Mustangs coach helps build an Olympic champion

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

You cannot blame Damian Warner for finally taking it easy. Since his return from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games – from which he took home a bronze medal – the 26-year-old London decathlete has been doing “a whole lot of nothing.” And rightly so.

Last month, the Olympian became the first Canadian athlete in nearly three decades to medal in the decathlon. His bronze is only Canada’s second-ever medal in the event – the first since Dave Steen’s third-place finish at the 1988 Seoul Games.

And Western has been at the heart of this champion’s training regime.

The decathlon descends from the ancient pentathlon, a competition held in the ancient Olympic Games. Soon after the modern Games were established in 1896, the decathlon first became an official Olympic event at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Since then, the event has gained a certain mystique.

After Jim Thorpe won the first Olympic decathlon, King Gustav V of Sweden told the famed American he was “the world’s greatest athlete.” That title has stuck with winners of the event for more than a century, as Olympic gold medalists have included such sporting icons as Bob Mathias, Daley Thompson, Bruce Jenner, Roman Sebrle and, most recently, back-to-back champion Ashton Eaton.

Warner, who attended Montcalm Secondary School, first made his mark in the decathlon in 2010, winning a silver medal in the Canadian championships. He won the following two national championships, and has consistently performed well in competition since, winning bronze in the 2013 World Championships in Athletics and a silver at the same event two years later. He is the reigning champion of both the Commonwealth Games (Glasgow) and Pan American Games (Toronto). A strong sprinter, Warner holds the Pan Am Games and Canadian records for the decathlon.

These accomplishments are no easy feat. Preparing for the decathlon is a lot of work, and the competition itself is a whirlwind, Warner said. Decathletes compete in 10 events over two days – the 100 metres, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-metre sprint on the first day; 110-metre hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and 1,500 metres on the second day. And the main event is the culmination of months and months of intense focus and discipline across 10 sports.

Vickie Croley, the Mustangs' head coach for Track and Field works with Olympic decathlete and 2016 bronze medalist Damian Warner, left. Croley has coached Warner since 2010 and accompanied the 26-year-old athlete to the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro last month, where he finished the competition with 8,666 points, behind only Ashton Eaton of the United States (8,893 points) and Kevin Mayer of France (8,834).

Adela Talbot // Western NewsVickie Croley, left, Mustangs’ head coach for Track and Field, works with Olympic decathlete and 2016 bronze medalist Damian Warner. Croley has coached Warner since 2010.

At the peak of his training for the Games, Warner’s week was packed with double workout days, with some days totaling three hours of training – and that’s not including the needed rest, recovery and therapy an athlete preparing for the world stage would need, said Vickie Croley, one of Warner’s coaches and the Mustangs’ head coach for Track and Field.

In the lead up to the competition, Croley, her fellow coaches and physiotherapists worked together to ensure Warner was set up for the best performance possible, she explained. Warner certainly didn’t disappoint.

“He performed incredibly well, in any circumstance, and I was really proud of him. Sure, there were some (event) disappointments, and part of (the competition) is being able to manage the highs and lows over the 12 hours, two days, back-to-back events. I was really proud of how he handled it,” Croley said.

After Day One of competition, Warner sat in third place. He put up solid 100 metres and high jump performances, but struggled in the shot put and 400 metres. On Day Two, he had the best time in the 110-metre hurdles, but finished fifth in his group in the javelin throw and pole vault. Warner finished the competition with 8,666 points, behind only Eaton of the United States (8,893 points) and Kevin Mayer of France (8,834).

His performance was nothing short of remarkable, said Croley, who has coached the Track and Field team for more than two decades and has been at Warner’s side for the last six years. And Croley knows what she’s talking about.

Her coaching resume boats appointments as a National Team Coach at North American Central American Caribbean Combined Events Championships (2009); World Student Games Jumps/Combined Events Coach (1991, 2005); North American, Central American, Caribbean Track & Field Championships Jumps & Combined Events Coach (2002); World Championships Combined Events Coach (1995); and Canada Summer Games Combined Events Coach (1989); among others.

In 2013, she was named Ontario Sport Alliance Female Coach of the Year and holds the titles of CIS Men’s Track and Field Coach of the Year, OUA Women’s Track and Field Coach of the Year, and OUA Women’s Coach of the Year, All Sports.

In 2010, Warner and Croley met through Gar Leyshon, one of Warner’s high school coaches.

Leyshon initially contacted Croley to ask if she would coach Warner and allow the young athlete to train with Western’s team (despite not being a student-athlete). Croley integrated Warner into her team’s training program and began working with him separately on technical events, such as hurdles and jumps. During these sessions, Croley worked with him and other elite athletes who weren’t students at Western.

In coaching Warner, she continues to collaborate with Leyshon and a handful of other coaches responsible for strength, throwing and pole vault.

