Sat. May 28th, 2022

In 2019, 17-year-old Jose San Pastor was a promising thrower. He won the Spanish U18 title in the shot, placed third in the discus, and competed in the shot at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Baku.

By 2021, Jose had transformed himself into a world-class decathlete. He won bronze at the World U20 championships in Nairobi, breaking the 12-year-old Spanish U20 decathlon record as he did so.

A self-confessed dreamer, in those two years San Pastor turned his dreams into reality. He flourished, surrounded by athletes in an age group he refers to as “one of the best in history”. He had the opportunity to recreate an iconic Kevin Mayer moment, and set himself new dreams for Paris 2024 and beyond.

FROM TALLINN TO NAIROBI

Like the Tokyo Olympic Games, the World U20 Championships in Nairobi had been postponed from the summer of 2020 to August 2021. The change in year meant that athletes born in 2001 missed out on their opportunity to compete on the world stage, most notably Norway’s Markus Rooth, the 2019 European U20 and 2021 European U23 bronze medallist, and holder of the second best U20 decathlon score of all time. But the delay also meant the next tranche of U20 combined eventers would be at their peak in their final year in the age group. Jose San Pastor found himself among them.

However, the story of the U20 decathlon championships began a few weeks earlier in Tallinn, at the European U20 competition. Covid restrictions in Norway meant that the event was moved from Bergen to Tallinn, where the U23 championships were taking place a week later.

The field in Tallinn was stacked. Belgium’s Jente Hauttekeete was the new world U20 heptathlon record holder, scoring 6062 in February, and surpassing 8000 points for the U20 decathlon in Arona in June. Norway’s Sander Skotheim was the second best U20 heptathlete of all time, scoring 6015 within days of Hauttekeete. The Czech Republic’s František Doubek had been over 7800 in June and was clearly ready to go over 8000.

Behind the big three, a cluster of athletes were ready to step up, including San Pastor in his first international championships as a decathlete. Jose had qualified for the championships on the basis of his 7197 points in Arona, where he had finished 3rd behind Hauttekeete.

On the first day in Tallinn, Jose ran 11.36 in 100m, equalled his PB of 7.05m in the long jump, threw over 16m in the shot and equalled his best in the high jump (1.85m). He approached the 400m in 8th place and in good shape.

But an unexpected twist was waiting in the last event of Day 1. San Pastor, Doubek and Belgium’s Jef Misplon were all disqualified in the 400m for lane infringements. World Athletics would go on to relax the lane rules in November 2021, but that was of little use to the trio eliminated in Tallinn.

With his shot at the podium gone, Doubek did not complete the full two days, but San Pastor continued.

“When I was disqualified,” Jose recalls, “I lost all hope of going to the Worlds, because I knew Spain were only taking 16 people. But, I said, I’m going to finish my decathlon the best I can.”

What followed the next day was quite extraordinary from an athlete who had just scored zero points in one of his ten events.

Despite kicking one of the hurdles during the race, Jose improved his hurdles lifetime best by over a tenth of a second to 14.70. He threw over 45m with all three of his discus attempts, setting a PB with his longest throw of 45.92m.

But then in the pole vault, he encountered further bad luck. Jose injured himself in warm up – a fall into the box resulted in a gash on his knee – and for a while he appeared as a DNS. But with a large bandage secured in place, he decided to continue.

Still playing catch up on pole vault compared to his more experienced competitors, San Pastor’s PB coming into the competition was 4.20m. So, he started at a modest height, 3.90m, which he cleared at the second attempt. He passed 4.00m and cleared 4.10m at the first attempt. So far, so good.

After a break for a heavy thunderstorm over the Kadriorg stadium, competition resumed and San Pastor continued, attempting 4.30m. He made it at his second attempt, securing his first PB of the discipline. He then cleared 4.40m. And then 4.50m. He achieved three PBs in an event in which he almost didn’t participate, with an injured knee. It was also his third PB in the three events of Day 2, an unusual and remarkable achievement in a competition where he had no hope of achieving a good score.

Jose then made it four out of four with a huge, 9m-lifetime best in the javelin – more on that later – and it was clear that a very big improvement from his best of 7197 was on the way for San Pastor in a future competition.

Although Jose’s Arona score was above the 7100-point entry standard for the World Championships in Nairobi, the Spanish Federation had indicated that they would only take a small team. So, he had resigned himself to missing out.  But the dream wasn’t over yet.

“They took into account the points I could have achieved in the European Championships,” he explains, “and they brought me to the Worlds.” 

