Ontario that I grew up in is something that I've talked about years and years and years — strengthening that community, making it better.

I always talk about the message 'you can do anything you set your mind to.' So, working with Lululemon and using their platform and my platform together to find the best ways to kind of influence the kids in the community so that they can grow up and do things that they set their mind to.

Things like that, but also breaking up the running world a little bit, shedding some light on Lululemon in the gear that they provide the products that they have. Obviously, it's incredible quality. To get that out to more runners and see the brand kind of flourish within Canada and worldwide is something that I guess we both share.

Damian Warner isn't the only Canadian working with Lululemon, with tennis superstar Leylah Annie Fernandez also on their roster of athletes. (Photo courtesy: Lululemon)

People are familiar with their base layer and their shorts, but for what you do, shoes are paramount at a high level — and high performance, specifically — because you're doing so many different things and you require so many different types of footwear, both in competition and to train. So, what does that mean in terms of footwear?

Lululemon doesn't have a men's footwear out yet, but it's going to be exciting to work with them in the future and see what comes up from that. I think that they have some great things on the horizon, but from a more specific athletic standpoint, I think it's kind of allowed me to experiment with different brands of shoes. I've kind of been pigeonholed in the past to wearing one specific brand [Nike]. So being able to experiment with other things and find out what actually works best for me has been really beneficial.

But what I'll wear when I'm competing and training, I'm really excited for that, especially because of what I've seen so far. One thing that I've enjoyed the most is the feedback. It feels really like a partnership. They ask me a lot of questions. They ask for my input.

I was joking around earlier saying that I'm a little bit older now, so I have a lot of experience, so finding ways where I can put some of that experience to use and find ways to make the products better so that when you're competing, you could be as light as you possibly could be. You could be as stylish as you possibly can be and perform as best as you possibly could — I'm excited for that.

Do you think the experience of finally securing that Olympic Gold is different because of the age and stage you're at, relative to if you had done it earlier in your career?

I think it meant more just because throughout my career there's always obviously been all these ups and downs, or I guess you could say failures to a certain degree. I call them learning experiences. But because I've been through all those steps to ultimately get to the goal that I was trying to achieve, I think it meant much more versus if I came out and I was a young athlete and I did it, obviously it would be really special. But I think that it wouldn't have the same significance that it did.

The [timing, winning during the] pandemic, when things were tough and also being at the time my son was born, it just came at the perfect time for me. And I think that it showed me that what I've been working for over the years came to fruition, and if I stick on this path then other things will fall into place. So, I'm really excited to see what happens over these next couple years leading up to the next Olympics as well.

"I got to meet Vince Carter and one of the questions that I asked him is 'how long do you think you'll play for?' And he told me when he stopped enjoying it. And I think that’s the same thing for me."

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received to help you through the ups and downs?

My mom told me when I was younger, to learn from your mistakes. So that's what I've tried to do. I've taken a lot of my messages that my mom told me when I was younger to heart and through all these experiences of going to the Commonwealth Games and not hitting in the pole vault or going to Gotzis and not getting a throw in in the shot put, I've tried to really focus on that and find ways to prevent that from happening in the future.

And I think that through all these steps, it brought me to the athlete that you've seen over the last couple of years. I can go into these competitions and use the experiences that I've had to my advantage. And I'm one of the oldest athletes, if not the oldest athlete, that will be competing at these games and with that comes experience. I experienced more things than anybody else has in these competitions, so if I can use that while staying healthy and staying excited and driven, then the sky's the limit.

I think that, right now, I'm at the perfect point in my career where I'm excited. I'm still passionate about this sport. I still feel like I have a lot to improve on, so when I go into these competitions, I feel like it's just compete, you know, that's it — seems like it's a no-brainer, but being an elite athlete, you sometimes you focus on all these random things so it's nice to go into the competition and just do what the sport is.

You're not too far removed from the age Ashton Eaton, one of your mentors and great competitors, was when he decided to hang it up. Have you even fathomed, this is how long I really want to do this for or what you might want to do afterwards?

I've tried to think about what I want to do afterwards, but I'm at a roadblock, not closer than I was before. In 2016, after the Olympics, I got to meet Vince Carter and one of the questions that I asked him is how long do you think you'll play for? And he told me when he stopped enjoying it.

And I think that’s the same thing for me, I don't have a set date that I'm going to retire after or a set competition that I want to make it to. For me, as long as I feel like I have something that I can give to the sport, as long as I feel like I can still improve, and as long as I'm enjoying it — the day that any of those things stop is the day that I'll stop. Could be a rapid stop and it could be something way far down the road. Right now, I'm fully invested and fully enjoying the journey.

