When Olympic decathlon champion Ashton Eaton uttered the words: “I love you, I really enjoyed that competition” to Kevin Mayer in the moments following the 1500m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, it was the ultimate mark of respect from the US combined events star.
Mayer had taken the silver medal behind Eaton but had pushed the world record-holder every inch of the way in a spellbinding competition.
Eaton successfully defended his crown from London four years earlier with an Olympic record of 8893 but Mayer had finished just 59 points adrift to set a French record and climb to sixth on the world all-time list, moving above such decathlon legends as Erki Nool and Bryan Clay, the 2000 and 2008 Olympic champions.
Mayer, who hails from Valence in south west France, had set a stunning four individual PBs inside the Olympic Stadium and elevated himself to rarefied decathlon company. Yet did Mayer quite comprehend the 8834 score he posted?
“I knew I could do it, but I wasn’t sure if I could do it this year,” says Mayer. “It was a near perfect decathlon and it is very hard to do that.”
Born for championships
The third oldest of four brothers, Mayer was exposed to sport from as old as he can remember. His father and mother excelled as national standard athletes in skiing and tennis, respectively. Older sibling Sebastian is a leading freestyle skier.
Mayer himself played tennis, rugby and handball and although he was accomplished in all fields and enjoyed the competition, he grew bored at the repetitive nature of the training.
He first tasted athletics aged 14 and started out as a middle-distance runner and a high jumper. “When I tried training for many events, I found it was not as boring as training for other sports,” he adds. “I didn’t want to do just one event, so that’s why I moved to the decathlon.”
With natural body awareness and a gift for quickly picking up technical skills, he made rapid progress. In 2008, aged just 16, he left his hometown to head to Montpellier to be coached by Bertrand Valcin and within less than a year was crowned world U18 champion in the eight-discipline octathlon. His success in Bressanone came as a huge surprise, but in many respects it unlocked the key to his future success.
“I didn’t expect to win there, I was just there to participate,” Mayer recalls. “But what I realised in winning there was that I was born to do championships.”
Under Valcin’s guidance, the next year Mayer secured the world U20 decathlon title in Moncton, Canada and 12 months later was crowned European junior champion.
Aged just 20, he posted a stunning PB of 8447 in Brussels just a month before the London 2012 Olympic Games to raise expectations he could potentially earn a medal on his Olympic debut.
Yet Mayer performed well under-par in the British capital, finishing a distant 15th with a score of 7952.
“I wanted to win a medal, but I was not ready for that,” he says. “I didn’t have the experience of competing against the top global seniors. I was not ready for the Olympics.”
However, Mayer refused to be too downcast by his London experience and vowed to learn from the disappointment.
“I had a lot of pressure and doubts (before London), but I just had to tell myself in future I was ready and not to worry.”
From disappointment in Beijing to breakthrough in Rio
Mayer – a naturally reflective personality – was given licence to act as the second coach by Valcin and to fix any issues that may arise. The Frenchman, always the quick learner, adapted quickly.
In 2013 he finished fourth at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, just 66 points shy of a podium position. The next year he secured a silver medal at the European Championships in Zurich.
Working alongside Jerome Simian, a leading strength and conditioning coach, helped improve Mayer’s core stability and brought about significant improvements in the sprints.
Mayer was strongly tipped for a medal leading into the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, but just 15 days before the opening ceremony he pulled a glute muscle in his leg and was forced to withdraw.
Naturally upset, he said to himself of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games: “I will express myself and show the world what I can do.”
Returning to his training base in Montpellier in southern France with the same approach as he has always adopted to training, he encountered an ankle problem which ruled him out of the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016. But a handy second-place finish in Gotzis with 8446 set him up nicely for his assault in Rio, where he had one goal in mind.
“I knew it would be difficult but I wanted to win a medal,” he says. “I didn’t care about the colour of the medal, but I knew I could make the podium.”
He was right. Amid a blizzard of PBs, Mayer applied the sort of pressure the all-conquering Eaton has not experienced during a five-year period of total dominance on the global combined events scene.
Rio had gone to plan and to secure a podium spot meant the world to Mayer.
“I realised the enormity of winning a silver medal when I looked over and saw my three brothers crying like babies,” he says. “To share that moment and great emotion with the people I love brought it home to me.”
Belgrade, London and beyond
Aged just 24, Mayer would appear poised to be the next great decathlete.
Believing further progress in the sprints will lead to improvements in all areas, the 1.85m tall athlete also insists he has the ability to jump 2.15m – five centimetres higher than his current PB – in the high jump in future. Should such gains be made, then the future is indeed exciting for the rising star.
“I will just continue doing what I always have done,” he says. “I don’t want to say I want to break the world record, but if I continue to train like this, I don’t know the limits of my progression.”
Mayer’s first big target of 2017 is the European Indoor Championships, which get underway this weekend in Belgrade. It will be just his second indoor championships appearance, having earned the silver medal at the 2013 edition with a PB of 6297.
Outdoors, his main goal is of course the IAAF World Championships London 2017 in August. Following Eaton’s retirement at the start of the year, there will be no rematch between the pair in the British capital, but Mayer says that he completely understands Eaton’s decision.
“He inspired me these past five years to become greater,” Mayer posted on his Facebook page the day after Eaton’s announcement. “There will always be other athletes who will push me beyond my limits.”
Which begs one final question: how did Mayer respond to Eaton’s words in Rio? “Oh,” says Mayer. “I said that I loved him too.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF