Damian Warner stood on the long jump runway during last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, and raised his arms for the audience to clap.
Except there was no audience.
In a poignant moment that said everything about a Games in a global pandemic, and Warner’s remarkable journey to Olympic decathlon gold, he was “calling for a clap” from his family, friends and the majority of his coaching team who were gathered together back home in London, Ont., in the wee hours of the morning.
Warner’s Olympic story unfolded like a Hollywood movie. He won gold despite training for months in an old unheated ice rink. His coaches say the strength to overcome those challenges stuck.
“I think it’s made Damian much tougher mentally,” said coach Dennis Nielsen. “There were times when he was in the doldrums … he doubted everything we were doing, he couldn’t understand why a guy who was charted to do well at the Olympics, win the gold medal, is training in an abandoned hockey arena where it’s only seven degrees.
“But, if it doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, isn’t that what they say? Damien’s well-suited to compete in anything, because we’ve seen it all and done it all.”
Warner hopes to harness that strength in his quest for the one major title that’s eluded him: world championship gold. He headlines a Canadian team of 59 athletes at the world track and field championships that has a combined 15 Olympic medals.
And Warner will have his supporting cast in Eugene, Ore., including partner Jen Cotten and their son Theo, who turned one in March.
“It’s cool now because Theo copies everything that I do,” Warner said. “He watched Gotzis [the famed multi-events meet where Warner won his sixth straight title in May]. He goes to the track. He’s on the long jump runway clapping or he’s in the starting blocks.
“He’s going to be at world championships, so I know that when I’m clapping on the runway, I’ll look for him in the crowd because I know he’ll be clapping his little hands.”
Warner became the fourth man in history to top the elusive 9,000-point barrier in Tokyo. The 32-year-old went on to win his first world indoor heptathlon title in March.
Warner knows he has a target on his back, but he loves it. He’s had his whole career to prepare for it.
“I hope that once the competition starts, I get the leader bib, and if I have a target on my back the rest of the competition, this is what I expect, this is what I wanted all along, to go into these competitions and to win and put my best performance forward,” Warner said in an interview that was part of his promotion of his new partnership with Lululemon.
“No extra pressure. The pressure that I put on myself is much higher than anybody else could put on me.”
COVID-19 meant no spectators were permitted in Tokyo, and Warner had just one of his coaches – Gar Leyshon – with him. The rest of his team, plus his family, watched from home. They gathered in the backyard of Warner’s agent Jeff Fischer. It was about 8 a.m. ET when Warner won gold.
“It was bittersweet,” Nielsen said. “To watch him win the gold was one of the best things I’ve ever seen. At the same time it was hard to watch it away from it all, when it was something that we talked about at the very onset [of Warner’s career], being there to watch him win the gold medal and one day break the world record, which he hasn’t done yet, but I’m still confident that he will.
“It was the best-case scenario for that moment. But it was still really hard.”
Cotten sent Warner video of the crew clapping along.
“I still have the videos on my phone,” Warner said.
Vickie Croley is the one member of Warner’s team who won’t be in Eugene, Ore., as she’s one of the Canadian team’s coaches for the Commonwealth Games that begin July 28.
In Tokyo, Warner became the fourth man in history to top the elusive 9,000-point barrier, a goal he and his coaches – who were once his high school teachers – had ambitiously set back when he was starting out. A world title and besting Kevin Mayer’s world record of 9,126 points are two of Warner’s main goals for the future.
Championships, however, are more about winning than setting record scores.
“I try to focus less on the score and more about the process. So, starting with the 100 metres and doing that as well as I possibly can. And then whether that event is good or bad … just move past that, and then just focus on the long jump and just keep doing that for 10 of events.
“I feel like when I do that, by the time you get to the javelin [ninth of 10 events], that’s when you can start to bring out the calculator and see what I can potentially score. But if you’re in a position where you can run for a really big score, obviously you want to do that. But at the end of the day for world championships, Olympics, it’s about winning the competition first.”
Warner holds decathlon world’s bests in the 100 metres (10.13 seconds) and 110-metre hurdles (13.36). His long jump in Tokyo would have earned him bronze in the individual event.
He is ranked No. 1 in the world this season and hasn’t lost a combined events competition since the 2019 world championships, where he was slowed by a nagging injury and finished third.
Canada’s Pierce LePage, who was fifth at the Tokyo Olympics and 2019 world championships, has an outside shot at the medal podium if he’s consistent through the 10 events.
The world championships, the world’s third largest sports event behind the Olympics and FIFA World Cup, open on Friday at Hayward Field. The decathlon is on the meet’s final days, July 23 to 24.