In July 2019, a few days ahead of the European Combined Events Super League competition in Lutsk, I shared a story celebrating (and if I’m honest, fangirling about) the return of the 2008 Olympic silver medallist, Andrei Krauchanka.
A few hours later, I received a message from Matthias Steinmann, on his way to the match as part of the Swiss decathlon team. “I feel honoured to compete against this legend” he said, “and I hope we in Switzerland can be part of some stories soon.”
The success of Swiss heptathlon in recent years has been well documented. Géraldine Ruckstuhl and Caroline Agnou are familiar faces at the highest level of competition, with Annik Kälin also breaking through. But what about decathlon?
It had also been a long time since a Swiss man exceeded 8000 points for decathlon. It was in 2003, to be exact, when Rolf Schläfli achieved 8019 in Götzis and became only the 5th man ever over 8000. It is even longer since any has participated in an Olympic decathlon, when in 2000 Philipp Huber started but did not finish the event in Sydney. And the all-time best Swiss performances of Stephan Niklaus (8334 with old javelin in 1983) and Beat Gähwiler (8244 in 1988) were set many years before any of the current crop of Swiss decathletes were born.
But suddenly all of those archaic performances seem under threat. In July 2020, the European U20 champion Simon Ehammer finally broke the 8000 point drought, and there are multiple men closing in on 8000 behind him. It is entirely possible that one, or more, Swiss men may qualify for the Olympics in the next two cycles of the Games. And the 30+ year-old Swiss record must also surely be on borrowed time.
So, who are the decathletes looking to feature in the next chapter of Swiss decathlon history? Five of the current Swiss national team, who have been swapping national titles and records in the last few years, were kind enough to give me their time to tell their stories, share their ambitions and express their hopes for the future.
Matthias Steinmann, Finley Gaio, Luca Bernaschina, Andri Oberholzer and of course Simon Ehammer.
The Rock Star, the Daredevil, the Bon Vivant, the Good Guy and the Champion.
ANDRI OBERHOLZER: THE GOOD GUY
- Decathlon PB: 7827
- Individual PBs: 10.89, 7.54, 14.66, 2.08, 50.67, 14.78, 42.61, 5.20, 51.59, 4:37.89
“My first coach always said that you are only a real decathlete when you score more than 8000 points,” says Andri Oberholzer. “That is reason enough for me to be motivated.”
Andri Oberholzer seems to have been around for a long time, but he is actually only 24 years old. His breakthrough was in 2017, a whirlwind of a year which started with a Swiss indoor heptathlon title and peaked in the summer with 6th place at the European U23 Championships in Bydgoszcz, the highest ever Swiss placing in the competition, and a PB of 7827. “I was injury free for the whole year,” he explains. “From the summer of 2016 to the summer of 2017 I could train without any breaks.” The year also brought Andri’s first invitation to compete in Götzis, the hallmark of recognition as a truly elite decathlete, followed by another opportunity in 2019. “The atmosphere, the stadium and the whole organisation is just amazing,” he describes. “It was a big honour for me to compete there.”
Andri had big plans for an indoor season in 2020 but he injured his cruciate ligament while hurdling. The pause in competition from the coronavirus therefore provided a silver lining: time for his knee to recover. His strength in the jumps and the shot points to the potential for some big indoor performances, and so his indoor ambitions have simply been pushed back a year, to the European Indoors in Torun and the postponed World Indoors in Nanjing.
“My main goal for next season is a big and intense indoor season,” Andri confirms. “These championships are big dreams of mine, so I am considering them as my goal”.
Returning to normality, training and further pursuit of that 8000 mark means joining teammates, including Finley and Matthias, in Basel under the guidance of Andri’s new coach Nicola Gentsch, with whom he has been working since 2019.
“My hopes are high that Nicola can help me with my weaknesses, especially in the javelin,” he says. “When you can’t train, you don’t just miss training, you miss the boys, the battles, and the good vibes.”
“Andri is very openhearted and always has my back” says Finley. “He’s very polite, a good man,” Matthias adds. “Perfect son-in-law.”
So, what’s the “Good Guy’s” theory as to why Swiss decathlon is on the rise at the moment?
