HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Let’s roll the clock back to February and visit the chilly Farquharson Arena in London, ON. This aging structure needs an upgrade. But a former Nepean resident had his own golden idea.
Scott MacDonald, a two-sport athlete at the now defunct Confederation High School and past program manager with Athletics Canada, wanted Damian Warner to have a training home to focus on Olympic gold in the decathlon.
The COVID-19 pandemic had shut all training venues and the multi-talented London athlete didn’t want to travel to the United States. So, MacDonald, the full-time London Western Track and Field Club manager, and Gar Leyshon, Warner’s coach, went to work.
During a golf outing with a top London facility employee, Leyshon asked if the city had an available building that could house a temporary athletics training site. Everything they saw last fall was unsuitable.
The contentious Farquharson Arena, which is 66 years old, was available. Despite being rather primitive, the site was perfect for Warner and other high-performance athletes for sprinting, jumping and throwing.
But if you stepped into the hockey-arena-turned-athletics-venue last February, you’d better wear your full winter clothes. There was no heat, but there’s room for sprinting, high jump, long jump, shot put and pole vault.
The remake of the hockey pad allowed Warner, who wore a winter toque and plenty of warm clothes during his sessions, to train in six of his 10 decathlon events. No space for 400 and 1,500 metres, discus and javelin.
From late November 2020 until May 2021, the Farquharson Arena was a vital part of his athletic life and an important piece of his Olympic puzzle, which he completed Thursday with an electrifying gold-medal effort.
Warner, 31, gave a masterful performance from start to finish, breaking Olympic and Canadian records and setting a personal best by scoring 9,018 points, which was the fourth-best result in the history of the decathlon.
France’s Kevin Mayer, the world record holder at 9,126, won the silver medal at 8,726 points. Australia’s Ashley Moloney, the world U20 champion, took bronze at 8,649. Pierce LePage of Whitby, ON., was fifth at 8,604.
“I knew what he was capable of, but watching it, he exceeded my expectations,” MacDonald said of Warner’s two-day, 10-event journey in the stifling heat of Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
“I’ll never take credit for an athlete’s performance, but will give (it) to Damian first and secondly to Gar and (coach) Dennis Nielsen and their support team. The club stepped up to create that (indoor training) environment.
“Do we feel we contributed a little piece (to winning the gold medal), and are we proud of it? Absolutely.”
On Wednesday, Warner burst into the lead, which he never surrendered, much like he bolted from his starting blocks in the opening 100 metres. He matched his world-decathlon-best time of 10.12 seconds.
He followed the straightaway sprint by soaring 8.24 metres in the long jump, which was an Olympic decathlon best and only four millimetres off his Canadian long jump record.
Warner finished Day 1 with a seasonal-best in shot put, 14.80 metres, a 2.02-metre clearance in the high jump and a seasonal-best 47.48 seconds for the 400 metres.
On Thursday, he was equally impressive: 110-metre hurdles, 13.46, Olympic decathlon best; discus, 48.67 metres; pole vault, 4.90 metres, equals personal best; javelin, 63.44 metres, seasonal best; 1,500 metres, 4:31.08.
“Damian is not a guy to complain,” MacDonald added. “There were times in February (when it was cold). There was no heat in the building. He was training in full toque. But he was grateful for the opportunity to train.”
MacDonald, Leyshon and Nielsen scrambled to have four Mondo sprint lanes put on the arena floor, build a long jump pit, get high jump equipment from the University of Western, and set up pole vault and shot put areas.
When Warner practised his sprinting, the running area was only 50 metres long, which meant he could go full speed for 40 metres before shutting it down and crashing into old high jump mats to slow him down.
Nielsen was responsible for building the long jump pit and a London company supplied the sand. “That seems to have been a game changer,” said MacDonald, who rallied the community to support Warner in his third Olympics.
Warner is a calm and cool athlete, who is guided by Leyshon, who was his former high school basketball coach before he started a track and field club. Leyshon has set high goals for Warner and watched him achieve them.
“Looking back, he breaks the Olympic record training indoors, running on short strips (of track), wearing full winter gear. It just shows how great and how determined an athlete Damian is,” MacDonald concluded.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.