Team Damian Warner: How 2 English teachers helped turn a London teen into the world's greatest athlete

·14 min read
Damian Warner, centre with his coaching team, left to right: Vickie Croley, Gar Leyshon, Dennis Nielsen and Dave Collins. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports - image credit)
Damian Warner, centre with his coaching team, left to right: Vickie Croley, Gar Leyshon, Dennis Nielsen and Dave Collins. (Devin Heroux/CBC Sports - image credit)

The story of Canada's Olympic champion decathlete Damian Warner's rise to athletic greatness centres around that old adage: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

In this case though, there were two teachers.

Scroll to continue with content

In 2006, Warner was a shy Grade 10 student who had never played organized sport. But his life was to change forever because of two high school English teachers who were obsessed with making Montcalm Secondary School in London, Ont. a basketball powerhouse.

Gar Leyshon and Dennis Nielsen began teaching together in the late 1990s and shared a love of sport. Nielsen, who first taught Warner English in Grade 10, said there wasn't anything all that memorable about his young student at the time.

"He wasn't a student you'd remember. His attendance wasn't great. School wasn't his priority. There were issues that were more important," Nielsen said. "I don't remember much about him from then."

But there were rumblings around the school that Warner was an athlete Nielson and Leyshon needed to recruit for their basketball team.

"Damian was like a mythological creature. You never saw him. He had never played on a team," Leyshon recalled. "Dennis is a builder-upper. He told me, 'you need to meet Damian.' He finally came out to try and play basketball in Grade 11."

WATCH | What makes Damian Warner so good?

Nielsen remembers an early practice at the school's gym. He and Gar saw Warner sprinting on the treadmill.

"Gar and I looked at each other and I said if you had to pick anyone in here to be on your team for any sport, who would you choose?" Nielsen said. "I said I'll take that skinny kid on the treadmill any day of the week."

Warner played both basketball and football that year. Leyshon was in awe of his talent, but also knew he had a lot of work to do in trying to get through to Warner.

"He never spoke to me. The entire season he never spoke to me. Never made eye contact with me," Leyshon said.

Pivotal moment

Unfazed, Leyshon's next goal was to get Warner competing on the track and field team. The only problem with that was neither teacher had any idea what they were doing when it came to athletics.

But Leyshon enjoyed being a coach. And Warner loved jumping. So, in those early days, the two were trying to figure out what that meant in terms of competing.

Like in many great stories, there was a pivotal moment. Leyshon remembers getting Warner to run up and down hills over and over and the teenager wasn't happy.

"He asked me, 'why we are doing this?'" Leyshon said. "I told him someday you're going to be the best in the world. That's why we're doing this. I don't even like track and field. This isn't for me, this is for you. And then I went to the car. He eventually came and I drove him home in complete silence."

But as the sullen Warner got out of the car, he looked back at Leyshon and asked what time practice would be the next day.

They've never looked back.

Devin Heroux/CBC Sports
Devin Heroux/CBC Sports

Team was starting to assemble

Leyshon knew he had to form a team around Warner to make up for what the two of them didn't know. He started making phone calls around town.

Bringing on Nielsen was a natural, seeing as they had that connection through basketball. One of Leyshon's next calls was to Vickie Croley, the head coach of Western University's track and field team.

"Gar reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in coaching him," Croley remembered. "Damian was really shy. I saw the dynamic power and speed he had. Just such a talented athlete. But he had to learn how to run better mechanically."

That was one piece of the puzzle. The team was starting to assemble. Croley took somewhat of a head-coaching role while Leyshon and Nielsen oversaw other parts of the process.

But they needed help with pole vault.

That's when Dave Collins, who coaches the discipline at Western, received a call from Leyshon. One look at Warner and he was in.

I remember day one, the second Damian got off the ground with a pole my jaw dropped. I turned to Gar and said, 'What was that? - Pole vault coach Dave Collins

"I remember day one, the second Damian got off the ground with a pole my jaw dropped. I turned to Gar and said, 'What was that?'" Collins said. "To see something that athletic and that explosive, you knew instantly that this was different."

The group of four had rallied around Warner, fully prepared to do whatever it took in those early days to keep him motivated, focused and inspired.

