Track and Field·Preview

Olympic champion Damian Warner seeks elusive gold medal at world indoor athletics championships

Seven months after winning Olympic decathlon gold for the first time, Damian Warner will try to capture his first heptathlon title in three trips to the World Athletics indoor championships, leading Canada's 18-member squad into this weekend's event in Belgrade, Serbia.

Canadian star leads 18-member team featuring DeBues-Stafford, Arop, Watson, Mitton

Previewing the 2022 World Indoor Championships | The Breakdown

9 months ago
Duration 5:31
Bring It In's Morgan Campbell joins Jacqueline Doorey to preview the biggest storylines heading into the 2022 World Indoor Championships in Belgrade.

Damian Warner has had plenty to celebrate the past 12 months, from the birth of his first child, a record sixth title at decathlon's Hypo Meeting, Canadian and Olympic marks en route to winning his first gold medal, and most recently, his son Theo's first birthday.

Last Friday, Warner ate cake and helped Theo open presents in front of family in London, Ont., before flying to Serbia, where he will attempt to win his first heptathlon gold medal in three trips to the World Athletics indoor championships this weekend in Belgrade.

"Life seems like it's going faster," he said. "When I go away now it's obviously more difficult because you have to say goodbye and might be gone a week or two, but when you come back it makes it that much more special when you can share certain moments and see the smile on his face."

Being a dad has been the "most special thing" to Warner and brought a new perspective on life for the 32-year-old and his longtime partner, Jen Cotton, a former national team hurdler.

"A lot of the way I try to carry myself is how I will be viewed through my son's eyes and I just try to be the best role model I can," he said.

Warner previously took things hard if he didn't get the desired results in practice or competition, carrying the frustration until he found an answer. While he's still demanding of himself, he tries not to take his work home.

"Now, if something goes wrong or well at the track and Theo runs to the front door and wants to be picked up or give me a hug, all of that stuff doesn't matter," Warner told CBC Sports. "It's kind of like a reset button and exactly what I needed in my life.

WATCH | Warner's son, Theo, played big role in dad's Olympic win:

What Damian Warner will one day tell his son about his Olympic gold medal

1 year ago
Duration 0:40
The decathlete's son was born just months before his father's Olympic title, but he had a big impact on Warner's performance.

"Track is really important to me and it's something I love, but it's not the be-all and end-all."

On Saturday, Warner surrendered the lead for the first time in two days at world indoors.

After starting his day with a 7.61-second victory in the men's 60-metre hurdles to open a 38-point lead over Simon Ehammer, the Swiss athlete cleared 5.10 metres in pole vault to take a 23-point advantage into the final event of the competition. Ashley Moloney of Australia, the 2020 Olympic bronze medallist, is 107 points back of Warner in third.

CBCSports.ca will live stream the 1,000 at 2:30 p.m. ET as Warner tries to win his first heptathlon in three appearances at the competition. You can also follow all the aciton live on CBC Gem, and the CBC Sports app.

On Friday, Warner amassed 3,649 points across the 60 metres, long jump, shot put and high jump for a two-point lead over Ehammer while Moloney was over 100 points behind.

After taking three months off after the Tokyo Olympics to recover and make public appearances, Warner returned to indoor training in November.

Felt 'terrible' in February

To the surprise of his longtime coach, Gar Leyshon, there was no drop in his performance during December and January training sessions before practice became stale in February. In previous years, they usually broke the monotony of indoor training by attending training camps in Florida, California and Louisiana, but declined to travel each of the past two winters due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A month ago, Warner was in a funk at practice, telling Leyshon he felt "terrible" and "not ready" to compete at world indoors. Enter coach Dennis Nielsen, longtime physiotherapist Dave Zelibka and sports psychologist Jean Francois Menard, who rallied around him.

"Dave [Zelibka] told me I had one foot in [world indoors] and one foot out and told me I needed to decide if I was all-in," recalled Warner, the world's top-ranked decathlete. "I decided I was all-in and focused more on my training. I rely on [my support team], they're great people to talk to and I'm learning to trust their opinion.

"I think there's still a little bit of that funk in me, but I'm headed in the right direction with the steps we've taken this year from a technical standpoint and training-wise."

