Medals are nice, but the chance to watch an athlete burst with a flash onto the Olympic scene is one of the great attractions of the Games. Damian Warner’s debut was about as memorable as it gets.
For the better part of 24 hours, the 22-year-old from London, Ont. flirted with medal territory in one of the Olympics’ marquee events, serving notice that Canada once again has a decathlon contender.
He finished fifth in a field of 29, a ranking that fails to capture the brilliance of his performance. Over two exhausting days and 10 events, Warner logged five personal bests, and remained within reach of the podium for much of the competition. He finished with 8,442 points, 335 more than his previous personal best and just 81 shy of the bronze-medal winner, Leonel Suarez of Cuba.
“It was an awesome experience,” Warner said. “It was a big goal just to come here to the Olympics. But to put together my best score ever? You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Warner’s emergence caught even Canada’s hard core of track enthusiasts off guard, as the decathlon had been dominated in recent years by U.S. star Ashton Eaton, who won gold tonight, along with athletes Warner surpassed here, such as the hulking German Pascal Behrenbruch.
You had to scroll a full page down the IAAF of top performances in 2012 to find the 8,107 points Warner scored in June at the Canadian track and field championships—a lifetime-best, but not a number to put him in the hunt in London.
Then, on Wednesday, he found confidence he didn’t know he possessed. Warner came third in the 100-metre, and followed that up with a second in the long jump, leaping a personal-best 7.54 metres. A fourth in the 400-m bumped him up to podium territory, where he stayed—give or take a place—for the rest of the competition.
It was the best performance by a Canadian triathlete since Michael Smith blew away the competition in 1996 at a meet in Götis, Austria, with 8,626 points.
For Warner, a converted basketball player, the magical run capped a winding journey into decathlon, which began when track club coaches persuaded him two and a-half years ago to branch out from long jump and triple jump. He placed 13th at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea—an experience that taught him much.
“I was a little star-struck when I went in there,” he recalls. “I’d watched [my competitors] on YouTube. But now it’s just like they’re another competitor.”
And like this Olympics thing is old hat for Warner. By the middle of the event in London, he was stoking up the crowd for his jumps and throws, feasting off the energy of 80,000 spectators. “Everybody got into it,” he said. “I got carried along by the crowd and it was just an amazing experience.”
One he, and a new legion of fans back home, hope he’ll soon repeat.