His decision not to give up after his disqualification in the 400m proved to be an inspired one. Jose had scored 6772 from nine events, one of which was a half-hearted 1500m. Had he not been disqualified and equalled his 400m personal best at the time, 52.48s, it would have given him over 700 points, taking him almost to 7500. A 4:45 1500m – as he had run in Arona – would have taken him over 7650. Jose was a genuine world contender.

Many countries decided not to send teams to Nairobi, and so the field was small. But it was tough. Hauttekeete and Doubek were there, Jente aiming to add the world title to his world record and European gold, and František driven to compensate for his disqualification in Tallinn.

While the Belgian and the Czech thrashed it out for gold and silver, San Pastor was meticulously putting together a series of solid performances, including redemption for that 400m in Tallinn – a two second personal best of 50.48s.  His series was 11.32/6.96/15.97/1.85/50.48/14.51/45.64/4.30/51.16/5:06.13.

That took him to a PB of 7430, adding 230 points to his score from Arona, a Spanish record and a bronze medal behind Doubek (gold) and Hauttekeete (silver).

The medallists in Nairobi: Jente Hauttekeete (silver), Frantisek Doubek (gold) and Jose San Pastor (bronze)

“I cried a lot in Tallinn,” Jose recalls after his competition in Nairobi, “because I knew that the national record could have been mine if didn’t get disqualified. Today, I can’t believe I am the World bronze medallist. It is a surprise, and a gift at the end of the year.”

“I was hoping for a little more points, but in competitions I think the priority is to achieve the best position, not the best points.  In day 2 I didn’t race too much because I am always falling in the hurdles, and so I was very careful to have a secure competition. While I’m happy with the points in Nairobi, I think I could have got more.”

“In Tallinn, I didn’t run the 1500m properly because I was a little bit sad and tired – I knew it wasn’t going to change anything. I just ran to finish and take the lap of honour with my mates. I tried to do more in Nairobi, but with the altitude it was too much and I couldn’t go under five minutes. So, I think I could have scored more, but I’m very happy with the result. I set a record, which was one of my goals for this year.”

The Spanish U20 decathlon record had previously belonged to Spanish long jumper Eusebio Caceres, who finished 4th at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Coincidentally, it was also Caceres’ world U20 heptathlon record that Hauttekeete had broken indoors in February 2021.

FROM THROWER TO DECATHLETE

San Pastor’s background in sports predates his time as a thrower, and he originally started out in martial arts.

“I started throwing because I was a strong kid,” he explains. “When I was very young, four years old, I did Taekwondo for eight or nine years. But I wanted to do athletics, because I wanted to run faster, to jump higher, to be stronger. I developed a lot of strength from Taekwondo and so when I started athletics my trainers put me in the throws. And from that moment, when I was 13 years old to two years ago, I was a thrower.”

“But when I was a thrower, I also loved to high jump. Even at my peak as a thrower, when I was throwing 19.20 metres with a 5kg shot, I was jumping 1.75m, 1.81m. I did a long jump competition, and jumped 6.72m. That gave me another point of view.”

“After that, I wanted a change, and I became a decathlete.”

San Pastor was leaving behind some success as a thrower to try his hand at decathlon.

He threw 19.47m with the 5kg shot outdoors in 2019 as a 17-year-old, and 17.81m with the 6kg weight in 2021. He had also thrown over 50m with the 1.5kg discus, and 40m with the 1.75kg implement. San Pastor was selected to compete in the shot at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Baku in 2019, where he finished 7th. There he met Sander Skotheim and Jente Hauttekeete, who won gold and silver respectively in the decathlon. Their paths would soon meet again, but this time competing in the same event.

European Youth Olympic Festival, Baku

Jose participated in his first decathlon as an 18-year-old, with the U20 implements, in Valladolid in September 2020. He won with a score of 6631. He then won silver at the Spanish U20 championships in October 2020, where he improved by 200 points to score 6832. In the winter of 2020-21 he tried his hand at the heptathlon indoors, scoring 4808, before he was interrupted by a hamstring injury and missed the opportunity to improve upon that initial mark. But the experience indoors was a positive one.

“I think the indoors are going to be very good for me, because I’m a very explosive guy, in the 60m and the 60m hurdles,” he muses.  

The hamstring injury mended, but as he adapted his training to that of a combined eventer, Jose had a different problem – a hand injury affecting his strongest event.

