Olympic champion Damian Warner on breaking myths, mental toughness in decathlon
'We choose to do the decathlon,' says Olympic record holder
Canada's Olympic gold medallist Damian Warner is still grappling with his tremendous achievements at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
The 31-year-old put down personal bests and Olympic records to achieve a lifelong dream. He was selected as Canada's flag-bearer for the closing ceremony.
His passion for sport and athleticism also challenges what Warner identifies as a common misconception: "that decathletes only do the decathlon because they're not necessarily good at individual events."
"I remember when I was starting, I would read comments [saying] 'decathletes are a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of nothing," Warner said.
If there was any doubt to his mastery, the Canadian has shattered it. He ran the 100-metre race in an incredible 10.12 seconds, tying his world decathlon record, and finished the hurdles in 13.46 seconds — an Olympic decathlon record. His 8.24 metres long jump result would have meant a bronze in the individual event.
His total of 9,018 points — achieved under blistering heat and at a Games with conditions like no other — is also a new Olympic record.
'We choose to do the decathlon'
But the humble athlete from London, Ont., is quick to point instead to the hard work of his fellow decathletes, who have beat back that myth of the sport multiple times over.
Warner commended the speed of retired star American Ashton Eaton in the hurdles, 100m, and 400m events. Eaton is among only four men — now including Warner — who have surpassed 9,000 points in competition, the American's best being 9,045.
"That's something that I've taken a liking to. I've tried to disprove that myth as much as possible — that we don't necessarily do the decathlon just because that's all we can do. We do it because we choose to do the decathlon," Warner said.
Warner says he's sensed change in Canada over the past decade. Returning from the London 2012 Games, he remembers being at the grocery store, and shoppers telling him, "you almost had Ashton in the 100-metres!"
After his bronze medal at Rio 2016, that familiarity kept building. It was special, he said, because it showed people were starting to know the decathlon world — not only him, but his competitors.
WATCH | Damian Warner wins gold in decathlon:
And what a demanding world it is. Ten events, testing not just physical limits, but mental toughness. While Warner can't predict what his victory means for sport's future in Canada, he encourages people not to count it out.
"I just hope to show people that even if you're great at those events, the decathlon might be for you," he said.
The mental game
Warner is quick to acknowledge how "intimidating" and "tricky" the sport's process can be.
He credits trainer Jean François Ménard — who has worked with other Canadian athletes like Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir — as key to helping him approach the mental game by compartmentalizing each event.
"When I have my sprint spikes on, I'm a 100-metre sprinter. And then as soon as I take those off and I put my long jump spikes on, I'm a long jumper," he said.
"Whatever success or failure came from the first event, you leave that in the past. And you move on."
Competing at the Olympics is also a different beast. Warner described being shuttled from a call room to the start box for practice — which sometimes didn't go as planned — and then back behind the scenes. The delay from warming up to the race, he said, can leave you feeling "stale."
But then it's time to perform.
"As soon as the gun goes, your mind goes blank," he said. "You get back to your natural reaction, and that's racing against the other guys."
Warner said he still doesn't exactly know how to react after achieving dreams he set when he was only five or six years old. He remembers his mom telling him, "you can do anything you set your mind to."
Jen Cotten, Warner's partner, spoke to CBC's As it Happens right after his victory, saying she knew he was capable of winning, but still hadn't processed it. Cotten was thinking about taking on his mother's motto when it comes to their son, Theo.
"Theo can kind of experience that first-hand. As you said, he was too young to remember [the Olympics], but he was here and we have pictures to prove it," she said.
Warner wants kids to know that dreams can come true.
"If you have something that you want to do, whether that be an athlete, an astronaut, a teacher — if there's something that you really want to do and work hard towards it, anything is possible," he said.
WATCH | What Olympic champion Warner will tell his son:
That drive and understanding, he said, combined with having the right people around you can help get you there. Warner said his support has come from family, friends, coaches, his community, and across the country.
It's also come in multiple forms: time, energy, and financial support. He finds it unfathomable that people have poured it all into helping him achieve his dreams and stresses his gratitude.
"I'm going to do my best to pay it forward as I move forward in my life."