When it comes to decathlon and moving on from performances that might not go as expected, it’s all about a particular mindset, Warner said. And Croley, with the help of Warner’s mental-performance coach, has played a huge role in fostering the right mindset for the sport.

“What I try to do, going into the Games, before each of the events – before the 100 metre, I thought of myself as a sprinter and nothing else. And before the long jump, I’m a long jumper, the shot put, a shot putter. I kind of change it as I go. It makes it easier to focus on one event, so if something didn’t go well before that, you can just put it in the past,” Warner said.

“The reality of the decathlon is, you’re never going to be as big as a shot-putter and you’re never going to be as small as a distance runner – so you have to try and do whatever you can with what you have. And that’s where Vickie plays a huge role, where she organizes the training schedule so I’m able to focus on my strengths, but also improve my weaknesses, and I think she’s done an awesome job at that.”

While his performances in throwing events left him wanting more, Warner knows they aren’t necessarily representative of his full potential. It’s all about how you perform on a particular day, in particular conditions and circumstances, he said.

Croley immediately echoed him, adding coaching means learning from the conditions Damian has and will compete in, and tailoring the training to match in order to improve his performance. Just sitting with Croley and Warner, you’d fast pick up on their symbiotic relationship – a call-and-respond that goes both ways.

In conversation, it’s easy to see Croley is in tune to what Warner needs and thinks, on and off the field. Without him making specific requests, she co-ordinates – even customizes – a routine and environment that supports his training and recovery. Croley regularly checks in with Warner, she said, looking to figure out what is working and what isn’t. She looks for opportunities to teach people skills and life lessons through sport. All of this has fostered Croley and Warner’s partnership. In talk and recollections of Rio, the two complete each other’s sentences.

Vickie Croley, the Mustangs' head coach for Track and Field works with Olympic decathlete and 2016 bronze medalist Damian Warner, left. Croley has coached Warner since 2010 and accompanied the 26-year-old athlete to the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro last month, where he finished the competition with 8,666 points, behind only Ashton Eaton of the United States (8,893 points) and Kevin Mayer of France (8,834).

Adela Talbot // Western NewsVickie Croley, Mustangs’ head coach for Track and Field, accompanied Olympic decathlete and 2016 bronze medalist Damian Warner to the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro last month, where Warner finished the competition with 8,666 points, behind only Ashton Eaton of the United States (8,893 points) and Kevin Mayer of France (8,834).

“Ultimately athletic success is measured by an athlete achieving his or her personal bests at the time that you want them to peak … In some aspects of training, there are experts out there that are better than me, and it is my responsibility to provide these opportunities to the athletes that I coach,” Croley said.

“This is definitely the case with Damian as he needs to be excellent in so many areas (10 different events, strength, sport psychology, nutrition, exercise physiology, training program execution, recovery, biomechanics). Part of my success as a coach is being able to reach out to others for their advice and input and not being selfish and thinking I can provide the best for my athletes in all of these areas.”

And while Croley and Warner’s team of coaches coordinate training efforts to maximize his success, these efforts don’t always curb that innate athletic desire for more.

“I’m a person who is tough to please on any day. I can go into any event and pick it apart after, and say, ‘I would rather be here.’ I was upset how some of the results went, but at the same time, it’s not an indication of where I am or what I’m capable of,” Warner said.

“I could probably go out now and throw a discus further than I did in Rio. But right now, I’m not going to do anything. I’ve just been having fun,” he chuckled, adding he’s been busy since coming back from the Games, but the kind of busy that involves seeing family and friends.

Warner has thought about the future. He’s excited for 2020 because he feels there is still much to learn about decathlon, and still a lot he can do to improve his performance across all events. On and off the track, he has a lot to learn and when all of his lessons come together, “it will all help me be a better athlete at the end of the day,” he said.

Croley plans to be there for these lessons, too.

“It’s a privilege to coach Damian, really. Regardless if he’s an Olympic medalist, he’s an incredible athlete and person to coach, and not only has he grown as an athlete because of my involvement with him and the other coaches, but he’s made me a better coach. It is really a privilege to be involved in coaching an athlete that has so much athletic ability. It’s still an ongoing learning experience for both of us,” she said.

Both Croley and Warner insist it ‘takes a village’ to support an athlete. Both want to see credit go to the full team that supported Warner on his way to Rio.

“From my standpoint, as you go on, and you go to all these competitions and all these experiences, you realize that it really does require a lot of people to do what you want to do. Just looking at the Olympics – if Vickie or (physiotherapist) Dave (Zelibka) weren’t part of that process, and hands-on during those two days, I feel like it would have turned out very differently and I could have been very disappointed. They helped out a lot more than they get credit for and they did a lot of things behind the scenes that most people don’t get to see,” Warner said.

“My coaches overall, they don’t get enough credit for what they do, because they put in a lot of time and sacrifice a lot of things for, at the end of the day, one person to chase their dreams. It looks like one person competing, but there’s a lot of moving parts behind the scenes. I’m very grateful and thankful.”