Tom Pappas at the 2003 World Championships in Paris (© Getty Images)
In the latest in our World Championship wonders series, we look back on Tom Pappas’s glorious decathlon success at the 2003 edition in Paris.
It is somehow fitting that former decathlon star Tom Pappas today runs a CrossFit gym only a mile from the iconic Hayward Field in Eugene.
For it was through the accomplishments of older brother, Paul, a former combined-eventer at the University of Oregon – which boasts Hayward Field as its home – that acted as the catalyst for Pappas’ involvement in the decathlon.
Inspired by his older brother, the former high jump and long jump specialist started his combined events journey in 1995.
A quick learner, just two years later the 1.95m tall US all-rounder started to make his mark under the coaching of Bill Webb at the University of Tennessee.
“This is when I started to mature and develop and I realised that some of the marks I was hitting in training were as good as some of the best decathletes in the world,” he explains.
Just two years later at the age of 22 he qualified for the US team at the 1999 IAAF World Championship in Seville. However, badly compromised by injury – which was to curse so much of his career – he no-heighted in the pole vault and failed to finish in southern Spain.
Nonetheless, he refused to be scarred by the experience. “The biggest thing I took away from that meet was I realised the top guys were just human and I was capable of competing with them.”
His new-found confidence was not misplaced. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he finished fifth with 8425 – just 42 points short of his PB set when winning the US title two months earlier.
Shoulder surgery derailed his ambitions to compete at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton but in 2002 he further improved, posting a PB of 8583 to place second in Gotzis behind Czech great and world decathlon record-holder Roman Sebrle.
In 2003 and under the guidance of coaches Webb and Brian Brophy, Pappas had enjoyed an injury-free build-up and felt ready to challenge.
Training out of Knoxville, Tennessee, he started the year with a bang, causing a big upset to strike gold in the heptathlon at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham two places ahead of Sebrle.
“Looking back, I might physically have been in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” he says of competing at the 2003 World Indoors. “I went in not even projected to finish on the top five but after winning, it gave me the confidence I could beat Roman at the 2003 World Championships.”
Not even an early season defeat to Sebrle by more than 200 points in Gotzis could dent the Oregon native’s confidence. Better conditioned than at any point in his career, he had made particularly exciting progress in the long jump as evinced by his performance when setting a lifetime best score of 8784 later that year to win the US title, which included a stunning breakthrough leap of 7.96m.
“I had been a long jumper in the 7.35m to 7.45m range but it was a huge confidence boost to jump 7.96m,” he explains. “I knew in Paris, if I was firing on all cylinders and competing well, it was going to be between me and Roman.”
It proved a prescient prediction.
After opening with a solid 10.80 in the 100m, Pappas made a huge statement in the long jump by leaping 7.62m - within two centimetres of his Czech rival.
“Roman was typically an eight-metre jumper, so for me to jump around the same mark was a victory,” he says. A 16.11m shot further extended his advantage over the Czech.
After a disappointing 2.09m in the high jump – “I thought I was capable of 2.20m” – he responded in outstanding fashion to wipe 0.64 from his 400m PB to run 47.58.
At the end of a satisfying first day, he sat second on 4546, 53 points adrift of surprise overnight leader Dmitriy Karpov of Kazakhstan but with a 123-point buffer on third-placed Sebrle.
With “less room for error” on the technical second day, he was relieved to run close to his PB with a 13.99 in the 110m hurdles followed by a “respectable” 46.94m in the discus. Holding a 146-point advantage from Sebrle, Pappas dared to dream after seven events – “At this point I started to think it was mine to lose.”
Pappas finally assumed leadership of the overall competition for the first time after the pole vault, gaining more ground on Sebrle after clearing a best of 5.10m compared to 4.80m.
However, Sebrle was an outstanding javelin thrower, and Pappas – who was watching Sebrle throw in the first pool (Pappas was throwing later in pool two) from the Nike hospitality tent – received a huge fright. Sebrle had nailed a 69.79m effort in round two only to launch the spear out to what appeared to be 75 metres in round three.
“My heart leapt (when I saw the throw) but luckily he fouled,” says Pappas.
Pappas responded superbly in the second pool, hurling the spear out to 65.90m – a PB by almost a metre and a half.
“I then crunched the numbers in my head and realised I had a 28-second lead on Roman going into the 1500m,” he says. “I knew I could run 4:45 but I felt I could run 4:35, so I thought Roman needed to run around 4:05 to beat me.”
Despite starting aggressively, Sebrle slowed on lap three and at 1200m Pappas knew gold was his. He crossed the line in a PB of 4:44.31 – a little under 10 second behind Sebrle, the silver medallist.
“It was hard to explains my emotions,” he says of the wake of winning gold. “My mind was racing, although I recall thinking a lot about all the people who helped me in my journey. I was very thankful for them.”
The following day he went sightseeing around Paris with his family and girlfriend and now wife, the US heptathlete Kim Schiemenz – not that the experience lasted long.
“The day after a decathlon is often rough," he says. "I remember feeling so sore, I just wanted to lay down and relax."
Unfortunately, Pappas could not follow up his golden year of 2003 as persistent injuries dogged the remainder of his career. He didn't finish at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics because of foot injuries and failed to finish at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka. After placing second at the 2010 US Championships, he retired from the sport aged 33.
Around the time of his retirement, he was introduced to the sport of CrossFit through his younger brother, Billy. A self-confessed 'weight room junkie' he felt a natural attraction to the high-intensity fitness regimen and in 2012 he and Billy opened Lane 5 CrossFit in Eugene.
“I love it,” says Pappas of his current role. “We have a great membership and it is fun to be around energetic people, achieving their goals. It is very rewarding.”
Pappas also personally competed in the highly-competitive 2015 and 2016 CrossFit Games after his team won the Western Regional competition, although this year he is taking a break to devote more time to his family life.
Married to Schiemenz, the 2003 World Championships heptathlete, and father to four children – Kinley, 11, Kendall, 7 and five-year-old twins, Max and Tucker – his life is understandably full.
Yet despite the years of injury torment, the 40-year-old looks back with pride on his career.
“It was all worth it,” he says. “There were all those years when it didn’t go my way, but to win those two world titles in 2003 are memories I will cherish for a lifetime.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF