Damian Warner hopes new coach leads to Olympic gold
Canadian decathlete not satisfied with Rio bronze
A few months after claiming the Olympic decathlon bronze medal, Damian Warner has parted company with his longtime coaches and moved to Calgary to work with Les Gramantik.
On the surface, Warner's move might appear reckless. The 27-year-old from London, Ont., is on a medal-winning streak that includes the 2015 world championship silver, 2015 Pan Am gold and 2014 Commonwealth gold.
He also set the Canadian decathlon record under his former coaches when he scored 8,695 points at the 2015 worlds in Beijing.
But Warner is not satisfied.
"After [the Rio Olympics] I probably took a month off and didn't think about track and field," he says. "After that I sat down and started to think about the next four years. There were some events that were noticeably weak and I needed to improve those events. I just felt that working with someone like Les would be the best chance for me to improve."
'One of the hardest things I've had to do'
Gramantik is best known for coaching decathlete Michael Smith to the 1995 world championship bronze, as well as developing another London athlete, Jessica Zelinka. She made two Olympic heptathlon appearances, finishing fifth in 2008 in Beijing and seventh in London four years later.
Gramantik, who lost his job when Athletics Canada shut down its High Performance Centre in Calgary last year, has known Warner since meeting him at a training camp five years ago.
After making the decision to work with Gramantik, Warner says breaking the news to his London coaches — Vickie Croley, Gar Leyshon, Dennis Nielsen and Dave Collins — was "one of the hardest things I have ever had to do."
"Those guys are like family to me," Warner says. "It goes way beyond coaching, just because I have been with them so long. But they were very understanding."
Gold is the goal
Having a single coach responsible for his training program should eliminate a problem for Warner. At major championships he was forced to choose one coach for accreditation purposes while the others were reduced to spectating, unable to contribute.
"I know how much hard work and dedication and time and effort they spent away from their families to help me," Warner says. "Then I'm in a position where I have to tell them only one can coach me. That's not a situation I enjoy being in."
Approaching the Rio Olympics, Warner targeted the gold medal, but he saw his prospects fade as the competition wore on. He hung on to take the bronze behind defending world and Olympic champion Ashton Eaton of the U.S., and surprising silver medalist Kevin Mayer of France.
Eaton has said he will not compete at the next Olympics in Tokyo, removing a potential obstacle to what Warner calls his "number one goal" — winning Olympic gold.
Since finishing a surprising fifth at the 2012 London Olympics, Warner felt pressured to seek more professional coaching. Twice he has trained with Eaton and his coach Harry Marra in Santa Barbara, Calif., but he always resisted a permanent switch.
Among those he consulted prior to making his decision was Michael Smith, the current CBC analyst whose Canadian record he broke.
"I'm really excited for Damian," Smith says. "It's an exceptional opportunity for him to improve. I made the move for the exact same reasons a couple of decades ago."
Gramantik knows he has an incredibly gifted athlete on his hands, thanks in part to the work of the London coaching team.
Starting in January he plans to increase Warner's work capacity and alter some techniques. He says there are only two events in need of a "fix" — the pole vault and discus — so it's more about making small improvements.
"There is only one goal, and that's to win Olympic gold in Tokyo," Gramantik says. "There is no other reason to continue."