The forest city of London, Ont., is not where you expect Olympic dreams to be made on the track. Southwestern Ontario has been a fertile ground for hockey players and rowers but not traditionally track stars.
And yet this is where Damian Warner, a medal favourite for the decathlon in Rio, chooses to be. When I arrive at the TD Stadium at Western University on a July morning ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games, there is Warner, tossing a medicine ball out on the track. There are no monitors tracking his resting heart rate or his top-speed exertion, none of the advanced technology that’s been developed and made available to the best athletes in the world to help them track their progress and push themselves to another level. The only gadget here today is an iPhone that Warner’s coach is filming him with. She replays the video for herself in between Warner’s reps and then sends it to him; he will dissect what he sees on the tape later.
As a Nike athlete, Warner could be training at their research lab in Beaverton, Ore., which is on the cutting edge of innovation, with its high-speed cameras for motion capture, force plates to see his power in a three-dimensional space or environmental chambers to gauge the energy his body is using to perform the varied movements the decathlon requires. Instead, Warner has opted to stay where he grew up, and the reason is simple: He likes it here. His trainers are here, and they all have other local gigs—they can’t afford to pick up and move stateside. “For me, it comes down to comfort,” Warner says. “I trust them. I’ve made great gains with them. The biggest part of being an athlete is being in a good mental head space, and I’m comfortable with them and how they coach me. I’m confident that if I just trust in the process and everything they tell me, I have enough here to win gold.”
Among those trainers are Dennis Nielsen and Gar Leyshon, who were Warner’s teachers and first track coaches at Montcalm Secondary School. Nielsen handles Warner’s throws. Leighton takes the lead of his night-time practices (Warner trains two hours most evenings to get his body accustomed to the time of day it will be asked to perform in Rio). Dave Collins, an assistant coach at Western, works with Warner on the pole vault. Maria Mountain, best known for her work with Tessa Virtue and Scott Moyer, handles his strength and conditioning.
Vickie Croley, head track and field coach at Western, facilitates Warner’s entire schedule, managing his multiple coaches and disciplines. She’s also responsible for his runs and jumps. She took a sabbatical this past year to devote all her attention to Warner’s preparation for Rio, and she will be the only one of his coaches there in an official capacity—decathletes are only allowed to bring one. “That’s the part I hate the most,” Warner says. “I wish they could all be there.”
But that may be the only part that Damian Warner hates. Starting off his personal plyometrics session, he smiles as he does the lonely leg extensions that get his pistons-for-legs in gear. Warner does two training sessions a day, six days a week. For a while in the off-season, he took gymnastics lessons on his days off to work on his body positioning awareness. He spends more hours training than the average student at Western does studying.
He doesn’t see all this as much of a sacrifice. “I get to be outside all the time, running around. It’s easy to come to work every day.” Warner’s work requires a surgeon’s precision: doing hamstring exercises with dorsal flexion with razor-sharp focus, or gliding over a hurdle with just a millimetre to spare (to remain efficient), his head not moving as the rest of his body snaps open and closed like a pair of scissors. It’s like watching a duck–everything above the water remains still while the feet paddle feverishly below the surface.
In decathlon, everything is in competition with everything else. Warner has to focus on endurance to finish strong in the 1,500-metre. Which is very different from the speed endurance he needs in the 400-metre. He has to make sure his hips rotate with precision in the discus throw. And he has to make sure those hips remain square to the finish line in the 100-metre. His acceleration-phase foot cadence for the 100-metre differs drastically from what it is in the 110-metre hurdles. His aerobic system does a year-round tug of war with his anaerobic system.
The yin and yang of that balance is much more art than science. At what point are your muscles becoming too long and lean and no longer as powerful? Is the power needed for the javelin throw worth sacrificing the flexibility needed for the high jump? You train not just to be able to do these events independently but also to withstand the lactic acid–induced punishment that comes with doing them all over a two-day span. And that’s what you come to appreciate when you see a world-class decathlete up close: None of this makes sense. You’re not supposed to be able to do this.
There have been a few jaunts outside the country. In the winter Warner did camps in Florida, Arizona, and California. While in Phoenix he was tutored at Altis World by legendary coach Dan Pfaff. (Canadians on Pfaff’s resumé include Donovan Bailey and Andre De Grasse.) Warner also made trips to Toronto to work with Jeff Huntoon, who coaches Derek Drouin in the high jump.
But he spends the bulk of his time in London. “I’m the type who, I don’t want a lot of over-coaching,” he says. “Track seems very difficult but I think sometimes we make it more complicated than it really is. At the end of the day you’re just trying to run fast and jump high and far. For me I appreciate coaches who give me a few words of feedback and observations and that’s it.”
Croley seems to agree that less is more. “With an athlete like Damian, when he’s first learning the sport, I would provide lots of instruction,” she says. “But now as he gains experience and knows what he wants to do I pull back and give him little reminders and things to think about and really leave the ownership to him as to how he wants to approach things and correct any mistakes. We talk through things more than instruct. My job really is one of support.”
Warner also meets with a sports psychologist (provided by Own the Podium), and the subject at hand is “everything matters.” A bad sleep could mean a bad approach in the high jump. Any unresolved issues mean your mind main not be able to concentrate. “The biggest thing for him at this point is the ability to eliminate distractions and focus on what allows you to compete your best,” says Croley.
Going into these Games, Croley wants Warner in the same head space he was in in London. “He walked out into the stadium with so much going on and he immediately found his mom in the crowd and waved to her and found his dad on the other side and waved to him,” she says. “He was just so calm. I remember saying to myself: This is the Damian Warner I want in 2016.”
Warner finished an encouraging fifth in London. (Sportsnet magazine reported on Warner’s up-and-coming performance at the 2012 Games in this story by Arden Zwelling.) In 2015, he broke the 19-year-old Canadian decathlon record of 8,626 held by Michael Smith with a score of 8,659 at the Pan Am Games. Then he broke his own record several weeks later at worlds with a score of 8,695, a performance which won him the silver medal. Though 8,700 may seem the next barrier to breach, Warner has a much higher PB in mind. His long-time goal has been to join the class of three competitors who have cleared the 9,000-point plateau. One of which is his chief rival for gold in Rio, Ashton Eaton, who scored 9,045 points at worlds last year.
Warner actually fares better than Eaton in the “power” events, the short sprints and throws of the competition.
|WARNER PB||EATON PB|
You’d think “Eaton” would be a bad word in Warner’s presence, but the rivalry is far from Donovan Bailey vs. Michael Johnson. In fact, Warner has trained with Eaton in the past and considers him a friend. Those training sessions actually fortified Warner’s belief that he can be in Eaton’s class and even beat the reigning Olympic and world champion, and world record holder.
“I’m expecting gold. That’s what I’ve prepared for. That’s what I’m capable of so that’s all I’m focused on,” Warner says.
How many athletes are competing at Rio who have never won an Olympic medal but won’t be happy with their performance unless they win gold and beat one of the sport’s all-time best? The number can’t be high, but that’s exactly where Warner has set his sights, with all his first coaches by his side, winning a gold medal for Canada that is truly Canadian made.