A pair of ospreys are nesting in the floodlights at Western University in London, Ontario, next to the throwing circle where Damian Warner practises the discus. Occasionally, they'll fly down and perch atop the cage, surveying the field or buzz the athletes training on the infield.
The world silver medallist smiles as he recounts the times practice has been interrupted by this entertaining spectacle.
After winning the 2015 Pan American Games gold medal then claiming the decathlon silver at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 last year, the latter with a Canadian record of 8695, Warner has earned much acclaim in his homeland.
More recently, victory at the 2016 Hypo Meeting in the Austrian town of Gotzis in May, part of the IAAF Combined Events Challenge, with what was then a world-leading score of 8523, has only increased the attention on this 25-year-old.
It is to his home in London that he retreats – where he is most comfortable – and with the help of his long-time coaching team tries to deflect the pressure that is mounting in this Olympic year.
“I have had a mindset for the last four years of coming to this Olympics,” he reveals. “I want to win a gold medal. Obviously, it’s not very easy because Ashton (Eaton) is a great athlete. But I honestly believe and my coaches believe that, if I do what I am capable of, I can really challenge him there. It’s not an easy thing but I am up for the challenge. I am going to give my all in Rio. If I go there and finish second I can live with that, but I believe I can finish well.”
Keeping the winning formula
There is no escaping the immense talent he possesses. Coaches Gar Leyshon, Dennis Nielsen, Vicky Croley and Dave Collins have worked with him since high school and despite suggestions he should change coaches he has remained loyal to them.
Why not? He continues to improve. Earlier this season they set about enhancing his sprinting technique and arranged a visit to the Altis training centre in Arizona for additional advice. The payback was almost instantaneous.
In Gotzis he stunned the field with a 10.15 100m (1.1m/s) personal best and a world best for the decathlon, and earlier this year he also notched up personal bests in the 400m, long jump, shot and discus.
Significantly, he also learned much about himself at Gotzis.
“During the moment I was a little frustrated that some of the events didn’t go the way I wanted them to,” he explained. “But I was able to win under circumstances when things don’t go well, and I gave myself confidence going forward. There were a lot of things in individual events that kind of showed me what I needed to work on and we are starting to work on those things in practice. Ultimately when I get to Rio I will be in a way better position.”
Inevitably the name Ashton Eaton, the Olympic and world champion, and world record-holder at 9045, crops up in any decathlon conversation. Warner clearly has the utmost respect for the American.
“We have hung out a couple of times in Santa Barbara, ate dinner at the World Championships and stuff like that. He’s a great guy,” Warner says of the Olympic favourite.
“We went to a training camp a couple of times in Santa Barbara. The first year I went, I got to run over hurdles with him a couple of times. I long jumped with him, did a speed endurance workout with him; that was an eye-opener just because here I was – I had made the World Championships in 2011 – and I was training with this guy. I look up to Ashton a lot because he is a great athlete and a great guy, and he was just kicking my butt in all these workouts.”
Working to join the greats
Warner continues to train a minimum of three hours a day, six days a week. The physicality of the training is one thing, the mental toll of preparing for 10 events is quite another.
It is no surprise that he enjoys being a ‘couch potato’ when the training is finished.
“I read a lot more than I did when I was in high school,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think I finished a book when I was in high school. I enjoy reading now. Every so often I get on the Xbox and play games. I draw, I like to do some art every so often.
“It is relaxing. When you do art, the time just kind of flies. You can’t focus on anything else except what is on the paper. It’s a great way to escape the track and field world or everything else and just focus on what you are doing.”
Apart from his declared intention of chasing the Olympic gold, Warner has his eyes on ultimately joining Eaton and Czech Roman Sebrle, the first man to beat the 9000-point barrier, in this exclusive club.
“I definitely feel I am capable of 9000 points,” he said. “Who knows if I can do it right now or if I can do it? But, if things go well, I think I can definitely push that 9000-point barrier. Ultimately that is going to be my goal, to have the world record.”
Paul Gains for the IAAF