Damian Warner is the greatest World and Olympic champion we’ve never had…yet.
As soon as the 100m was run on Saturday morning, there was no doubt that the Canadian record holder would secure his historic 6th Götzis victory, overtaking Roman Šebrle and Carolina Kluft’s joint record of 5 wins.
But that achievement paled into insignificance in what was to come. In the week that the multi-event world celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the first 9000-point decathlon, it seemed that we might have a fourth name to add to the list of Šebrle, Ashton Eaton and Kevin Mayer.
Read on for the story of the race to 9000 and the other highlights of the weekend. The Belgian delight. The new rookies in town. A suite of post-lockdown surprises. Olympic qualifying scores secured, and selection criteria fulfilled.
In the final heat of the 100m, accompanied by Pierce LePage and three 21 and 22-year-olds participating for the first time in Götzis, Damian Warner sprinted to 10.14s. That was 2 hundredths away from his decathlon world best of 10.12s and showed that decathletes can also run considerably faster than NFL players. LePage was second in 10.30, trimming his PB set when winning in Talence in 2019 by one hundredth of a second.
If we thought that the 100m would be the highlight of Warner’s decathlon, then we could not have been more wrong. Onto the long jump and Simon Ehammer was scheduled last to jump, as the owner of the longest PB and in anticipation of his attempt on Šebrle’s meeting record (and European best) of 8.11m, postponed from 2020.
But in the first round, Warner leaped 8.28m, seeming to hang in the air in an outrageous, blatant disregard for gravity. It wasn’t only a meeting record and a Canadian record, it was a world decathlon best, overtaking Ashton Eaton’s 8.23 set in Eugene in 2012 en route to 9039, the first of the American’s two world records.
A 14.31m shot followed for Warner, and an equal PB high jump of 2.09, and the day finished with a Canadian 1-2 in the 400, LePage pipping Warner 47.65 to 47.90. Damian finished the first day with an eye-popping score of 4743.
Day 2, and déjà vu as another decathlon world best fell. While Warner has run faster in an individual 110m hurdles race (13.27), he improved his own decathlon world best of 13.44 to 13.36. Then a 48.43m discus, a 4.80 pole vault and a 59.46 javelin. His score of 8219 points after 9 events would have qualified him for the world championships in Doha.
And then, onto the 1500. To reach 9000, he needed 4:24.59. His PB, from 2015, was 4:24.73. It was going to be close. The 19-year-old French athlete Baptiste Thiery (with a PB of 4:16) took out the early pace, tracked by Warner. Towards the end of the 3rd lap, Warner seemed to be swallowed up by the pack as Rik Taam hit then front, and then Mathias Brugger. For once, Niklas Kaul was not at the front of the field, doing just what needed to be done for his Olympic selection. At 200m, Damian struck out on his own. He kicked, and kicked, and held on, and as he came down the finishing straight, with 500 fans screaming from the stands, the clock ticked on.
4:20. 4:21. 4:22. 4:23. It stopped – at 4:25.19. It was 0.6 of a second and 5 points too short.
But it was 8995, a Canadian record, and the greatest ever score beginning with an “8”.
In second LePage was on his own barrier-breaking journey, improving his PB by 81 points to 8534, only the third Canadian ever to score beyond 8500 behind Warner and Michael Smith. And in the heptathlon, LePage’s training partner Georgia Ellenwood set her own lifetime best of 6224 to become the 3rd best Canadian heptathlete of all time behind Brianne Theisen-Eaton and Jessica Zelinka.
Behind the Canadians, the next man on the podium was Thomas Van der Plaetsen in third, one of the most popular performances of the weekend. Little has come easy for TVDP in recent years, from ongoing injuries to decathlons interrupted by power cuts and monsoons. This would be his weekend. After his 7.90 PB in the long jump, it was clear that something special was on the way. From there onwards Van der Plaetsen’s progress was joyful – including a hurdles PB of 14.30s and his customary strong pole vault with 5.40 – resulting in a PB and Olympic qualifying score of 8430, almost 100 points more than his 8332 from Rio in 2016.
And his wasn’t the only heart-warming Belgian success. After a rocky few years, Niels Pittomvils returned to and surpassed his form from 2016, adding 171 points to his previous best of 8051 from Götzis that year. He ended the weekend with a decathlon PB of 8222 and an astounding set of lifetime improvements in the long jump, hurdles and all three throws, to finish 6th overall. A happy weekend for Belgium.
There was a clear target in sight for the German men. For 2019 world champion Niklas Kaul and 2017 world bronze medallist Kai Kazmirek, that was to fulfil the requirement for selection to the German Olympic team: a score of >8150 in Götzis, Bernhausen or Ratingen, in addition to their previous >8350 qualifying scores. Both had the air of athletes there to do a job – Kaul’s last 2 events were 71.50 and 4:28.26 – and their best is clearly yet to come. They finished in 4th and 6th place respectively, split by Pittomvills, in 8263 and 8190.
Mathias Brugger looks better than he has for a few years. His was a solid performance, over 8000 with 8073 in 12th; still a little short of his 2018 8304 best that would have taken him close to the automatic qualifier but going in the right direction. Andreas Bechmann, making his debut in Götzis, performed well in the first 3 events, 10.87 in the same heat as Warner in the 100m, 7.28 LJ and over 15m in the shot for the first time. However, his retiral after only 1.94 in the HJ – he can go a good 15cm higher – signalled all was not well, and a slight foot injury meant that he didn’t start Day 2. Dennis Hutterer is also clearly on his way back to form with 7709, but for now third spot on the German Olympic decathlon team remains unfilled.
