Pierce LePage at the 2016 Decastar meeting in Talence (© AFP / Getty Images)
The decathlon at last weekend’s Decastar meeting in Talence, the final competition of the 2016 IAAF Combined Events Challenge, featured athletes who have stood on Olympic podiums and medallists from world and continental championships. Yet for nine of the 10 events, none of them could hold a candle to 20-year-old newcomer Pierce LePage.
The Canadian entered the 1500m finale with a 138-point lead after setting three personal bests. He posted another near-PB in the last event, but his 4:58.77 saw him drop down to third overall. His score of 8027 made him one of the youngest decathletes in the world to score in excess of 8000 points this year.
It was vindication of a decision LePage made in summer 2015.
A break from studies to focus on the track
He had just completed his first year of a Law degree at York University in Toronto. He had also just won the Canadian U20 title with a national U20 record of 7179.
“It was a lot of work, and there was a lot of track,” he recalled. “It was hard to focus on one thing.”
He reached the decision to suspend his studies and focus solely on athletics; still fairly new to the world of combined events, it was a somewhat risky proposition.
His first forays into athletics were in the triple jump, which he took up at about the age of 12. He announced his talent by breaking a 27-year-old provincial record while competing for Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby, Ontario.
At the age of 16 he started training under his current coach, Gregory Portnoy, who suggested he try something new.
“I was doing triple jump, that’s really all I did. One day he said, ‘Hey, do you want to do an octathlon?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I had no idea what I was getting in to.
“But I did well. Then I was having some knee problems so I thought maybe I’d do the decathlon the next year. I did and I fell in love with it.”
His progress since then has been impressive, with his national junior title in 2015 underlining his potential. Yet few would have expected the year that he enjoyed in 2016, least of all himself.
“Last September we were setting our goals,” he said. “I was thinking I wanted to score 7500, 7600 points. I wasn’t expecting anything. I had torn my groin, my hamstring in December.”
Despite not having “too much of an indoor season” because of those injuries, in May he ran 20.83 for the 200m in Toronto. LePage said he can’t pinpoint a reason for his improved speed.
“I just noticed that I was doing so much better. I kind of moved my goal [for the season] to 7900 points, max.”
Rio qualification just out of reach
Another recalibration of what he thought possible came at the Pan American Combined Events Cup in Ottawa in June. After seven personal bests in seven events, he was leading an experienced field and was on course to surpass 8000 points. But then his lack of experience came to the fore in the pole vault, where he no-heighted.
His response spoke volumes: he posted PBs in the remaining two events to amass 7059 for 10th place.
“I realised that on a perfect day I could make the Olympics,” said LePage, who needed to reach the qualifying standard of 8100 if he were to make it to Rio.
“I went to Moncton two weeks later to try to make it, that’s when I got 7953 points. It sucked.”
LePage still got to go to Rio after being chosen as a future star through the RBC Training Ground programme in Canada. There, he was given a glimpse into the arena of elite competition – tours of the Canada House, a look at the training facilities, as well as seats in the Olympic stadium.
“So much work your nation puts into supporting all their athletes, and I got a really good look at it. Hopefully if I go to Tokyo I’ll be more prepared.”
His Talence score lifted him to seventh on the Canadian all-time list. Just like the speed he discovered early in the year, LePage said he can’t isolate any one thing that led to his emergence this year.
“I think it’s just working hard,” he mused. “My coach works me super hard! I just do track all the time, it’s basically my life.”
LePage is still developing physically – he stands at 2.01m (6ft 7in) after growing an inch in the last year. He plans to add bulk to his lithe frame to help him adjust to the rigours of ten-event competition.
“Right now it just feels like by the javelin my body just kinda shuts down,” he admitted.
“Last year I just got introduced to weights, I never really did anything before. Hopefully next year I’m going to beef up.”
After exceeding his expectations this year, he is reluctant to put a limit on what is possible in 2017.
“I know my goal is to make [the World Championships in] London. But score-wise, I don’t know,” he said. “Hopefully big.”
Thomas Byrne for the IAAF