Feature08 Jan 2013

Drouin’s breakthrough is no fluke


Canada's Derek Drouin in the high jump at the London 2012 Olympic Games (© Getty Images)

A year ago, Derek Drouin was getting off crutches and wondering if he could reclaim form. Now, he is an Olympic bronze medallist and wondering just how high he can jump in 2013.

The 22-year-old Canadian enters the new year with renewed confidence and an enhanced resume, but there is nothing to suggest he is anything about the same person. His hometown of Corunna – a south-western Ontario community outside Sarnia, the largest city on Lake Huron – gave him a parade after the London Olympics. He made some local appearances, signed autographs, spoke to some youths at a camp.

“It was a whirlwind, to say the least,” Drouin said.

Then it was back to kinesiology studies at Indiana University, a US college where he is not as recognized on campus as basketball players or perhaps even the national champion soccer team. He was introduced with other Olympians at a football game. One memorable meeting was with Greg Bell, another Indiana athlete who was the 1956 Long Jump gold medallist.

Otherwise, Drouin retreated into relative obscurity on the 43,000-student campus. That was actually a relief.

“I’m not one that really soaks up the limelight,” Drouin said. “I’m OK with kind of escaping it.”

He will be in the athletics limelight often in 2013 because, coincidentally, he and High Jump silver medallist Erik Kynard will be the only active male Olympic medallists at US colleges.

Career-threatening injury was a low point

Drouin’s personal best of 2.33m dates to the NCAA Indoor Championships, March 12, 2011. But two weeks after that, his career was imperilled. He tore two ligaments off his right (take-off) foot at an outdoor meeting in Starkville, Mississippi, in what was diagnosed as Lisfranc fracture. He turned to the internet to read about his injury.

“I would never recommend looking up your injury online,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest mistake I made.”

It was his lowest point. His distress was eased by a call to his older sister, Jillian, a former heptathlete who once scored 5890 points. He said he “never really had a dark moment” after that.

There weren’t many moments in his youth suggesting he would be an Olympic high jumper, or even a high jumper at all. He played hockey – don’t all Canadian youths? – and soccer, basketball, volleyball and tennis. Because the landing area was viewed as dangerous, the High Jump wasn’t allowed in elementary school, and he didn’t begin that event until high school.

Nor did he confine himself to one event, training for the Decathlon. His spurt in the High Jump mirrored that of his height. He was 1.70m tall when he began high school and 1.85m a year later. In about 18 months, his PB climbed from 1.85m to 2.11m. Drouin has subsequently grown to 1.96m.

His club coach, Joel Skinner, said the different sports were complementary. Once Drouin specialized in the High Jump, his improvement accelerated.

“Obviously, his basic athleticism helps him out a lot,” Skinner said.

Indeed, Indiana would not have recruited Drouin if he did nothing but High Jump. Assistant coach Jeff Huntoon said the fact Drouin wanted to do other events, and the school want him to do so, influenced both sides. He has scored points for Indiana at college conference meets in the 110m Hurdles and Javelin.

Drouin intends to continue in the multi-events. He scored 4009 points in an indoor Pentathlon last month that included a 2.15m High Jump off a short approach. The day before, he ran the 60m Hurdles in 7.98 seconds, only 0.12 off the Indiana University record. He said he will have to abandon other events ultimately, “but I’m not ready to yet.”

Olympic dreams realised after speedy recovery

When he swept the High Jump at the NCAA indoor and outdoor meets in 2010 and followed that with his 2.33m jump in 2011, the Olympics seemed inevitable. Complete restructuring of his foot jeopardized all that.

The surgery required two metal screws to be inserted and then removed three months later. Drouin said his foot still feels arthritic. Skinner said he is not surprised by anything Drouin does but was “astonished” at the rate of recovery.

Any lingering doubts vanished in May at the Big Ten Championships when Drouin jumped 2.31m.

“Big Ten is where I turned around,” he said. “I think I really needed that emotionally.”

He jumped 2.31m again at the NCAAs in finishing second to Kynard, and again at the Canadian Championships. Such consistency manifested itself at the London Olympics.

During the 2012 outdoor season, the only other men to jump as high as 2.31m more than three times were gold medallist Ivan Ukhov of Russia (six) and Drouin’s two fellow bronze medallists, Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar (five) and Robbie Grabarz of Great Britain (seven).

In his two Diamond League appearances, Drouin jumped 2.26m to beat Grabarz in London and 2.30m for third place in Monaco.

Such a record showed his bronze “wasn’t a fluke,” Drouin said. He kept company with those who were consistent, even though his PB was not among the top 10 heading into London. Even Canadian journalists interviewing him in the afterglow of his medal knew little about him.

The bronze-medal height of 2.29m was the lowest to win an Olympic medal since 1976. Drouin actually forecast such difficulties because the four-centimetre increase to the next height (2.33m) was so great. A clean sheet – no misses – was going to matter in case of equal clearances.

“Whatever I have to do,” Drouin said, “I generally do.”

He endured drama in qualifying with third-attempt clearances at 2.21m and 2.29m.

Canada’s hope for a medal in Moscow

His bronze was Canada’s first Olympic medal in men’s athletics since Donovan Bailey’s golds in the 100m and 4x100m in 1996. It was Canada’s first in a field event since high jumper Greg Joy took silver at Montreal in 1976.

“I was really just trying to hang on by the time I got to London,” Drouin acknowledged. “I probably felt best at NCAAs and Canadian trials.”

Drouin had good attempts at 2.37m in the NCAA meet and 2.35m at Canada’s trials, reassuring him that such heights are realistic. He will start 2013 far ahead of where he started 2012.

The issue will be managing college indoor and outdoor seasons along with an international campaign, culminating with the IAAF World Championships at Moscow. But he has already surmounted greater obstacles.

David Woods for the IAAF