"It's the environment I need to be in. It was a safe environment," Warner said in remembering those early days. "And I was encouraged to fail. That's where you find success. I think people see this finished product and think it's so smooth. But some practices are horrible. But the next day we come back and it's a new day."

Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Olympic debut in 2012

Warner made his decathlon debut 12 years ago at the Canadian championships when he was 20 years old, his first major competition. He came in second with an impressive score of 7,449 points.

"His ability is off the charts. We had taken the time for him to develop at his own pace," Croley said. "That first year he scored almost 7,500 points which is unheard of. I knew how good he was going to be by watching his early performances."

That initial spark of excitement was now a full-blown flame.

Leyshon and Nielsen were taking clinics to learn more about the decathlon. Croley and Collins were doing whatever they could to continue to build up Warner. A year after his first decathlon, Warner won his first national title with a score of 8,000.

And just two years after his first decathlon, Warner made his Olympic debut at the London 2012 Games.

WATCH | What motivates Damian Warner?

Watching it all and beaming with pride was Warner's mom Brenda Gillan. To her, the success had seemingly happened overnight.

"He did get good really fast. At the beginning he wasn't quite sure about all of this. He didn't think he was ready for his first decathlon and then he came in second," Gillan said.

What Gillan still has a hard time wrapping her head around is how much Leyshon, Nielsen, Croley and Collins cared about her son, both in those early days and today.

She says they have always been so invested in him not only athletically but as a person as well.

"It's amazing. They take time out of their life away from their family to let Damian achieve his dreams. You don't meet people like that too often. I appreciate them so much," she said.

Devin Heroux/CBC Sports
Devin Heroux/CBC Sports

Gold in Tokyo was the goal

In London at the 2012 Games, Warner finished a respectable fifth. Now with a four-year lead up to Rio, the team really leaned into training and preparation with goals of gold.

Leyshon admits the pressure and the expectations, as well as the dynamic of having to work with so many people around Warner, was challenging.

"All of us have grown and progressed. But at first it was awkward. It was awkward for years," Leyshon said. "I thought I was the head coach, but Vickie was. There was also the fact that Dennis and I were teaching full-time. We coached track and field. And I was coaching a track club. I had two kids at home."

And in the middle of all it was Warner, trying to stay focused to reach his ultimate goal of standing on top of the Olympic podium in Rio.

That never happened. And while Warner did capture bronze, his first Olympic medal, it wasn't the colour he wanted.

"After going through what we went through last year to win gold, I realized in 2016 I wasn't prepared to win the gold back then," Warned said. "It requires so much attention to detail and preparation. I wasn't there in 2016. I can look back then and realize I wasn't there."

They all knew something needed to change.

Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images
Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Moved to Calgary

In a conversation Leyshon will never forget, an emotional Warner said he thought he had to leave his hometown.

Leyshon says he presented three options. The first was to keep doing things the way they were, and the second was to rearrange the coaching staff but keep working in London.

The third option was for Warner to move on.

"Damian said he was thinking of leaving. I told him we love him and we'll always be here. And that sometimes you need to leave to grow up. I don't think he expected that reaction," Leyshon said.

Not long after that Warner was off to Calgary to train with veteran track coach Les Gramantik.

"Truthfully. I thought that was it. I thought he was gone and that he would end up winning a world championship," Leyshon said.

It was painful for everyone. But in hindsight, it was one of the best things that could have happened.

"I think that was important. After 2016 we were all a little frustrated," Warner said. "It was one of the most important things I've ever done because it allowed me to reset a little bit. Les taught me the technical things."

But after a couple of years in Calgary, Warner felt the pull of home, and lessons taught by his mom.

"I've always told Damian from the beginning to never forget where he came from," Gillan said.

Two years after leaving, Warner came back to London. And the band was back together.

I knew this was where I needed to be, but I also needed to leave. When I came back here, things were shuffled around. I had a little bit more say. - Damian Warner on his move to Calgary and return to London

"I knew this was where I needed to be, but I also needed to leave," Warner said. "When I came back here, things were shuffled around. I had a little bit more say. Les told me to take ownership of my program."

