Damian Warner wins gold in decathlon, sets Olympic record
Canada's Damian Warner reacts after his first javelin throw in the decathlon event during the Tokyo Olympics in Tokyo, Japan on Thursday, August 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, August 5, 2021 8:52AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, August 5, 2021 9:01AM EDT
TOKYO -- There were dark days in the dead of this past winter when Damian Warner couldn't see how an Olympic gold medal could possibly be in the cards.
The COVID-19 pandemic had one of Canada's greatest athletes training in a run-down hockey arena so cold he'd lose feeling in his fingers and toes.
"I remember having a conversation with Gar (Leyshon, one of his coaches) and I could almost break down in tears. It felt like your dreams are walking away from you and you couldn't do anything about it. I told him, 'I don't think this is conducive to an Olympic gold medal. I don't see my competitors training this way, we're not able to go to training camps. I just don't see it working."'
In an unforgettable Olympic Games jam-packed with stories of resilience, Warner couldn't have written a more extraordinary script - and certainly no better ending.
The 31-year-old captured Canada's first Olympic decathlon title in emphatic fashion. He set an Olympic record and a Canadian record, and became just the fourth man in history to top the elusive 9,000-point barrier.
Warner capped off the gruelling 10-discipline event with a fifth-place finish in the 1,500 metres - an event he laughingly said he loathes - good enough to finish with 9,018 points, bettering the previous Olympic record of 8,893 points, shared between American Ashton Eaton (2016 Olympics) and Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic (2004).
World record-holder Kevin Mayer of France won silver with 8,726 points, while Australian Ashley Moloney took bronze with 8,649. Pierce LePage of Whitby, Ont., who'd been flirting with bronze through the first eight events, finished fifth with 8,604.
In the moments after the victory, Warner talked about his coaching team that not only constructed a makeshift multi-events facility in Farquharson hockey arena in London when COVID-19 shut down the University of Western Ontario, but propped him up when times were pretty terrible.
"Luckily for me I have guys like Gar and Dennis (Nielsen) who are stubborn and persistent," Warner said. "They wouldn't let me give up. I eventually just leaned on them and thought, I want to be an Olympic gold medalist. If this is the only thing I can do, I'm going to do it. From the very beginning."
Leyshon and Nielsen were Warner's teachers - and basketball coaches - at Montcalm High School in London, and recruited him for track and field.
"It makes this whole thing that much more special, to do this with two of your high school teachers," Warner said. "I don't know the stories of most of the Olympians here, but I can't say their English teachers were coaching them, and their gym teachers.
"This is an incredible story and it's an incredible moment."
The one thing missing? An audience. Because of the state of emergency in Tokyo amid rising COVID-19 cases, no fans were permitted at Olympic Stadium. Pockets of coaches, fellow athletes, and media were the only onlookers who weren't watching the event unfold on TV.
Still, at times during the two-day event, Warner encouraged those in attendance to clap during a jump run-up. After a solid javelin throw, he raised his arms in celebration.
"Obviously, there's not many people out there. But there is. They're not here in the stadium but they're at home. Jen (Cotten, his longtime partner who gave birth to their first child, son Theo, in March) was sending me videos throughout this whole competition.
"When I was out there doing long jump and pole vault and high jump, any time I asked for a clap, those guys were clapping. A hundred people were clapping for me back (home). There was never a moment in this decathlon where I felt like I was doing it by myself."
The gold was a long time coming for Warner, who won bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics, silver at the 2015 world championships, and bronze at the 2013 and '19 worlds.
"I remember sitting on the ground after (in Rio) and being disappointed," Warner said. "I had the bronze medal but I was like, 'This is not what I wanted.' I wasn't proud to be an Olympic bronze medalist. We worked really hard since then to get to this point."
When Warner staggered across the 1,500 finish line, he was wrapped in hugs by Mayer and Moloney. He posed for photos, wearing the Canadian flag like Superman's cape. He went up into the stands to hug a teary-eyed Leyshon, who'd once boldly jotted down lofty goals for Warner.
"The thing with Gar and I, we're pretty ambitious and pretty optimistic. And the first year that I ever started training for the decathlon, Gar was like, 'You're going to be an Olympic gold medalist, you're going to score over 9,000 points, we're going to break the world record. Early on it's one of those things where, what does that even mean?"