“Swiss decathlon is strong right now because there is a dynamic,” Andri suggests. “This dynamic pushes us to the limits and makes it even more interesting. Right now, more athletes stay with decathlon rather than changing to a single event and are willing to give more. If they see what performance is possible, they have a role model. It’s nice when a mark also means you can go to the Olympics, but the score and the fun are more important. I want to inspire young athletes by showing them that the most important thing, and the thing that motivates you, should always be loving what you do, and not the success.”
Andri draws his own role models from another sport – tennis, the sport of one of the most famous Swiss sportsmen in history. “A role model for me, because of his comeback after injuries, is Rafael Nadal. Roger Federer too, for his elegance and ambition for the sport. My childhood had lots of different sports, and my family did a lot of different things with me, and this helped me in decathlon. My girlfriend (Salome Lang) isn’t so bad in high jump (1.91 PB), but she is not jumping higher than me…yet!”
Away from athletics, lockdown has provided the opportunity for Andri to enjoy other activities. “I tried to acquire new skills and take time for stuff I don’t usually have time for,” he says. “I bought a slackline and a snakeboard, I started to unicycle and play the piano.”
He also likes to cook (his speciality is Swiss rösti), indulge in his fairly serious Ovomaltine addiction, and has some mad knitting skills.
“It started in grade 3,” Andri explains about the knitting. “There was a small competition in which you could qualify for the Swiss knitting championships. I still don’t know if I won because I was good or because I was the teacher’s favourite student. I went to the Swiss championships and I won there as well – should I mention that there were only two of us competing…?”
“My first Swiss championships title wasn’t in athletics. It was in knitting.”
LUCA BERNASCHINA: THE BON VIVANT
- Decathlon PB: 7602
- Individual PBs: 11.09, 7.45, 14.45, 1.94, 50.16, 14.78, 39.34, 4.70, 51.19, 4:38.41
On the other side of the country from Basel we find Luca Bernaschina, living the good life on the shores of the picturesque lakes that straddle the Swiss-Italian border.
“I live in a wonderful place near the lake,” he describes. “Before decathlon I was a snowboard and motocross athlete. I decided to switch to athletics due to my good athleticism and love for the sport, but my passion for board sports remains. We have a wakeboard school, so I teach people how to wakeboard and wake surf.”
Luca’s decathlon PB is 7602, set when he won the Swiss decathlon title in 2018 a few days before his 23rd birthday.
“2018 was a nice season for me”, he recollects, “training easily with fewer exams, and my summer was free with no work. 2019 was the opposite: my last year at university, with many exams and hospital practice.”
Luca had originally approached 2019 as an opportunity to step up to the next level in decathlon, with an eye on global championships. But unable to prepare properly for the season, he reset his expectations, and it was something of an achievement to even make it to the start line to represent his university and Switzerland at the Universiade in Napoli in July.
“I had no big injuries, so in other aspects it was a good year,” he reflects. “My body feels good, and I finally finished my Bachelors in Physiotherapy from the Scuola Universitaria Professionale della Svizzera Italiana (SUPSI).”
Things seemed to be turning a corner in 2020, and Luca returned from warm weather training to set an indoor heptathlon PB of 5143 in February in Magglingen, albeit short of what he felt in shape to deliver.
“I was back from Tenerife and felt so good! My body was in perfect shape. But I felt really disappointed – I jumped over 7.40m twice in the long jump but both were fouls and I ended up with something like 6.80. That’s not an error you can make if you want to compete against the world’s best. I had gone a long time without competing and so that was maybe the reason.”
And then, after a few individual events at the Swiss and Italian championships, it was into lockdown and any opportunity to build on his form was snatched away. “Here everything was closed. Perhaps because we are near Italy, it was a really bad situation, and for 3 months I had to train in my garden. I couldn’t show my potential, and that was hard for me,” he confesses.
While Luca had hoped to join the multi-events training group in Basel – “it’s really hard to train on your own” – for now his progression to world class is in his own hands. Luca is his own coach, sports psychologist, and sponsor, and he has designed an approach to suit his solo circumstances.
“I train in my hometown with a 120m track, gym, high and long jump, and throwing pits. Once a week I drive to Ascona and train with Ivo Pisoni for the pole vault. I design my own programmes for weights and running, and my coaches help with videos and timekeeping. Hansruedi (Kunz), the swiss multi-events head coach is there if I need him.”
