This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website.
Warner has harnessed his natural athleticism into the speed and explosive power that has made him one of the world’s best decathletes.
When things go well, Damian Warner sprints 19 steps, leaps in the air as though he’s about to dunk a basketball and, in a seemingly gravity-defying move, sails horizontally before coming to ground in a spray of sand.
That’s what he did at the Canadian indoor championships in February to win the national long jump title. And that meet was really just practice for Warner.
The 25-year-old from London, Ont., is a decathlete, so long jump is usually one of 10 run, jump and throw events over two gruelling days of competition. But long jump has always been more than just one event for Warner. It’s the event that first signalled the enormous athletic potential within his six-foot frame and then, inexplicably, held him back once he was competing against the best in the world.
Long jump is an important event for accumulating points in the decathlon and it comes early on the first day of competition, so a good jump lifts a decathlete’s spirits and a bad one can mess with his head.
“It wasn’t until last year that I got over the hump,” Warner said, about his frustration with the event.
Warner’s breakthrough in long jump is part of his broader transition from the 22-year-old who burst on the scene at the 2012 London Olympics — and finished fifth with little more than raw talent — to the more mature athlete who has married his speed with technical skills and is now a good bet for the decathlon gold medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.
With most elite athletes, there’s a coach somewhere in the background spinning yarns about how good and focused they were at a young age. Not in Warner’s case.
He played a little basketball, and it was obvious that he oozed natural athleticism, but he wasn’t much of a competitive athlete (or student) for most of his high school career. It wasn’t until he found out that he could miss school if he joined the Montcalm track team that he signed up.
That is how he came to jump 7.48 metres in Grade 11. That’s really good for a teenager in donated spikes without any real training or much practice. It led Gar Leyshon, then his basketball coach and teacher and now his head decathlon coach, to imagine how great he would be if he really tried.
It didn’t happen over night but Warner did harness his natural athleticism into the speed and explosive power that has made him one of the world’s best decathletes.
From his first decathlon in 2010 to his 10th at the last Olympics, his 100-metre, 400m, 1500m and 110m-hurdle times dropped, his shot put, discus and javelin throws lengthened and his high jump and pole vault went up. Every event got better except the one he started with: long jump.
Warner went all the way to the 2012 London Olympics without ever matching the 2008 long jump mark set when he was in Grade 11.
“In high school I didn’t know anything, start here, run to here and jump as far as you can,” Warner said.
“Then I got sucked into the track and field world and made it very technical. It just didn’t work for me so now I’m back to just running and jumping and having fun,” he said.
That’s how Warner explains his breakthrough last year of reaching 7.62 metres in long jump, which he matched at the indoor nationals this year. It’s clearly how he likes to think about it.
But his jumps coach Western University’s Vickie Croley has a different take on his improvement.
His approach run, those all important 19 steps, is more consistent now, his speed increases to the board and he lowers his centre of gravity just before he jumps. That’s all the technical track stuff he likes to think he’s left behind.
“He’s doing all that without thinking about,” Croley said.
In fact, but for a fault here and there, she’s sure his long jump ability is well over 7.80 meters.
That kind of jump, coupled with his dropping times in the 400 and his more consistent high jump will translate into real point gains this season and set him up well for the 2016 Rio Olympics next year, she said.
“What I don’t want to see change is the mentality that he took into London where he didn’t have any pressure on him. He had his goals and wanted to do well but he enjoyed the moment. That’s the Damian that we need to see competing, the athlete who is smiling between his events.”
On this, Warner agrees.
“Being calm, relaxed and having fun, that’s me. When that changes, that’s when things go downhill.”
Decathletes generally only compete in their full event a couple times a year, so a lot rides on each one.
“It’s great that there are 10 different events that can go right but it’s also 10 different things that can go wrong,” Warner said.
“Ahead of time I think about all the events, but when I show up on the day of the decathlon I think of myself as a 100-metre runner until that event is over. Then I’m a long jumper, and I keep switching personalities throughout the competition.”
To know how things are going for him in a meet, spectators have to be pretty savvy about the sport because it’s nearly impossible to tell from watching Warner. When he puts down a new personal best in the 100 or wins the hurdles his smile might be a little wider but there are no theatrics or finger waves in the air.
“Act like you’ve done it before,” he said, grinning. “That’s my big thing.”
Pretty soon he will have.
He went from 18th to third in the span of one world championships, he won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and American Ashton Eaton, the world-record holder and reigning Olympic champion, has pegged Warner as one of his biggest opponents for the 2016 Rio Games.
He will compete once before July’s Pan Ams, at the prestigious Hypo meet in Gotzis, Austria, an event he won two years ago.
“There’s always more to achieve,” Warner said, practically waving aside the list of his achievements.
Warner’s attitude is just as much a part of his success as his natural ability now coupled with increasing technical skills, according to Leyshon, his head coach.
“He’s low-key and never satisfied.”
Normally, the Pan Am Games would be an afterthought for an athlete like Warner, who is a strong medal hope at the world championships in August.
But this year is different. The Toronto location is drawing A team athletes in more sports than usual.
“You don’t get many opportunities to compete in Canada on a big world stage so you’ve got to take advantage of it,” Warner said. “This is my event and I’d like to win it at home.”
That choice that doesn’t come without some risk though. The world championships, which mean far more for his career and sponsors, are just five weeks later. If Warner doesn’t recover as well as he expects or if he’s injured in anyway, his worlds could go down the drain before they even start.
That’s why Eaton and his Canadian heptathlete wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, both plan to compete in a couple of individual events at the Pan Am Games rather than their signature event.
“It’s just too close to the world championships and it’s too risky because every heptathlon you do there’s an opportunity to get injured or dinged up,” said Theisen-Eaton, who hopes to qualify and compete in hurdles and long jump.
Warner knows he is taking a risk but, to him, it’s worth it to compete on home soil.
“Most of my family live around Toronto and have already got tickets,” he said. “Having them there to watch me compete, that’s going to be really cool.”
It’s also a chance to show Canadians that Olympic athletes don’t disappear between Games.
“It’s funny,” said Warner, with a look that suggests it’s actually not that funny, “after the Olympics you get questions like, ‘What are you going to do for the next four years?’ like we just sit around and wait for the next Olympics. But, really, we’re training and competing in big competitions in between."