From decathlon debutant to world medallist in just three years, Canada’s Damian Warner has been fast-tracked to success. For his next trick, he must somehow beat world record holder Ashton Eaton. SPIKES finds out more.

A high school basketball player urged by his coaches to try athletics, Damian Warner’s only memory of track was being beaten in school races by “a girl named Larissa”.

He began competing with low expectations, clad in high top basketball shoes and long shorts. He entered the high jump, triple jump and long jump: events he had never even seen before on TV.

Although inappropriately attired, Warner’s talent was immediately clear. He won all three competitions and was spotted by a rival competitor who, keen to see his fellow athlete progress, generously donated Warner a pair of spikes and some spandex shorts.

“He saw something in me and wanted to help me get to the next level,” says Warner. “That was pretty cool. He wanted to remain anonymous and I only found out who he was a couple of years ago. The Nike spikes were coloured orange, black and silver and I still have them down in my basement.”

Encouraged by his early performances, the 6ft 1ins Canadian continued to compete as a jumper until his coaches, Gar Leyshon and Dennis Nielson, who remain part of his training team today, suggested he try decathlon.

Damian Warner Discus ()

Poster boy: Warner cuts a fine pose mid-spin in the discus.

Initially reluctant, a “rough” 2009 prompted Warner make his decathlon debut at the 2010 Canadian Championships in Toronto.

"It was horrible," says Warner. "I had written down some huge goals at the beginning, I thought I could write down a load of personal bests and they would just happen.

"I quickly found out that was not the way it worked. I competed in two days of rain and wind and everything that could have gone wrong went wrong."

Warner finished the 1500m exhausted, having set out far too quickly in the final discipline. Yet he finished second in the competition, scoring 7449 points (just 14 points short of the total required to make the Canadian team for the NACAC under-23 champs).

What had initially felt disappointing served as an eventual epiphany: if he could come so close to representing his country after such a bad performance, then what was he capable of over two good days?

A year later he went one better and was crowned Canadian champion, raising his personal best to 8102. Just 13 months after his decathlon debut, and in only his fifth ever competition, Warner finished 18th at the Daegu 2011 World Championships.

"It was an awesome first international experience, a huge eye-opener," he says.

"I was pretty nervous being around people like Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee: people I’d watched and learned from on YouTube."

“It didn’t go as well as I wanted it to, but the experience in Daegu taught me the things I should avoid doing, and helped me going into the London Games.

”After making several technical improvements over a further winter’s training under his quartet of coaches – Leyshon, Nielson, Dave Collins and Vickie Croley – he began the 2012 campaign full of confidence.

Warner gave the performance of his life on the Olympic stage, finishing fifth and achieving a new personal best of 8442.

In just two seasons he had improved by a massive 993pts, rising from outside the world’s top 100 to world no.7.

A year later he returned to competition even stronger, approaching the Moscow 2013 World Championships running faster and jumping further than ever before.

He had also garnered precious knowledge from a stint training alongside world record holder Ashton Eaton.

By coincidence, during an Athletics Canada training trip to Phoenix, Arizona, he ended up sharing a room with the Eaton (the Olympic and world decathlon champion) for ten days.

In the spring, they hooked up to train together for a full month in Santa Barbara, California.

“It helped a lot,” says Warner. “In the past I was a little bit star-struck when I was around him, but after training with him I realised he is just another person. I don’t look at him at different light anymore.

"The biggest thing that stood out was his positive and aggressive attitude towards all events. He is always going to attack and have fun.”

Damian Warner and Ashton Eaton ()

Warner with his rival, training partner and YouTube tutor Ashton Eaton.

Taking a similar approach in Moscow, Warner finished two places behind Eaton to take bronze – with a new personal best of 8512.

Further rewards have followed. Warner, whose favourite events are the long jump and 110m hurdles, won the Canadian’s People’s Pick for Athlete of the Year in 2014, across all sports, beating ice hockey superstar Sidney Crosby and three-time world figure skating champion Patrick Chan.

His success has also given him the opportunity to catch up with his father and other family in Barbados.

This year’s main focus is the Sopot 2014 World Indoor Championships, where he competes in his first ever heptathlon, followed by the prestigious Götzis meet and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. 

Eaton, meanwhile, has made the decision to focus on the 400m hurdles during the upcoming outdoor season.“I’ve no doubt in my mind he will go out there and compete with the top guys”, says Warner.

They will both compete for multi-event world indoor glory in Sopot, and Eaton will return to the decathlon for the Beijing 2015 World Championships.

The question for every decathlete is: how do you beat Ashton Eaton?

“I think it starts with working on your craft,” says Warner. “I feel like I have the tools to get to that level. I just have to make sure I’m in shape and on top of the technical challenges and hopefully in the coming years I’ll be able to compete with him.”