On the current strength of Swiss decathlon, Luca’s perspective is pragmatic. “I think it is like a curve. In some years there are good performances, other year less so. It depends on how many athletes come through from the youth group. Right now, there are lots of people pushing and achieving good results, so it’s fun to train together and compete together.”
“Luca is a ’bon vivant’,” reflects Matthias, “doing all the things you should do in your life – ski touring, water-skiing, cliff jumping, enjoying the sun, the nature.”
“Luca loves living his life the way he wants”, adds Finley. “He has a surfer boy vibe. He does what he wants to do, and he doesn’t care what others think.”
Like Andri, Luca competed at the European Under 23 Championships in Bydgoszcz in 2017 and also at the World U20 competition in Eugene in 2014. “It’s important to participate in these events because the people you meet there will become world class in future years. All you can do is try to stay with them as long as possible.”
Luca’s peers from those championships include the likes of Jiří Sýkora, Fredrik Samuelsson, Cedric Dubler and Tim Nowak whom he also competed alongside at Götzis in 2018 and 2019. “Götzis is something special. It’s a show. My athletic life goal is to go back there and perform my best ever.”
SIMON EHAMMER: THE CHAMPION
- Decathlon PB:8231
- Individual PBs:10.50, 8.15, 13.75, 2.05, 47.27, 13.73, 36.39, 5.10, 55.00, 4:42.54
2020 was supposed to be the year in which 20-year-old Simon Ehammer joined Andri and Luca on the Götzis roll of honour. “It`s hard to wait another year until Götzis,” Simon acknowledges “but next year I`m ready for a big surprise. Götzis is for me the greatest and biggest meeting and to be a part of that is unbelievable.”
And it wasn’t the only opportunity on which he missed out. “I would have had such cool competitions this year,” Simon reflects. “Lana, Götzis and the big goal was Paris European Championships for sure. But now I can train my weaker events, focus on the indoor season – the Europeans and Worlds – and next year’s outdoor season. The biggest goal is the 2021 Olympics in long jump and decathlon”.
Ehammer certainly had big plans for 2020. The year started with a successful indoor season where he won the Swiss indoor long jump and heptathlon titles, the latter in a national record of 5915 in Magglingen. He was also hoping to jump over 8m outdoors, specifically aiming to surpass Roman Šebrle’s Götzis long jump record of 8.11, which is also a European decathlon best. And after running 13.57 at the U20 hurdles, he also wanted to crack 14 seconds at the senior height.
But, after a sensational emergence from lockdown, Simon achieved both goals within a week of each other. While Šebrle’s Götzis record survives for now, Simon leaped 8.15 in Schaffhausen on 27 June, and ran 13.91 for the hurdles in Luzern on 3 July.
A few weeks later, during his first decathlon of the year in Amriswil, he jumped 8.11, the equal 3rd (with Šebrle) longest jump in a decathlon behind Ashton Eaton (8.23 in 2012) and Erki Nool (a windy 8.22 in 1996). Overall, Simon scored 8029, cracking 8000 for the first time, and logging the second best decathlon performance in the world in 2020 behind Taavi Tšernjavski’s 8086 earlier in the month.
“The feeling is great,” he said after his run of achievements. “I’m in really good shape and ready for the next competition.”
And the next competition was the big one. At the Swiss Combined Events championships on 8 August, Ehammer set 6 individual PBs – including a 10.50 100m and a 13.73 hurdles – on his way to a score of 8231, just 13 points from the Swiss record. He added 200 points to his previous performance, and leapfrogged Tšernjavski and Vitaly Zhuk (8200) to the top of the 2020 world lists.
Simon’s improvised 2020 season carried on from where he left off in 2019, where everything he touched seemed to turn into a medal, a Swiss record or a personal best. His bronze from the World U20 championships in Tampere in 2018 turned into gold as he became the champion at the European U20 competition in Boras in July 2019. And in the last few weeks of his season he won the Swiss titles in both the long jump (in a national U20 record) and decathlon.
Aside from his trio of achievements in June and July 2020, which of those earlier performances was he most happy with?
