Niklas Kaul winning the European U23 decathlon title in Gavle (© Getty Images)
This time last year Niklas Kaul received an unexpected phone call. It was a call that, a week later, resulted in him competing in his first major international championship decathlon at the senior level. World bronze medallist Kai Kazmirek was injured and no longer able to go to the European Championships. And so Kaul was drafted into the German team alongside the eventual champion Arthur Abele. He finished fourth with a PB of 8220.
“It was a big surprise,” he says. “I didn’t have much time to prepare. But it’s always special when you can compete at home, and in Berlin, it’s a special stadium. That was a great experience and helped me to prepare for competitions in these big stadiums.”
In 2019, the invitation for the 21-year old is certainly not a surprise. Kaul knows he is going to the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 in October, and he has time to prepare mentally and physically.
He first surpassed the qualifying score of 8200 this year when he finished fourth in Götzis (8336), and then logged the second highest score in the world in 2019 (8572) when winning gold at the European Under 23 Championships in Gävle a few weeks ago.
But as he prepares more deliberately for Doha, there’s a clear line of sight from those early days collecting medals as a junior athlete through to the senior global championships, and ultimately a glimpse of the type of decathlete Kaul wants to become in the future.
Opportunities to grow
For Kaul, the gold medals from Cali (World U18), Bydgoszcz (World U20), Grosseto (European U20) and now Gävle are not just achievements in themselves, but also crucial learning opportunities. Opportunities to learn to deal with the environment of a championships, sharpen competitive instincts, and perfect the art of the decathlon.
“Everything is a little bit smaller, and a little bit easier to handle," he says. "There are some things that are different compared to a Götzis or a Ratingen. You have the call room, the resting area. It’s different, and when you see that for the first time, it’s not that easy to handle in competition. You can grow in the age group championships and learn so you are ready to compete at a senior championships.”
One of Kaul’s most notable traits, and one observed by Ashton Eaton back in 2015, is his competitive instinct. The decathlon in Gävle was an extraordinary affair, as Kaul and Estonia's Johannes Erm pushed each other to nine personal bests between them.
“Every time he jumps the next height or did a good throw, I think, maybe I have to get the next height.” And that was demonstrated perfectly in the javelin, when the Estonian threw near 60 metres to challenge Kaul’s advantage in the latter’s best event, and the German responded with a five-metre lifetime best of 77.36m.
While the ability to respond to events appears to come naturally to Kaul, it’s a skill that he has developed over the years.
This incredible throw from Niklas Kaul has put him in the decathlon lead ahead of the 1500m.— European Athletics (@EuroAthletics) July 14, 2019
🇩🇪 Kaul 7744
🇪🇪 Erm 7727
🇩🇪 Eitel 7427pic.twitter.com/ofUTDo9CmT
“You have to concentrate on the one event you’re doing at the time. Concentrate on what you did in training, and then try to respond after a good performance from your competitor. You learn it over the years. In the decathlon, it’s about trying to make each discipline as easy as you can in your head. You have to be able to concentrate in that one moment when it really matters. But relax in the other moments. Because if you’re not doing that, you’re running out of energy.”
While Kaul has built up a portfolio of skills from his years of age-group experience, he is still adapting to his new status as a role model. His take on the strength of German decathlon is rooted in the inspiration he himself found as a 15-year-old, recalling the time he met 2012 European champion Pascal Behrenbruch, the man whom he overtook on the German all-time list this year.
“We always have good decathletes, and when you are young you have idols that you can meet and get to know because we have training camps together. That’s a big motivation for the young guys to do the decathlon, and I think that’s why the German decathlon team is so big and the quality is so high. Now some younger guys say it’s fun watching me and want to meet me at a training camp - I don’t know what to say about that! It feels unreal, and I’m just pleased.”
It is fun to get excited about Kaul’s scores aged 21, and the fact that they exceed the scores of world record-holders such as Tomas Dvorak, Roman Sebrle and Kevin Mayer at the same age. But Kaul is rather more interested in what he can do in the future.
“It’s all about how you can progress until you’re 26 or 27. That’s more important than what your point score is when you’re 21, or 18 or 19. It’s nice to have a big PB of course, but it’s all about progression and staying injury-free.”
‘No story is perfect’
As the decathlon in Gävle demonstrated beautifully, every decathlete has their own strengths and weaknesses, and in Sweden the story was about the Estonian with the speed and the big jumps being hunted down by the German spear thrower with middle distance strength. But Kaul is thoughtful about the stories we will tell about decathlon in the future, and his own story in the coming years.
“I have to work on my weak events," he says. "It’s easier to get more points in the long jump and the 100 than in the javelin because those events are not that good. The step from 77 metres to the next 100 points is 83 metres, and that’s a slightly bigger step than 11.17 in the 100 to 10.80. That’s easier to work on, even if it’s not that much fun for me, because nobody likes to train their bad events! But I think it’s the most important thing to do in the next couple of years. I want to be a decathlete with no bad events. That would be the perfect story. But, you know, no story is perfect."
The world of track and field has been exploring new ways to generate interest in the sport, and Kaul is clear what decathlon has to offer.
“Every decathlete has a story to tell. And it’s not just the story of one decathlon, it’s a story that progresses over the years. Show people how you’re doing, and how you struggle with injuries or bad training sessions and show them the way of – maybe someday – an Olympic decathlete, and how exciting that is. Every decathlete has to tell these stories. Because once you’re doing decathlon, you don’t want to do anything else.”
And so, as we count down the weeks to the next chapter at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, this is not the story of the next Ashton Eaton, or the next Kevin Mayer.
This is the story, perfect or otherwise, of the first Niklas Kaul.
Gabriella Pieraccini for the IAAF