Damian Warner is still searching for perfection in the 'nightmare' of decathlon
33-year-old Olympic champion competes at Hypo meet May 27-28 in Austria
For as physically and mentally taxing as the decathlon is and will always be, Damian Warner is more invested in mastering his sport than any other time in his career.
And he's been at this for a while now.
With 10 events over two days, the margin of error is small in a competition that is famous for anointing the world's greatest athlete. The expectation to perform repeatedly on demand and under pressure is enough to drive even the best decathletes a little bit crazy.
"The decathlon is somewhat of a nightmare," says Warner ahead of his daily training session inside Thompson Arena on the Western University campus in London, Ont., a two-hour drive west of Toronto. "There's a lot of stuff that can go wrong. And there are a lot of things that often do go wrong when you're doing it.
"But I think the beauty of the decathlon is the idea of like, what if I get all 10 events to go exactly as planned?"
It's that question that has been ruminating in the 33-year-old Olympic champion's mind for more than a decade. He wonders if one day he might just find magic, when everything aligns and he pulls off the perfect decathlon.
"I don't know if there's anybody in history that's ever experienced that, but why not be the first guy to be able to do that?" he says with a smile. "So that's what we train for every day, is for this imaginary decathlon. Who knows if it exists, but we're going to test our limits to see if it's possible."
Warner's next shot at perfection comes May 27-28 at the annual Hypo Meeting in Götzis, Austria. Last May, Warner claimed a sixth consecutive decathlon title there, extending his record total to seven.
WATCH | Warner seeking redemption at upcoming worlds in Budapest:
It might sound strange to hear the man who won Olympic gold with a record-breaking performance muse about still chasing the perfect decathlon —he was nearly perfect in Tokyo to become the champion. But it's this admission from Warner that perhaps provides the clearest context of how his mind works and how he approaches every training session and every competition.
Warner has a list of things he wants to accomplish in the sport. He's crossed off most of them but there are still a few things remaining. Like winning a world championship and breaking the world record.
To do this particular sport well, 10 grueling events over two days, Warner admits one has to be a little obsessive.
"I think most track athletes kind of have that trait. It's not easy, there are going to be times where you go through these stagnating periods where you don't see improvement, or you feel like you're getting worse," he says. "There are going to be times of doubt or fear or questions of if you think you're able to accomplish your ultimate dream.
"But I think that you just have to have that faith, you have to have people around you that can kind of lift you up when you need to be and then just keep moving forward. And I think that's the only way that you'll ever achieve what you're ultimately trying to achieve."
In almost every metric of how Warner views success, he's exceeded expectations. He'll never admit it because of his humble-to-a-fault nature. But Warner has been unrelenting in his training. He's assembled a team around him that reminds him of what he's trying to achieve and Warner's demeanour is perfectly suited for the decathlon.
WATCH | Warner chasing decathlon world record at 2023 Hypo Meet in Austria:
His need to leave no question unanswered combined with an ability to pivot when something isn't working that has allowed Warner to reach unparalleled levels in the sport. When he feels he's plateaued, he makes a change.
So when he felt he needed to add a spark or change something about his training routine going into this season, he added a training partner.
Since August, Canadian decathlete Nathaniel Mechler has been part of Warner's inner circle. This is a pretty big deal for Warner, considering for years he has been training mostly alone, alongside his cast of coaches. It's not lost on Mechler.
"It's a big change, especially when things are going well. To introduce something or someone new is a bit of a risk, but I think for the most part we get along pretty well," says Mechler, 26, like Warner, a London native. "We're a lot alike. I'm quiet. He's pretty introverted as well. I think it's important to him to have someone like that, someone who isn't going to come in here and talk his ear off."
Mechler is an accomplished Canadian decathlete who has his own aspirations of competing at the Paris Olympics next summer, and is soaking up every minute of training with Warner to help him progress in his own career.
After finishing his degree at the University of Houston a couple of years ago, Mechler moved to Toronto to continue his decathlon training. But he struggled to find his groove. That's when Mechler reached out to Vicky Crowley, the longtime head coach of Western University's track and field team and part of Warner's training team.
Efficiency of practice
It wasn't long before Mechler was at the University of Western and caught the eye of Gar Leyshon, who has been with Warner since day one, including teaching him in high school and discovering Warner's extraordinary athletic talents.
"He's probably going to be in the top 30 or 40 in the world this year," Leyshon says of Mechler.
In a short time Warner and Mechler have developed a good chemistry. It's apparent how much they respect and trust each other. Not much is said. They go about their business, focused and intentional. They might exchange a few words after a set here and there but that's about it during practice.
"We'll talk about sports and the decathlon and for the most part we're here to get that work done," Mechler says. "He's done this for so long I can only imagine how taxing it would be doing it alone."
Leyshon says he's noticed a difference in the efficiency of practice since Mechler arrived.
- Olympic champion Damian Warner targeting decathlon world record after 'catastrophic' end to last season
"Nate has literally meshed seamlessly," he says. "It's been so much better than it has in the last couple of years. Damian has somebody to talk to, somebody to run with, somebody to share the experience with.
"The two of them went and lifted weights the other day, just the two of them. They didn't even take us. They don't need us for a lot of it. And so Nate has just fit in amazingly. Damian's son loves Nate."
Theo just celebrated his second birthday. Warner, his partner Jen Cotten and Theo are a strong family unit, making it that much more important Nate fits into that.
It's not hyperbole to say that Warner is thriving in sport and life right now.
"Training has been going very well, I'm healthy, I have no complaints," Warner says.
Injury at worlds
This energy and situation is a far cry from where he was eight months ago.
