Canadian decathlete Warner reaping benefits of gruelling training in derelict arena

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There were days in February when the sunlight was in short supply, the temperature inside the spartan 66-year-old Farquharson Arena in London, Ont., would dip below 5 C, and Damian Warner wondered if he could keep going.

Forced to train in the tired, old building because of COVID-19 closures and travel restrictions, Warner would warm up on a curved treadmill in a tent warmed by a space heater. But once he left the warmth of the tent and removed his mittens to practise discus or pole vault, the world's No. 1-ranked decathlete would lose the feeling in his fingers and toes.

"Towards the end of January, it started to get cold, and then it started to get really, really (expletive) old," said coach Gar Leyshon. "It was freezing for the entire month of February. And one day, he was having trouble with his feet in pole vault, he couldn't feel his feet, and he said to me, 'I can't do this anymore. This is terrible. This isn't training for a gold medal.'

"I said 'Dude, we don't have any other choice. We've got five or six more weeks of this. Don't be telling me you're done now.' Oh yeah, there were some dark days in there."

The stories of Canada's Olympic athletes would fill a thick book about perseverance and creativity, and Warner's chapter would be among the most incredible -- whether he climbs to the top of the podium in Tokyo or not.

Warner's story of logging long hours in Farquharson, an arena that was on London's docket for potential demolition more than a decade ago, took a happy turn when his son Theo was born on March 11. Then, in his first decathlon since 2019, he obliterated his Canadian record in May, laying down the fourth-best score in decathlon history.

"I think that when somebody takes something away that you love, or there's barriers to doing something that you love, it always makes it that much more exciting when you get to finally do it," Warner said of his eye-popping Canadian-record performance at Gotzis, Austria, on May 30.

"It was a little bit surprising considering what we went through. But at the same time, I was injury-free, and I was excited to be competing. I was happy, and just enjoyed the whole competition. I think that's the recipe for success for me -- as long as I'm healthy, and I'm enjoying myself, the results seem to follow."

The 31-year-old from London, Ont., finished third at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar. Some viewed the result as disappointing, but few knew that Warner was competing on two injured ankles.

The COVID-19 postponement of the Olympics was a blessing in that it allowed his feet to completely heal. But the pandemic brought other problems, like where to train. The University of Western Ontario was shuttered. It was a chance conversation during a golf game last fall that brought Scott Stafford, London's managing director of parks and recreation, into the fold.

Stafford suggested the empty Farquharson Arena, and over three weeks, Warner, his coaches Leyshon and Dennis Nielsen, and numerous big-hearted volunteers hauled in high jump and pole vault equipment, 12 tons of sand for a long jump pit, and a set of hurdles. They built a raised pole vault runway, a throwing circle, and hung giant tarps to catch flying implements.

The toughest part was the track. Athletics Canada donated some Mondotrack that was sitting rolled up in storage in Toronto from the 2015 Pan Am Games. The group laid down sheet metal, then affixed the rubber strips with construction glue to make a 50-metre track.

Warner and his crew were loving the makeshift training facility until the grind got tough in the dark days of February.

"He just had to suck it up. And he did," Nielson said. "But there were days where we weren't at our best, we were pissed off and depressed and frustrated. Because Damian is training in that, and you look on Instagram at other decathletes and Kevin Mayer (the world record-holder from France) is somewhere tropical and sunny and warm.

"It's like COVID didn't exist for some people. You're always worried about a level playing field. Well, there was never a more un-level field than that."

They dragged their way through February. And if they needed to see light at the end of the tunnel, Theo's birth couldn't have been timed more perfectly.

"Those last couple weeks in February were dicey, and their baby didn't come and didn't come, and it was like oh my God," Leyshon said. "And then the baby came, and everything was glorious. So Theo was responsible for a lot of the good that has happened this year."

Theo is the first baby for Warner and longtime partner Jen Cotten, a retired national team track athlete. Nielsen remembers the day Warner showed up at practice with a large box of new Nike shoes and was pulling them out one pair at a time to show Leyshon and Nielsen. They passed around the track spikes, marvelling at how light they were.

"Then Damian says 'Wait until you see these,' and opened a box and held these two little baby slippers. And Gar and I didn't say anything for like 10 seconds. We both finally clued in," Nielsen said, laughing. "Then of course it was fantastic.

"The transformation is awesome. He's really grown leaps and bounds in so many ways, and it's all because of little Theo and Jen. They're just perfect."

Both coaches say Warner is in a better place mentally than they've ever seen. It was on display during a frenzied trip to Gotzis for the Hypo-Meeting, where they had to frantically switch flights in Toronto after Air Canada said they wouldn't be permitted to travel through Switzerland.

They went instead to Germany, where meet organizers picked them up in a van and drove them across the border to Austria.

"When we got to Gotzis it was like 'Ah!,'" Leyshon said, letting out a deep sigh. "The next five days we did the workouts, played cards the entire time and trash-talked one another and had a blast. And when we got to the competition, it was a relief like oh, we finally get to compete.

"I've never seen him so free and easy."

Warner was outstanding in winning his sixth Hypo-Meeting title, setting world decathlon bests in the 110-metre hurdles and long jump. His long jump broke a 30-year-old Canadian record.

Leyshon said he wasn't shocked by the jump, but by how Warner uncharacteristically beat his chest in celebration.

"I've never been so surprised by somebody in my life," Leyshon said. "Oh my God, did I laugh."

Leyshon and Nielsen fully expect Warner to win gold in Tokyo in the decathlon. The gruelling event sees athletes do the 100 metres, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400, hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500 over two days. The winner is unofficially considered "the world's greatest athlete."

While Gotzis was fantastic, he left room for improvement in shot put, javelin, the 400 and the 1,500.

Mayer has the most potential to beat Warner as the world record-holder.

"He's a good competitor. I'm always afraid of what he can do," Mayer said recently of Warner. "Gotzis was not a surprise for me, I knew he was able to do that. Every time we begin a decathlon and he's my adversary, I see him, and I want to do my best to beat him.

"It's great to have a great competitor like this ... we'll make each other better in (Tokyo)."

One big drawback to Tokyo is only Leyshon can travel with Warner. With teams trying to keep numbers down due to COVID-19 protocols, Nielsen has to stay home. The two high school teachers first coached Warner in basketball at Montcalm Secondary School, then convinced him to try track. Leyshon took Warner and another student - both promising jumpers -- out to a London Legion Club practice.

"They wouldn't go unless I went with them, and then the second practice the long jump coach disappeared. He ran away with the nanny. Married guy with three kids," Leyshon said laughing. "I ended up becoming the coach. It's like something out of a movie."

The dual-coach approach works well. Nielsen's joking nature makes him the perfect good cop.

"I like to tease Damian a lot, he knows it's because I love him, and it's all in good humour," Nielsen said. "I figure if I can make him smile and make him talk about something, it's a little less stressful than it needs to be.

"I really wish I was going to Tokyo. It's one of those things where if two are better than one, I think three are better than two. And we've been together for so long that it's just the way the team works. But even though I'm thousands of miles away, I'll still be there in some capacity. I'm never going to leave Damian's side, because I'll be there in spirit."

The decathlon goes Aug. 4-5 at Olympic Stadium.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 1, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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