“During the indoor season, I sprained my finger. With the velocity of the spin, my hand couldn’t push the shot, and my fingers went backwards. I couldn’t lift, I couldn’t throw correctly, so I have to throw incorrectly to prevent my finger breaking. When I threw 17.81m, I was throwing well but after that I got more and more injured, and I had to change my technique to avoid injuring my hand more.”

While he adapts his technique in his best event, there have been plenty other things to consider in the transition from thrower to decathlete.

“Things changed a lot in training. Obviously, I was strong because I have to be strong to throw. But we also have to run. We have to jump. We have to do a lot of running to get aerobic, and to get faster, to jump longer and higher. But we didn’t want to lose my strength.”

“I trained with a lot of kg in lifting sessions, so we had to change that – we added running and some serious jumping technique. I was training much more, and it was much harder, but I enjoyed it a lot. So, it didn’t feel harder.”

“When I compete in decathlon, I feel very relaxed. Not in the 110m hurdles, where I feel very nervous! But in the other events, I feel more calm.”

“Competing in the shot put, you’re very nervous because you just have six throws to compete. It’s tense – you don’t talk too much with other competitors, you don’t laugh.”

“But I compete better in decathlon than in shot, and I enjoy it more. The decathlon is a very nice event. The people you compete with, František, Sander, Jente, Jef – they are great people and I am always happy to compete with them, even with the 1500m.  And I feel very grateful to be good at this event.”

San Pastor has explored a few training options to suit his new event. Until 2021 he was coached by Fran Caballero and trained alongside the 2021 European Indoor 400m champion Óscar Husillos. After a stint in Leon, Jose is now based in Madrid with Miguel González García. Along the way he has experienced different training groups – training with throwers, and then training with other individual specialists, which Jose finds particularly valuable.

“There were people in high jump that jump 2.08m. People in discus that throw 58m. There are people in sprints such as Óscar who have run 44 seconds in the 400m. I think that you can improve faster if you train with specialists. Kevin Mayer and Ashton talked about that in their interview with World Athletics.”

FROM DREAMS TO REALITY

Fast forward to the summer of 2021, and the big combined events competitions returned to the track and field calendar, albeit without many spectators. Multistars in Italy returned in April; Götzis in Austria in May; and, for Jose, his debut at Arona in Tenerife in June.

Like most combined events competitions, the home country has a strong field of domestic athletes and, at the Meeting Internacional Arona, that included a senior, U20 and U18 field. San Pastor was invited to compete in the U20 competition alongside Hauttekeete and Ireland’s Diarmuid O’Connor, while accomplished senior decathletes such as Adam Sebastian Helcelet, Martin Roe, Keisuke Ushiro, Ruben Gado and Paweł Wiesiołek, as well as fellow Spaniards Jorge Ureña and Pablo Trescoli, lined up in the senior event.

Of course, as a former thrower, Jose had some catching up to do on who was who in the world of decathlon.

“Before Arona, I didn’t even know Adam Sebastian, Martin, you know – when people told me ‘That guy is an Olympian’ I looked them up in Google and I was shocked. I realised that the meeting was a very big meeting. To share a competition with them, to compete with them, it’s very motivating. You feel like if you can work hard and make a big effort, maybe you can achieve those things too.”

“I talked a lot with Ruben Gado during my competition in Arona, and he told me lots of tips and things to improve. Keisuke Ushiro too, he was very impressive and I talked a lot with him.”

Jose and Ruben Gado

“But the one I felt most nervous to compete with was Jente. I know him very well because he finished second at the European Youth Olympic Festival, and I saw his world record. That made me the most nervous. But I told him – Jente, just give me two more years and I will be on your level!”

“I enjoyed that competition a lot and I think I will never forget those moments. But a lot of events left me wanting more. It was my first time running the 1500 metres well. But the other events made me want to train more, because I knew I had this margin to improve. I wanted to improve my throws before Tallinn, and that’s what I did.”

His overall score was 7197, and he finished 3rd behind Hauttekeete and O’Connor. His series was: 11.26/7.05/15.27/1.83/52.48/14.92/41.53/4.20/46.21/4:45.93. And of course, the competition set up him for the championships later that year.

Third place in Arona behind Jente Hauttekeete and Diarmuid O’Connor

San Pastor’s progression in the U20 heptathlon from thrower to world class combined eventer had been rapid, but steady. From 6631 in September 2020 to 6832 in October 2020. In May 2021 7015, 7197 in June, and then finally that 7430 in August, in the knowledge that 7600+ was possible.

A common theme when talking to Jose is his focus on turning his dreams into a reality; and believing in himself when it can feel like others do not.