You played team sports before. Does it feel similar to success in a team sport or is it in a way different cause you're the only one on the line when the gun go off?

That's the thing that I struggled with the most when I first started doing track and field. Because I come from basketball and football, and one of the things that I like the most was working with your team. You go to practice and every single guy is running suicides or doing all those kinds of workouts. When you have success, it means something because that guy did the work, and that guy did the work. We did the defence exactly how we wanted to. The quarterback threw me the ball and I caught it. That kind of teamwork.

And then you go to track and field and it's like I ran this race and I finished, but a lot of people don't see the behind-the-scenes stuff, the day-to-day stuff, and that's where I'm working with my coaches and my sports psychologist and my physiotherapist. It's a team atmosphere very much different from a basketball team. But certainly, you have to work together. I have to rely on those guys a lot of times when I'm at practice because sometimes it's just me doing the workouts. So, I have to rely on their planning and their strategy going into these competitions.

And knowing that the schedule they put together is going to allow me to peak at the right time. There's a lot of trust and a lot of teamwork. But it's a little bit different. It's the one thing that I miss the most of playing basketball and football.

I heard a quote from Kara Lawson, head coach of the Duke women’s basketball team, that went viral. She talked about how you can't wait for it to get easy. I don't know if you heard or saw it.

Yeah, I watched the video that you posted.

Well, I actually thought of you because she said 'you need to get to a spot where you are embracing the fact that it gets hard and you're good at dealing with it, getting hard.' Obviously, doing it in London with not all of the benefits of some of the people you're competing against, it's been hard. Do you feel mentality-wise you've got to that point where you feel like you're good when it gets hard?

I definitely do. And watching that video I, I completely agreed. One thing that I know for certain is that decathlon is not going to get any easier. It's still going to be 10 events that are just going to be gruelling and hard, and it's going to be long. The one thing that we talk about all the time is, there's something that's going to go wrong in the decathlon. Like you just don't know where it's going to be. It's going to happen. The only thing that we can do is prepare the best that we can.

So, all the work that we do with our coaches on a day-in, day-out basis, when I speak to my sports psychologist, we talk about all these random things that could possibly happen, because that's setting up that if it does happen, then I have the strategy to deal with it, and that's where that experience comes into play. If I go into a competition and my first throw is not very good, my second throw is not very good, and I only have one attempt left — if I was younger, I would have panicked. But nowadays I just be like, OK, what are the chances that it's going to go bad three times in a row? I just have to stick to my strategy, stick to my training, and then the result will come. And that's kind of been our mentality over the last couple of years, is just execute.

The decathlon is not going to change. It's just going to be the same challenge. The only thing that can change is our mentality and our approach to everything, and then hopefully we can handle that better than anybody else. I think that's the difference at the end of the day, who can handle the mistakes the best.

In the community in London it wasn't just your success that was celebrated, Maggie Mac Neil, Jessie Fleming, all coming back with Gold medals. Now Nazem Kadri will be bringing the Stanley Cup back to London. What's going on in the Forest City that's allowing for so much success?

There's all those names that you listed. There's Logan Couture, Jessica Zelinka. The list just goes on and on and on.

I think it has to be the community. We don't have the best facilities in the world, we have some of the best people in the world and they're very supportive of one another and I think that, at the end of the day, that's what matters the most — and we experienced that during the pandemic, where we had to train in the hockey rink and people have heard the story over and over and over. But the community came together for that, local business people came together and donated stuff, and that's just been my whole career. From the time I was in high school to the point that I am now, people have kind of donated their time, energy, money to allow me to do what I do and that's been the weirdest thing.

I was giving a speech not too long ago, and I'm saying that's been the hardest thing for me. How do you say thank you to all these people? I don't have enough money to ever pay all these people back. I can't give them the time that they have given me back. The only thing that I can do is go out there and compete. The best that I can and represent myself the best that I can as a way to say thank you and pay it forward as much as I can. And that's why the community is so important to me. And that's why I'm excited to work with Lululemon over the next couple of years to really strengthen the community, and find the best way to give back because the community has given so much to me.

Some good lessons for young son Theo, who is what, like, a year-and-a-half now?

Sixteen months.

What has the family and decathlon been like, dealing with the ups and downs of him while you're still training and trying to perform as a high-performance athlete?

It's like the 11th event.

But it's my favourite event.