For the women, Lucie Kienast’s star shone most brightly on Day 1, delivering PBs in her 100m hurdles, high jump and 200m. Unfortunately, her competition, and her season, ended prematurely as she tore her cruciate ligament in warm up for the long jump.
Vanessa Grimm, also on her Götzis debut, was the German star of Day 2. She added several hundred points to her heptathlon score for a PB of 6316 to finish 5th, beyond the German minimum of 6250. She also took away PBs in the shot, long jump, javelin and 800m. European U23 silver medallist Sophie Weissenberg finished 12th with 6209, less than 100 points off her score from Götzis 2019, and Anna Maiwald in 14th with 6119, After a long battle with injury, Louisa Grauvogel finished her first heptathlon since 2018 in 15th place and 6017 points.
In addition to Bechmann, Kienast and co, several other young athletes were making their debut in Götzis. Baptiste Thiery and Norway’s Markus Rooth established their first senior decathlon scores, 7766 and 7733 respectively. Rooth’s compatriot Henriette Jaeger was the youngest athlete in the competition, and she blazed her way through the two days, setting Norwegian national U20 records in the 200m (23.28) and heptathlon (6154), and winning the “Rookie of the Year” award. Previous winners of the award include Ivona Dadic and Nafi Thiam.
It was also Simon Ehammer’s debut in Götzis, and unfortunately it was a short one, his bumpy season continuing with three fouls in his strongest event, the long jump. His best decathlon mark within the Olympic qualifying period is 7735 from the Swiss champs in 2019, so he will need to compete again in June if he wants a shot at his first Olympics. But at age 21, there are plenty more Olympics for which to aim.
His teammate Finley Gaio had a much better two days, starting with a 100m PB of 10.68 in the heat with Warner and LePage and ending with a big decathlon PB of 7899, with another 3 lifetime bests on the way. He took the male “Rookie of the Year” award, won previously by the likes of Ash Moloney, Rico Freimuth and Lionel Suarez.
“It was an amazing experience!” Finley told Decathletes of Europe. “Two years ago, I was watching the competition from the outside, and now I had the privilege to compete with some of the athletes I have looked up to since I began with the decathlon. And then winning the Rookie title just made it even more amazing – because I for sure did not expect that!”
The mighty American team didn’t have the successful trip we might have expected from them. Poor Riley Cooks had to withdraw before the competition even began, and Taliyah Brooks’ splendid 12.93 in the hurdles – the fastest of the day – was followed by no mark in the high jump, after which she didn’t continue. And after a 13.12 hurdles and a 1.71 high jump, Erica Bougard retired too.
However, Annie Kunz started in a way that reflected her super season thus far, with a 13.12 hurdles PB, to get in among the faster Williams and Bougard. She motored through Day 1 and was leader overnight, but three fouls in the long jump on day 2 took her out of contention. Kendell Williams was, by her own standards, a little heptathlon-rusty after such a long break from the full 7 events, but she was able to put together a solid 6383 to finish third overall.
THE RETURN OF VETTER
Mirroring the return of Pittomvils in the decathlon, in the heptathlon the big return was that of Anouk Vetter. She’s been open about how hard the last few years have been for her – as she set out in my feature with her for World Athletics – and without a score since 2018, she was putting a little pressure on herself to secure an outright qualifying score at the weekend. But she handled it beautifully, putting together 7 good performances to score 6536, finish second overall, and qualify safely for the Olympics. And while the other Vetter guy might have been throwing 96m elsewhere at the weekend, we know that Anouk’s 54.77 is the one that matters at Götzis!
THE BIG IMPROVERS
In between the big stories, there was a range of super performances across the events.
Behind Vetter and Williams in 2nd and 3rd, only 100 points separated 4th and 14th place in the heptathlon. Maria Huntington was delighted with her 4th place, and Vanessa Grimm, Adrianna Sułek and Emma Oosterwegel all set lifetime bests in 5th, 6th and 7th respectively.
Behind Warner, LePage and TVDP, Vitaly Zhuk had a big improvement to 8331 in 4th place – including a massive 16.86 shot – just short of the Olympic qualifying but he should be safe with his position in the rankings. And in 10th and 11th place, Risto Lillemets and Rik Taam reversed the order in which they finished in Torun. Risto improved his PB to 8156 to make the podium on his Götzis debut, and Taam improved to 8095, including an amazing 40cm in his outdoor pole vault mark.
Other highlights included Rafael Raap’s 2.06 high jump, although his progress was sadly halted on Day 2 when he ruptured his Achilles in the pole vault run up; and Fredrik Samuelsson’s 65.00m javelin PB just a few weeks after recovering from Covid. Like Kaul and Kazmirek, Maicel Uibo’s performance to finish in 9th was low key (with a vault of only 4.90), but he did set a lifetime best in the javelin of 65.80.
THE NATIONAL RECORDS
Marthe Koala set another Burkina Faso National Record with her score of 6250 in 10th place and equalled her long jump NR with 6.64.
And finally, the winner of the heptathlon in superb style was Xenia Krizsan. While the lead was swapped multiple times over the two days, she built on the form that won her bronze in Torun into the outdoor season to overtake Anouk Vetter for first place.
She finished with a PB of 6651, the world lead, a Hungarian National record and the honour of the first ever Hungarian to win either event in Götzis.
Photos: all credited, and with thanks to Team Photo, Bjorn Paree, Athletx.ch and Manuel Eitel for capturing the competition so wonderfully.