“Oh that`s hard!” Simon muses. “I`m most happy with the hurdles and decathlon in Boras and the heptathlon in Magglingen. The decathlon in Boras was so crazy! I knew that I had a chance for gold with such a great first day. The second day started the same, with an unbelievable hurdle run. I was in the flow. But the discus hurt, and my mind changed completely. In the pole vault it was important to come back in the right way. The last two disciplines were just pure survival.”
Ehammer’s peers in Boras and Tampere represent an exciting new generation of decathletes: World U20 champion Ash Moloney, Ayden Owens, Kyle Garland, Andreas Bechmann, and Markus Rooth to name a few, many of whom have also already exceeded 8000 points in the senior event, and some of whom will meet again at the European U23 Championships in Bergen in 2021.
“The feeling is great, to know you are one of the young decathletes, the future of decathlon. I`m ready for the next big competition and I think Ehammer and Bechmann will have a great showdown in Bergen!” Simon anticipates.
“To compete for my country, I can`t describe the feeling. It`s the most beautiful and motivating feeling. We have a great team. We have a lot of fun and no one wants to be worse than the other. And I think this is one of the secrets. I love to compete against the other guys. We motivate and push each other to another level.”
“Simon is very dedicated,” observes Finley. “although I’m still mad that he’s stealing all my national records!” “Simon has a happy nature,” says Matthias “but with those results everyone would be as happy as he is! He doesn’t overthink things but is clever and reflective”.
Simon’s strategy for transitioning from the junior to senior decathlon is clear and deliberate. “My biggest focus is on the throws. If I can make great progress in the throws, I’ll have no problem with the switch. And the lockdown was perfect for me to train on the throws. I did a lot of training at the underground garage. I threw a lot and also did much more 1500m training.”
Home for Simon is in the mountains. “I`m from the east part of Switzerland. Stein, specifically. It`s a small village, and what’s special about Stein is the view to the mountains. I love winter sports. I grew up with this and it`s a part of me”.
While Andri borrows from tennis for his role models, Simon’s inspiration rests squarely within decathlon. “My big role model was Trey Hardee. He was a great decathlete and I loved to watch him in Götzis. And we have the same birthday!”
FINLEY GAIO: THE DAREDEVIL
- Decathlon PB: 7668
- Individual PBs:10.75, 7.51, 14.02, 1.92, 48.48, 14.05, 38.49, 4.70, 53.09, 4:44.28
A week before Simon won the 2019 European U20 title in Sweden, Finley Gaio was in action a few hours north in Gävle, competing in the European U23 competition. After running his fastest ever 100m in 10.75s, he finished 10th in the competition that delivered Olympic qualifying marks for Niklas Kaul and Johannes Erm as they won gold and silver.
Finley then went onto conclude his season in style, setting a decathlon PB of 7497 when finishing behind Simon and guest Dutchman Rik Taam at the Swiss Championships in September. That performance complemented his national indoor title in the heptathlon earlier in the year, won in a personal best of 5741 in Magglingen.
Magglingen holds a particular fascination for international athletics fans, with its sportshall-esque floor. “It actually is a hard floor, just like in gyms, and it is freaking fast,” confirms Finley. “It gives so much power back and has a pretty good bounce to it so a lot of people – including me – PR there in the high jump.”
“You can wear spikes” adds Andri “and there are always really fast times! But there is no change in the technique. It just sounds weird if run with spikes on such a surface.”
Having given the indoor season a miss in 2020 – “In hindsight I wish I had done an indoor season, because not doing any competitions for so long is really weird” – Finley’s aims for 2020 were two-fold: competing at the European Championships in Paris and finishing a competition without an injury. “I would have loved to compete in Paris! But the main goal for this season was to get and stay healthy,” he says. “I haven’t finished a decathlon without an injury since 2017. For 2021 the plan is to compete at the European indoors and then I am planning to give it my all to get a medal at the European U23 champs.”
The decathlon without injury finally came in August 2020, at the Swiss Combined Events Championships where Finley finished second behind Simon with 7668, a PB of 171 points.
Competing while injured has been a feature of Finley’s recent seasons, a familiar story for any decathlete. His performance at the Swiss championships in September 2019, a PB at the time, was all the more impressive since he wasn’t sure beforehand whether his knee would hold up for the entire decathlon.