It certainly brought a whole bunch of different challenges, adjusting the sleep schedules and stuff like that, getting up at 5:30 in the morning, and he just wants to play and all that kind of stuff. It's made me become a more responsible athlete. To make sure that I'm eating when I need to, sleeping, when I can. But ultimately, it's just kind of brought me a lot more, joy. He comes to the track every so often and tries to copy me, doing all the events. To see him try to long jump and even just throw the football around or the baseball around, try to hit a golf ball, all those things are just really cool to me because, that's what I loved when I was a kid. And it's really cool to see that he loves just kind of moving around and being athletic.

You're not the only elite athlete in the family. How helpful is it that your partner, Jen Cotten, understands, to a certain degree, what you're going through and can in some ways support as she was a high-level track athlete also?

It's extremely important. I don't think any of this happens without her and her experience of being an athlete as well, just because we travel the world all the time, there's a lot of times where I'm away. It was really tough going to Australia and the Olympics last year because I was away for so long. But Theo was also so young as well. So going to the Olympics when he was three-months old, I was gone for almost a month. That's a huge portion of his life, but it means a lot. Knowing that Jen's back at home and he's in good hands — and it helps a lot with social media as well.

But I keep telling people over and over that Jen doesn't get enough credit for what she does. The more I experience things and look back on my childhood, being a mom is probably the hardest job in the world and I'm just very lucky that she does that job extremely well and I'm very thankful for that. And it's going to be really special to go over to Oregon this year because both of them will be in the stands so it's a nice distraction to be able to look up and see two smiling faces over and over.

Canada's Damian Warner listens to his coach in a break in the Decathlon shot put during Men's high jump qualifying during the World Athletics Championships Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. (Tim Ireland/AP)
Canada's Damian Warner listens to his coach in a break in the Decathlon shot put during Men's high jump qualifying during the World Athletics Championships Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. (Tim Ireland/AP)

Let's talk about World Championships. No Commonwealth games for you this year but tapering up to Worlds in the House of Nike. So, in a way that might be a little bit weird, you might still be on side of buildings there. What are you looking forward to with Worlds being in North America?

Doing it in North America is going to be really cool. A really nice change. We don't have to get on a plane for a really long time.

The culture, for the most part, is going to be the same. The food's going to be the same. We're not going to have to acclimatize too much. It's just a three-hour time difference. So, all those little things are going to add up to be a lot at the end of the day. But it's going to be nice to be at home. All the families not going to have to get up at like 3 in the morning to watch me compete or anything like that. They can just get up at a normal time, go to bed at a normal time. It's going to be nice.

Is there one elusive goal left for you?

There's a couple.

One is not necessarily as elusive to a certain degree just because it's the ultimate, and that's breaking the World Record. I think that that's one thing that, if things go well, I think it's going to be a possibility. But when it comes down to elusive goals, it's winning the World Championships outdoors. I've been able to do everything else for the most part. I got the Canadian record. I've scored over 9,000 points. I got the Olympic gold medal and then I just got the indoor gold medal. This is the only one that I don't have in the collection. And it's avoided me a couple times.

And when you go back and you talk about some of the mistakes, I can think back to mistakes that I made in competitions that prevented that from happening. And now it's time to learn from those experiences and put my newfound experiences to the test and go out there and get what's mine as my mom would say.

Well, you could be efficient and get two of them done at the same time.

There'd be no better place to do it.

"I just have to stick to my strategy, stick to my training, and then the result will come."

The Olympics are not the optimal place to get a World Record. So maybe in a couple of weeks we'll have a different conversation. Progress or perfection? Which one are you focused on?

Progress.

Why?

My mom told me when I was younger. 'No such thing as perfect,' and I've learned that.

You can be as good as you possibly can, and I just don't think that there's anything that's perfect. All you can do is progress and make little changes on a day-to-day basis. And that's what me and Gar and Dennis' (his coaches) philosophy is, is that you're just trying to raise the base. You're just trying to raise your average over and over and over. And then ultimately, you're going to get to this point where your floor is going to be higher than everybody else's. And from there you can compete. But you'll never, ever reach your ceiling. It's impossible.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I got asked that question not too long ago at my public school actually. And one thing that I was saying is that, if my career ends the way that I think it it's going to, with me winning some more competitions and getting the records that I need to, I don't want it to be one of dominance. I don't want people to think 'he dominated.' I want it to be he persevered because it was not always perfect. It started with missing out on some competitions and losing competitions and things falling short and getting sick at competitions. I want it to be 'he persevered.'

I think that that's really important, but when I started the career and when I ended the career, I was the same person. I never let success kind of take hold of me and I never got too big or too high on myself. I think that's really important.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.
close