A lot has changed in Damian Warner’s life over the past nine months.
Not considered a medal threat at the London Olympics, where he was the 24th ranked decathlete in the world, Warner surprised many with a fifth-place finish, a significant improvement from his 18th-place standing at the world decathlon championships a year earlier.
Since returning home last August, the London, Ont., native has spoken to many school children, spreading the message that “anything can be achieved that you set your mind to” with hard work.
This season, the 23-year-old Warner is more confident, consistent and mentally stronger, having learned to “move on” from a poor performance in any of the decathlon’s 10 events, and has recorded a series of podium finishes.
The most impressive accomplishment was winning the Hypo Meeting in Gotzis, Austria on May 26, where Warner battled cold, rainy and windy conditions to score 8,307 points, and become the first Canadian to win at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Challenge event since Michael Smith in 1996.
“It has a huge reputation of being one of the world’s best meets, so I wanted to finish on top,” Warner, who was ninth in Gotzis last year with 7,961 points, said during a phone interview last week.
“Almost all the same guys who were at the Olympics were at this meet, so I wanted to come back and show them I’m one of the top guys [in the sport] and should be one to look out for this year.”
The most satisfying event in Warner’s life, however, can’t be measured in seconds, metres or points.
“Before [the] London [Olympics] I didn’t see my dad [Kevin] or have much communication with him for [about] eight years,” said Warner, whose father lives in Barbados. “He came to London to watch me and since the Olympics we’ve been in communication [online].”
CBCSports.ca caught up with Warner during a “rest week” ahead of the Canadian track and field championships (June 20-23 in Moncton) to discuss his ascent in decathlon and what the future might hold. A top-three result in New Brunswick would qualify the two-time defending national champion for the world championships in Moscow in August.
How does competing in poor conditions, like those you faced in Gotzis, affect you mentally?
Warner: I’ve only had bad weather like that once and that was probably my first decathlon ever. After every single jump you have to run back to the start and put your stuff on and it’s starting to freeze. [You’re] constantly warming up and moving instead of relaxing. It gets tough near the end.
[Mental strength is] something I’ve been working on. Decathlon is a huge mental test. As much as it is athletically, it’s mental probably more. Earlier in my career, little things would get to me. Maybe the weather would get to me or if I had a bad event that would affect me through the whole competition.
How would you describe your growth as a decathlete from before the London Olympics to now?
I think I just put it all together, all the events at the same meet. Some events I would have the good hundred metres or the good long jump and a terrible shot put. Now I’m more consistent in my events and not getting upset if I have a bad one. Me and my coaches knew I was capable of putting up a score like I did in London (8,442 points) and in Gotzis (8,307).
Are you experiencing a breakthrough in any event in the decathlon (which includes the 100-metre run, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400m, 110-metre hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500m)?
I’ve had a breakthrough in high jump. It’s one of the events that we don’t train too much for. For some reason, I all of a sudden got it and understand how to [perform well] every time. Before, I would try to do everything too quick but now I’m more relaxed. I haven’t quite broken through in pole vault but it’s slowly coming along and [my coaches and I] are expecting a breakthrough soon.
Is there an event that has challenged you through the years?
Probably shot put. I’ve probably improved by a half-metre this year but at the same time I know there’s a lot more [room for improvement]. I can throw pretty far in practice but I just haven’t been able to follow through in competition. It’s not always consistent.
When you pick up a [16-pound] shot, you think you would just have to muscle it as hard as you can. If you do the technical things right it’ll go far, but it’s something I haven’t wrapped my head around, I guess.
At age 23, are you on the fringes of your peak years as a decathlete and only scratching the surface of where your talent could lead you?
Experience-wise I’m still younger than everybody else and age-wise I’m still a lot younger than everyone else. Gunnar Nixon [of the United States] is probably three years younger than me but he’s done 15 decathlons and [Gotzis] was my e11th. The average peak age for a decathlete is probably 26, 27 years old.
I always think I can improve in each event and I still feel that way. There’s no way but up, really. I’m doing well now and placing well and people are starting to notice me but at the same time I know there’s a lot more I can do.