“I injured my knee during the long jump in the qualifying decathlon for Gävle. I jumped 7.70 and I just think my knee wasn’t ready for a jump that far! I ended up dragging the injury along with me the entire season which sucked. I managed to get a PR with a pretty messed up knee and only clearing 1.75 in the high jump.”
The European U23 competition in Bergen in 2021 will be Finley’s 4th international age group competition, after Gävle in 2019, the World U20s in Tampere in 2018 (where he was 5th) and the European U20s in Grosseto in 2017.
“I think the most important thing I learned competing at these international junior competitions is just to have fun,” he reflects. “Going into the World U20s I was ranked No.4 in the world, less than 100 points behind the No.1 ranked athlete at the time. I put myself under too much pressure and I cracked. In retrospect, I feel like I missed a big opportunity for a medal. That’s why I want to go for a medal at the European U23s.”
“I think that the junior competitions have prepared me for senior championships” he continues “but when I get to compete at my first senior competition, I will still be hella nervous. I mean, I’ll be competing against people that I’ve looked up to since I started with the decathlon!”
“I started with track at my home club of SC Liestal. Then in 2014 Matthias suggested I try the decathlon, so I joined his training group. Best decision ever! I still live with my parents in a little village called Maisprach. It’s about an hour away from Basel, so I plan on moving to Basel in the near future so I don’t have to travel so much.”
Finley’s family is an international one, with an American mother and Italian father. “I grew up speaking English with my mom and speaking German with my dad. I’ve considered moving to the US since I’ve gotten a lot of offers from universities, but I have too many things here that I couldn’t just leave behind. I have the best training group I could ask for and I don’t want to give that up.”
Finley is very definitely the daredevil of the squad, forever risking life and limb in his various pursuits. “Finley lives by the motto – no risk, no fun” observes Andri.
“I think Daredevil fits pretty well,” Finley confirms gleefully. “During lockdown I took time to do other sports like biking, beach volleyball, cliff diving etc. I usually only do that stuff in the offseason, otherwise I would be too worried that I would injure myself. I actually wanted to be a professional soccer player before I started track. I wanted to be the next Buffon and play for the Italian National team but then I had to decide between track and soccer, and I chose track.”
“Our group was already pretty awesome before Andri joined, and now I feel I have the best possible group of athletes around me that I possibly could in Switzerland. The vibe is great; we all get along really well and are good friends off the track. Nicola is the best possible coach I could want. He likes to push us to our limits, and takes really good care of us.”
“Over the next 4 years I will be trying to get my weak events (discus, high jump, and javelin) up to the level they should be, given my potential. But in October I will be joining the sports military with Simon. I will be basically only be training, lifting weights, eating, and sleeping. I’m very excited for that.”
MATTHIAS STEINMANN: THE ROCK STAR
- Decathlon PB: 7411
- Individual PBs: 11.02, 7.07, 12.94, 1.98, 49.43, 15.26, 41.57, 4.70, 47.53, 4:32.50
And finally, onto Matthias Steinmann, at 28 the most experienced of the squad. Experience during which he’s seen decathlon standards rise, endured multiple hip operations, established his own balance on and off the track, represented his country and, of course, competed against Andrei Krauchanka during the 2019 Combined Events Super League in Ukraine.
“I saw Andrei for the first time at the European Championships in Zurich in 2014” Matthias recalls. “At that time, I had only been doing decathlon for 18 months. He fascinated me. His high jump, his ankle stability in hurdles…his athletics was from another planet.”
Krauchanka’s gold-medal winning performance in Switzerland in 2014 helped shape Matthias’ goals for the next period of his career. “In 2012 I saw that the Olympic standard was 7850 points. That standard and the home European Championships in Zurich inspired me to try to achieve 7850 points by 2020. As we all know, that would only be the standard for the European Championship at most by now, but it’s still a goal!”
The experience in Ukraine last year brought highs and lows for Matthias. “Representing Switzerland, well, that was clearly a dream come true for me,” he confirms. “Unlucky and stupid as I am sometimes, I injured my elbow for the first time in my life just weeks beforehand. So, I was not able to throw the javelin hard. And then there was this step on the line in the 400m, too… anyway, it was such a good lesson for me.”
