Life has changed for Damian Warner since the Olympics.
The Canadian decathlete surprised the world when he surpassed all expectations to finish an astounding fifth in London – in contention for a medal right to the end – in the most grueling event at the Games.
It's no surprise that the up-and-coming star was underrated heading into the competition. The 22-year-old is from a so-called bad neighbourhood in London, Ont., he went to a high school that doesn't have a history of breeding success stories, and he fell into athletics almost accidentally.
'He just exudes athleticism. He makes everything look easy and he’s just scratching at the surface right now.'— Dennis Neilsen, former coach of Canadian decathlete Damian Warner
His accomplishments have changed all of that. Past and present students of Montcalm Secondary School have started to take pride in where they came from. Kids from Warner's community all of a sudden have a chance. The born-and-bred Londoner is a true product of his hometown and he's proud that it's taken him as far as it already has.
"Montcalm and the neighbourhoods that I've lived in and around, they get a really bad rep," Warner said. "There are obviously bad things and bad people around there, but that doesn’t mean that every single person in that area is bad. I think it shows, what I've done, that anybody can do it. There are a lot of other athletes in that area that can do it; they just need the same opportunities that I had."
Opportunity did not knock on Warner's door early or often. His teachers and classmates didn’t know who he was, he missed a lot of school and he thought he had no future.
It wasn't until his third year of high school, six years ago, that the changes began. His sister was now old enough to relieve his duties of picking up his younger brother and sister after school, meaning Warner had time to play basketball – and he had coaches who wanted him to do exactly that.
Gar Leyshon and Dennis Neilsen took Warner under their wings as the senior basketball coaches at Montcalm.
"They've done everything for me," Warner said. "When I was in high school, I had no path. I was just going to school because I had to. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn't be here. Who knows what I would be doing? But I wouldn't be at this spot if it wasn't for them. They just do everything for me. I could sit here all day and talk about every single thing they've done for me."
Neilsen first caught sight of Warner's athletic prowess in his gym class, and quickly recruited him to the basketball team.
"I've been doing this for 28 years and I’ve seen lots of really good athletes, but nothing compared to Damian," Neilsen said. "Damian's the kind of kid where you walk into the gym and you let the kids play for five minutes and then split them into two teams, who do you want to pick first? He's the kid. Every single time. He just exudes athleticism. He makes everything look easy and he's just scratching at the surface right now."
From the court to the track
At that time, the future Olympian's school didn't have a track and field program. But Neilsen had made a promise to a young student from a feeder school, Max Dubinovsky, that if he came to Montcalm, they would form a track and field team.
A reluctant Leyshon was enlisted to coach the jumpers Dubinovsky and Warner. In that first year, Leyshon took Warner with him to watch Dubinovsky win silver at the Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations track and field championship. Warner didn't qualify, but that's when, “everything changed somehow,” Leyshon said.
"They invited me to go to OFSAA to watch Max Dubinovsky," Warner said. "I went there and I sat up on a hill in the rain and watched him compete. When I was there I got to see that everyone took it a lot more seriously, it was a big meet, people were organized there, people were actually trying to win and they were focused.
"I was like, 'next year I'm going to come back and I'm going to do the same thing. I think that was the first time that I really started to take it seriously.'"
When Warner started to take track seriously, so too did his coaches. Leyshon and Neilsen saw infinite potential in their young student and put everything they had into continuing to make him better. The two high school teachers wore out their wallets, their wheels and their vocal chords to help get Warner to where he is.
But they're proud to call themselves his coaches. Though Warner was led by Les Gramantik on the track in London, his roots remain completely at home. He even continues to do some of his training at Montcalm, a more convenient location for the two teachers.
"Damian's one of the few kids who's born and raised in the same place and trains in the same place by people from that place," Leyshon said. "He's a true Canadian story. He's never been to the States, he's never moved away. He's just been at home."
Most teachers aim at making a difference in their students’ lives. While there is no doubt that Leyshon and Neilsen have done that, the impact that Warner has had on them might be even greater.
"I couldn’t [teach] without coaching," Leyshon said. "I love coaching. And we've gone all these places because of Damian. Get this, in the last year, I've gone to Arizona twice with Damian, I’ve been to Korea; I get to go to the London Olympics. I also went to New York, Florida and Austria, all in the last year-and-a-half.
"Ask me how many English teachers do that? It keeps me motivated. It keeps me excited. And I wouldn't do it if he wasn't such a nice kid."