“When I get a dream, I put all my resources and all my time into make that dream become reality,” he shares. “When I turned myself into a decathlete, I dreamed that I wanted to keep my high performance level from shot put and have that in the decathlon.”

“But many people didn’t believe I could get to that level. It happened two times. When I started shot-putting, all my friends were super good. In the first year I took it seriously (with the 4kg shot), I threw 14m. I told everyone I was going to be the national record holder, and I’m going to throw 20m. Nobody believed me, because obviously with 14m no-one is going to believe you are going to throw 20m the next year.”

“I put in the biggest effort I could. I spent all my time searching for information on technique. And that year I finished with the national record, and I improved my PB in the shot by 6m, from 14m to 20.26m. And now in the decathlon, I’m third in the world championships. Even me, I couldn’t believe that. I trained so hard, my expectations just exploded, and I finished with my dream becoming a reality.”

“But I’m always dreaming big – in any way, in any game, in any situation in life. And I think that’s addictive. Because you get that motivation to train harder to make more dreams become reality.”

The first national record (4kg shot)

San Pastor is a fan of Japanese anime, and those familiar with the genre will know the term Bankai, meaning a second regeneration. With his regeneration from a thrower into a junior decathlete complete, things now become serious as Jose moves up into the U23 age-group and senior level. As he seeks to build on his early progress across the full ten events of the decathlon, two events stand out from his first year as decathlete, the 400m and the javelin.

In the 400m he improved from his 54.05s in October 2020 to 52.48s in Arona, and then another two second improvement in Nairobi to 50.48s.

“I’m really proud of the 400 metres,” he says. “I think 400 metres is like a sprint that proves your will, your desire. I’ve got a lot of will, a big desire. But there’s a lot of suffering during the training, super-suffering! I threw up so many times, I get home with my face white. But that proves your will and I’m super proud of my improvements. Even when my trainer said, ‘Please Pepe, stop!’ because I blacked out, I went to the start line to run one more time.”

“I’m also proud of my javelin. Because when I came out of Arona, I was very sad with my javelin throw. I was hoping for so much than 46 metres. I don’t really understand the way of throwing the javelin. With my strength, I have no reason not to be able to throw, so I think it was a technical problem.”

“I worked super hard and in Tallinn I improved by 9m. After hitting my leg in the hurdles, and my knee in the pole vault, it was quite a relief of stress. I think it was the best moment of my career. It was about not giving up in any situation.”

Jose’s best in the javelin prior to Tallinn was 50.94m, achieved during his first decathlon in September 2020. He was close to that with his first throw of 50.56m, but he then pulled out a massive 59.97m.

“I went crazy when I threw it. It was like an explosion of emotions.”

“When I did the run up and I pulled my javelin backwards to go to the “scissors”, I thought – wow, this throw is not going to be good because the javelin hit me in the face.”

“And then I made one “scissor” more, and I saw the line. And I told myself ‘Well, be careful because you are going to go over.’ I put my feet down with a lot of force and stopped myself. When I saw the javelin going over the two lines, I went crazy. I just remember I wanted to scream and enjoy it. I didn’t think about what people were thinking about me!”

And if you thought San Pastor’s celebration looked a little familiar, you would be correct.  

“I always get goosebumps watching the throw that Kevin Mayer did during the world record. And so, when I saw the line, I rotated myself and I did the thing he did when he made that throw. He put his knee on the floor and screamed. So, I thought, I’m Kevin Mayer, and I’m going to scream like that!”

Mayer or San Pastor? (Photo: Michel Fisquet)

Now well and truly established as a contender in the U20 decathlon, it’s time for Jose to shape a new set of dreams.

“I want to compete in major competitions like the European Championships, and why not try to compete in the next Olympics in Paris? But I think my results have come as a consequence of hard work. So, for now I am focused on the hard work, not so much on the results.”

“Because of Jente, Sander, Doubek, I think my age group is one of the best in history. A lot of people have said to me it is bad luck to get these strong competitors. But for me, I think it’s good luck. I can see people my age competing well. It makes me want to keep training harder.”

“And that’s another part of myself as a dreamer. I feel that if they can make it, I could make it too. I make a promise to myself to become better every day and give everything of myself every day. Time doesn’t go backwards so…Bankai.”

World U20 Championships, Nairobi: L-R Alessandro Sion, Nikolaj Gronbech, Aleksi Savolainen, Frantisek Doubek, Jose, Jente Hauttekeete, Ville Toivonen, Jef Misplon (Photo courtesy of Jose/Fran Caballero)