Matthias’ challenge in Lutsk was thwarted by a DQ in the 400m, but he had another competition a few weeks later at the Swiss champs, where he finished behind Simon and Finley with 7237. “My 2019 season closing was unfortunately only ‘solid’,” he assesses. “But after the 2018 operation, the year was really good overall. It’s nice to know that there is really more to come. I think every decathlete says that.”
The operation in 2018 was the latest in a long series. “2010, 2011, 2015, 2018. These are the years of my hip re-placement surgery. 3x left (jumping leg), 1x right, 2x as a dislocation, 2x an arthroscopy. A lot of pain, a lot of tears, a change of hurdle leg and a lot of comebacks but no year since 2013 without decathlon results.”
“Somehow, I manage to get along with my hip. Immobility, shortening, muscle problems and instability are the biggest problems. Hurdle technique, high jump bridge and all maximum extension positions suffer a lot. But I got to know my body very, very well.”
Like Luca, Matthias had momentum during the 2020 indoor season, with PBs in the high jump and hurdles and in the heptathlon overall. “We went to Tenerife, where I produced training PBs like never before. 10 days without any pain. I was very much looking forward to 2020, but unfortunately, this will have to wait now…”
But the progress wasn’t lost, and Matthias had a good return to decathlon competition alongside Simon at Amriswil in July 2020, and similarly achieved a lifetime best (7411) at the Swiss Combined Events Championships, including PBs in the hurdles and HJ, the two events most compromised by his hip injuries.
“I was always thinking that 2020 was going to be my last year. Well it won’t,” he declares. “2021 is another good year to come, and if my body offers me the chance, I will try to move my legs in 2022 fast and strong like I never did before. And the youngsters are big motivation for me. Finley pushes me all the time. Andri shows me his big heart with all his experiences, Simon always smiles at me and Luca shows us the “beauty of life” between track and field.”
Matthias has found his own beauty of life around track and field, in the form of his band. “’Les Touristes’ was borne around the year 2012, at the same time as I found my fascination for the decathlon,” he explains. “I’ve played the drums since I was a little boy, and I’ve known the singer of our band, Tim, for 27 years. So, Les Touristes is not only a band, but another family with whom I can share my life.”
“Our music is a mix between modern pop and Swiss German hip-hop, peppered with beautiful ballads. My favourite song is “Tanzi Halt Elei” meaning “dancing on my own”. Check it out. I honestly think I would have never become this decathlete without the music and Les Touristes in my life. Instead of saying how I balance the two, I would rather say it is my balance.”
The little boy playing the drums and dreaming of the Olympics did so in Buus, a small farming village outside Basel and close to Maisprach, where Finley lives.
“Today I live in Basel, next to the track, next to my friends, next to my bandmembers and next to the university where I’m studying for my Masters in Educational Sciences. Basel is a really good place to train for decathlon, and we have good facilities compared with other countries”.
“The good thing is that we have three competitions per year. One is the famous meeting in Landquart, normally one week before Götzis. We usually have 1 or 2 invitations from Götzis, so the best of us can collect huge experiences there. Then in August there is the Swiss multi-event championships, and towards the end of the year, there is another traditional meeting in Hochdorf.”.
Balance, inspiration, representing his country, and a competition with one of the all-time greats. Matthias sums up his recent seasons in one sentence. “I just enjoyed it, gave my best, smiled, made friends and stepped up to another level of myself as a decathlete.”
It may have been 17 years since a Swiss man exceeded 8000 points, now achieved by Simon. It may have been two decades since there has been Swiss representation at an Olympic decathlon. For the Good Guy, the Bon Vivant, the Champion, and the Daredevil, there lie ahead multiple opportunities at European, World and Olympic level in the decade to come.
But while the Rock Star fully intends to play his part in the Swiss teams of 2021 and beyond, Matthias is also more philosophical about the fulfilment that decathlon can bring.
“I stopped only chasing after points. It was my dream to compete at the Olympics when in 2012 the standard was 7850 Points. Today the standard is 8350 points. Next time, maybe it will be 8500 and one day you will be ranked 4th with 9000 points.”
“Decathlon is more about the way you improve over the years. The lessons you learn. The challenges you explore. The moments of joy, and the moments of sorrow.”
*This article was updated in August 2020