They knew very little about the decathlon in the early days. They learned by watching YouTube videos of the greats, everyone from Daley Thompson to Dan O'Brien.
"I'm just making stuff up, because I didn't know. And he didn't know any better either. So we were just sort of fiddling around trying to make it work," Leyshon said.
He recounted a story of telling Warner to run hills. Warner balked.
"Damian said 'Do I need to do this?' And I said, 'Well, you don't need to do anything. But I'm only here because I think that you can be the best in the world at this. And I don't even like track and field. I'd rather do basketball. So if you don't want to do it fine."'
Leyshon walked to his car. Warner eventually got in. Leyshon drove him home in silence.
"(When he dropped him off) Damian leaned in and said, 'So what time tomorrow?' That's the kind of person he was. After that. I told him I thought he could be the best in the world, that he could win the Olympics, that he could be the world record-holder someday. And he sort of was like, 'Okay, let's try it that."'
In Tokyo, Warner was excellent from start to finish. He tied his decathlon world mark in the 100 metres, and then set Olympic decathlon records in the long jump - with a distance that would have won him bronze in the open long jump in Tokyo - and 110-metre hurdles. He cleared a personal best 4.90 metres in the pole vault on Thursday afternoon.
"He just proved that he is the best in the world," said his longtime hurdles coach Vickie Croley. "As good an athlete, he is an even better person. What a moment for all Canadians to celebrate."
Leyshon put the 9,000-point barrier in perspective.
"Like you think of in hockey, somebody scoring 50 goals in a season, this is sort of like scoring 200 points in a season. This is Wayne Gretzky-level stuff. Only the creme-de-la-creme, the very best in the world. the only people who've ever scored more than Damian did, broke the world record to do so."
The track and field community considers the Olympic decathlon winner the "world's greatest athlete," and few would have argued this week. Tokyo will go down as the hottest Olympics on record. When Warner walked onto the track on Day 1, at 9 a.m., the temperature at Olympic Stadium was already 33 C, with a humidex of 47 C.
"These last two days were crazy to manage. When we're out there in pole vault, every single time I picked up the pole it was burning. I (kneel down) to move my marker and I burned my knee. Like, what are we doing? You go into the shade and the shade's hot," he said with a laugh. "What are you supposed to do when the shade is hot?"
As the events played out, it became clear that Warner was on pace for gold. But while fans of track and field stats were frantically doing calculations, the Canadian had other things on his mind.
"People were writing, 'If Damian runs this, or scores this, he could score that,' but those aren't necessarily the conversations that (the decathletes) are having. Sometimes we're just walking through saying, 'I can't wait to get back to the athletes village and have some cake or ice cream.' Or like 'After this decathlon like I'm not going to eat any kind of healthy food. It's just going to be like ice cream and cakes and pastries,"' he said, prompting laughter from reporters.
"That's kind of the motivation."
He joked that he'd love to do away with the 1,500, a difficult event for the powerful decathletes and the only event he finds absolutely no joy in. There's been suggestions of increasing the women's seven-event heptathlon to 10 events.
Warner said he'd love to cut the decathlon down.
"I want to do anything except the 1,500 ever again. That'd be nice. Let's make a campaign for that. Nine events."
LePage, meanwhile, was competing with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.
"It's not an excuse or anything, but yeah, just been dealing with that and kind of doing modified training around that. It's been a little tough to deal with injuries, but everybody decathlete gets injured, you've just got to push through and I'm happy I pushed through and still ended up with a (personal best score)."
Canadian Dave Steen won bronze at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, then Warner captured bronze in 2016 in Rio.
Just 14 hours after racing to gold in the men's 200 final, Andre De Grasse, meanwhile, ran a sizzling anchor leg to put Canada's 4x100 relay into Friday's final.
Jamaica had the fastest time on the morning with 37.82, while China ran 37.92 for second place over Canada in a decision that was determined by thousandths of a second in a photo finish.
Aaron Brown, sixth in Wednesday's 200 metres, ran the lead-off leg, followed by Jerome Blake and Brendon Rodney. Racing for the seventh time of these Games, De Grasse took the baton from Rodney in about fifth place, before churning down the home stretch to cross the line alongside China.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2021.