Last July at the world championships in Eugene, Ore., was supposed to be a momentous occasion for Warner, his family and coaching staff. They were all together for what they all thought would be another win for Warner.
It was supposed to be his first world championship gold medal after six trips to the event, one of those elusive goals on his list he's been agonizingly waiting to check off.
And everything was going as planned after the first four events. Warner was surging, ahead of the field and on pace for gold.
But in the final event of day one, the 400-metre race, disaster struck.
Warner drew lane one for the race, putting the explosive athlete at a distinct disadvantage as he'd have to navigate the sharp first turn out of the blocks. The first few strides went as planned, powerful and precise. But just as Warner was rounding the corner he pulled up, grabbing his hamstring and wincing in pain.
He hit the track and laid there, his world championship immediately over. It was a shocking twist in what until then had been a storybook year for Warner.
"When he went down I was like, no, no, no. It happened so quickly. The initial reaction is disbelief," Leyshon says. "Then he came limping down the tunnel and as he saw me he burst into tears. That was heartbreaking for me."
He said the sun came up today and everybody that loved you yesterday, still loves you today. It was a simple saying and a simple text. But it meant a lot,.- Warner on message from coach after injury at worlds
There were some dark moments that followed, but it was Leyshon who recognized how strong he had to be in that moment for Warner.
"We sometimes forget that you get so narrow and so focused, that you forget that this is a game. This is a sport. This is something you do that you started doing for fun," Leyshon says. "And too many people forget that in professional sports. If it wasn't fun, I wouldn't be doing it."
Warner says in the days that followed Leyshon sent him a message he'll never forget.
"He said the sun came up today and everybody that loved you yesterday, still loves you today. It was a simple saying and a simple text. But it meant a lot," Warner says.
WATCH | Warner becomes 1st Canadian to win decathlon gold:
Unpacking that day, the events leading up to the injury and what happened to his body in the seconds that followed, has been a lot.
Credit has to go to Warner's longtime physiotherapist Dave Zelibka, who has worked mini miracles on Warner's body over the past decade. Zelibka came up with a quick diagnosis of the hamstring strain.
To rebuild the soft tissue, the team had Warner first building strength in the pool. Zelibka also performed shockwave therapy on Warner's hamstring, which Leyshon describes as essentially hammering the hamstring repeatedly to break up the tissue.
"And they did that to Damian's leg repeatedly. It breaks everything up — tissue, scar tissue, and it moves things along, and it creates a response from your body, but it's incredibly painful," Leyshon says.
There was a lot of painful stretching in those early recovery days too. If not for Zelibka, the rehab would have been much longer.
"I'm at peace with it now," Warner says. "I think that whenever you're in a situation like that, it's very tough to deal with. As a track and field athlete, we put a lot into this sport, you know, and sometimes we don't get the return we're looking for."
Past performance doesn't dictate the future. I'm more invested now than ever.- Damian Warner
It could have been a lot worse. The early diagnosis was that Warner would be out for upward of eight weeks. He was back jogging after three weeks.
"Past performance doesn't dictate the future. I'm more invested now than ever," he says. "I think that there's a lot that I still need to accomplish and still want to accomplish. Of course, age is a thing for me, but I don't really see age. I don't really feel it. I feel better now than I did 10 years ago.
"And besides little things like what happened at the world championships, I've been a healthy athlete throughout my career, and we're going to do our best to keep it that way."
Since the injury his team has been trying to bulletproof his body so that something similar doesn't happen again. The team has put an emphasis on the 400m in their training plan, rebuilding those explosive strides.
But perhaps more than anything Warner has been working on the mental aspect of it all — erasing what happened in Eugene from his memory bank so that he can blast freely out of the blocks without fear of straining his hamstring again
"I was in shape and ready to leave my mark on the track. That's always tough to deal with," Warner says. "But I dealt with it, tried to take as much as I could out of it, tried to learn as much as I could, to figure out if it's something that we did in the lead up, if there's something that we can improve to make sure it doesn't happen again."
It's a mental thing too. There's so much about Warner that involves being out of his mind and into his body, a flow state, and working on that has been a focus of training this year after the injury.
"I'm not an F-1 car. So you can't plug me into a computer and find out exactly what the cause was. But we try to live and we learn and we try to be better and feel like we're taking the right steps to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Wants to break world record
No decisive conclusion has been reached on why that happened. And Warner is OK with that. He's accepted that sometimes in his sport there are things that are going to happen beyond his control.
Mechler says it's part of what makes Warner so great, that he can keep it on the rails when it would be easy to fall off the track.
"I can't count on one hand a practice that was terrible. But I also can't count on one hand saying that's the most incredible thing I've seen in my life," Mechler says. "Every single day he's so consistent. It's something I look up to and try to hone for myself."
Always forward looking, Warner is fully committed to excellence this season and it starts with the Hypo meeting in May.
"At this point in my career, there's no hiding it, I want to win a gold medal," he says.
And make no mistake, he's once again circled the world championship on his calendar, set for late August in Budapest.
It's another chance to finish off that list — world championship title, world record, then repeat as Olympic champion at Paris 2024.
He's always chasing that imaginary perfect decathlon, maybe one day turning that nightmare into a dream competition.
"I believe that I have what it takes to break the world record. If not, I wouldn't tell you that it's a goal of mine. I'm not here to lie to anybody. I'm not here to lie to myself or my coaches," he says.
"This is something that we all believe, from deep inside. And my mom told me when I was young, you can do anything you set your mind to and I have my mind set on something. And I've seen how that works in the past. And this is what I'm trying to do right now."