Leyshon took over as head coach. Croley focused solely on hurdles. Collins stayed committed to pole vault.

And Nielsen, who helps oversee things with Leyshon, is there to keep everyone together and happy.

"Dennis is the perfect social lubricant. He and I are sharing a brain. We agree on almost exactly everything," Leyshon said. "This is why we have a team of people. We're all so important to each other. If it's just one of you, if it was just Damian and I, that would be tough."

They set their sights on gold for Tokyo, but could have never imagined their preparation would be derailed the way it was when the pandemic hit. With 10 different events to train and prepare for, it was almost impossible to find a place to continue getting ready for Tokyo.

WATCH | Canada's track and field team a force in world athletics:

That's when they set up shop in a hockey arena in London.

"It was terrible training in the rink. It was a constant stress. We were worried they were going to close us down. It got colder and colder and I thought Damian was going to get hurt," Leyshon said. "I felt it slipping away and so did he."

But the team wasn't going to let that happen. Yes, they were training less, but there was another shift that happened.

Warner and his partner, Jen Cotton, welcomed their baby boy, Theo, to the world.

"I said that last year when Theo was born it was the perfect timing. It brought a calm to what Damian was doing. It gave him some perspective," Nielsen said. "Damian is the kind of person who is family and values oriented. It all stems from his mom. He sees himself in that same kind of position with Jen and Theo."

The Olympics, after a year delay, were nearing. But Warner was focused on being the best dad he could be.

"Theo coming into our lives changed everything," Warner said. "I have a newfound mission. I'm not doing this for myself. I have a clear vision. I wanted to and want to show my son anything is possible.

"I want him to grow up with the same message my mom shared with me that anything is possible."

Warner did just that in Tokyo.

He became just the fourth person in history to post a score of more than 9,000 points when he set an Olympic record last summer in Tokyo to claim gold.

He says he is able to perform as well as he has because of the support he receives from everyone around him, including his partner.

"Jen doesn't get the credit she deserves. Theo was a huge inspiration for me last year but being able to leave, especially when they're that young, Jen took care of him. She sent me all these videos," Warner said.

"Being a mom is one of the hardest jobs in the world and she does it amazingly."

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Team thinks he can be better

For Leyshon, Nielsen, Croley and Collins, the gold was a culmination of years of hard work, heartbreak, highs and lows.

They wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

"It's surreal to think that there are billions of people on this planet and that we're part of one of the greatest athletes of all time is pretty special," Collins said. "This is not a one-in-a-million person. This is a one-in-a-billion person. It's everything. His speed. His power. His technical expertise. His mindset. To put together 10 events the way Damian does is so special."

Warner's mom marvels at what her son has been able to do throughout his life.

"He's so humble. It's exciting to watch your child do something he's dreamed about for so long," she said. "I'm very proud of his accomplishments, but I'm more proud of who he is as a person."

And while Warner, now 32 years old, has reached the top of the decathlon summit, there's the sense around the team he can be better.

And there's something missing in Warner's long list of achievements. He's never won a world athletics championship title.

"He's still not perfect. There are always things to work on," Croley said. "He has had some of his best-ever hurdle practices within this last year. We're waiting for it to happen in a race."

And then there's Leyshon and Nielsen. The two who have been there since day one. Preparing for another international competition with that kid they believed in at the very beginning.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

"I still pinch myself. I like to think I've had a small part in this but it's all Damian. You can say Gar and I were there when we needed to be," Nielsen said. "We'll take credit for always being there for him. I'd do anything for him. He's like family.

"[We feel] a lot of pride when Damian takes to the track wearing the Canadian colours."

Leyshon has been unwavering in his support of Warner. And is still his biggest cheerleader.

"I have always thought he will be the best of all time. That means winning another Olympic gold. World championships. That's what I've always envisioned for Damian," Leyshon said. "I think he's the best athlete to have ever done the decathlon."

Warner after all these years of having all this positivity around him, is as confident as he's ever been.

"I think the best is yet to come," he said. "I feel like I'm the strongest I've ever been. We have a better idea of how I can perform my best.

"I think as long as we're all happy and healthy, there's still a lot more to come."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.