WATCH | Warner claims Canadian long jump record at Hypo Meeting:

Damian Warner leaps to world best and Canadian record in long jump

2 years ago
Duration 1:13
Damian Warner set a Canadian and world best record, jumping 8.28 metres in the long jump event at the decathlon Hypo Meeting in Götzis, Austria on Saturday.

Two weeks ago, Warner matched his personal best of 7.62 seconds in the 60-metre hurdles running against university athletes at the Don Wright Classic inside Thompson Arena on the Western University campus in London. His sixth and final throw in the shot put went 14.90 metres, topping his 14.8 outdoor effort from Tokyo in a performance Leyshon said would have measured 15.2 or 15.3 in a different circle at an international event.

Seven months after winning Olympic decathlon gold for the first time, Damian Warner of London, Ont., will try to earn his first heptathlon title in three trips to the World Athletics Indoor Championships this weekend in Belgrade. (Serbia. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/File)

In Serbia, he won't face 2020 Olympic silver medallist Kevin Mayer of France, who withdrew earlier this month due to Achilles problems that worsened after contracting coronavirus in January, which followed his second vaccine shot last September.

Leyshon pointed to American Garrett Scantling and 2020 Olympic bronze medallist Ashley Moloney of Australia as Warner's strongest competitors. Scantling posted a 2022 indoor world-leading point total of 6,382 at a Feb. 27 heptathlon in Spokane, Wash.

"[Moloney's a] talented, big, strong, fast guy and good jumper, which helps in a heptathlon, but they don't do heptathlons in Australia, so this will be a new experience for him," said Leyshon.

You want to get a personal best and winning would be icing on the cake.— Canadian heptathlete Damian Warner on this weekend's indoor worlds

Warner is seeking a PB after earning 6,129 points in 2014 and finishing second to Mayer (6,348) with 6,343 four years ago in Birmingham, England. But the three-time decathlon world medallist won't be at his best since he'll alter his training to peak for this year's outdoor event in mid-July.

"Indoors is intimate and a cool environment to compete it," Warner said. "[The athletes] are a little closer, the fans are a little louder, so use that energy [as added motivation] and see what happens.

"I'm going [to Serbia] to win. It won't be easy, but it never is. You want to get a personal best and winning would be icing on the cake. You also want to see that you're in good shape."

Athletics Canada is sending a team of 18 — six men, 12 women — to the competition, including runners Gabriela DeBues-Stafford (3,000 metres), Marco Arop (800) and Sage Watson (women's 4x400 relay) along with shot putter Sarah Mitton.

In February, DeBues-Stafford, 26, smashed her own Canadian indoor record time in a women's 5,000 at Boston University less than a week after shattering the national record in the indoor 3,000. The Toronto native placed fifth in the outdoor 1,500 at her first Olympics last summer in Tokyo.

60-100ths shy of Olympic medal

Arop, 23, ran to victory in 1:46.66 on March 6 in New York, less than a second off his 1:45.90 PB. After not advancing to the Olympic 800 final last August, the Edmonton athlete earned two Diamond League victories and was fourth at the Diamond League Final in September.

Watson of Medicine Hat, Alta., missed an Olympic relay medal by 60-100ths of a second last summer in the women's 400 event, helping Canada to fourth place. Indoors, the 27-year-old set a 24.22 PB in the 200 last month and is fresh off a 53.75 showing in the 400 (her SB is 53.32).

Mitton, 25, threw a Canadian indoor record of 19.16 metres in early February. The native of Brooklyn, N.S., topped her previous PB of 18 metres in late January and hasn't thrown under 18.45 since. Mitton made her Olympic debut last summer but didn't advance out of the qualifying round.

Another event to highlight is the men's 60 metres on Saturday pitting 2020 Olympic 100 champion Marcell Jacobs of Italy against American Christian Coleman, the defending indoor 60 champion, current world record holder and reigning outdoor 100 world champion. Jacobs will be the first 100 gold medallist from the Summer Games to run at world indoors.

The heats are scheduled for 5:45 a.m. ET, followed by the semifinal at 1:40 p.m. and final at 4:20 p.m.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

Warner, pictured in the 60-metre hurdles at 2018 indoor worlds, will attempt to lower the 7.62-second personal best he matched two weeks ago at this weekend's event in Serbia. (Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images/File)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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