Decathletes – they’re an injury-prone lot at the best of times, athletes who put their bodies through the ringer for a short-lived two days in the sun, and that's only when they make it to the start line.
Those who make it to the podium at major championships are not always the most talented, or indeed the most hard-working; sometimes they’re the lucky few who managed to keep their body in working order when so many of their rivals fell to pieces.
But an injury-free decathlete is something of an oxymoron, such is the toll the rigour of training takes long before they make it to a competition.
Kai Kazmirek knows this, so when the German 26-year-old tore ligaments in his ankle in mid-May, shortly before his attempt to book his ticket to London at the IAAF Combined Events Challenge meeting in Gotzis, he knew not to panic. It was all part of the job.
“I was in really good shape before my first competition but I fell over and damaged ligaments in my foot,” he says.
Bereft of time – and indeed his health – Kazmirek found himself in a position where most would have conceded defeat.
Given the ultra-competitive nature of German combined events – think USA and Jamaica in sprints, Kenya and Ethiopia in distance running – he needed to make a quick recovery if he was to earn his place on the national team at the IAAF World Championships London 2017.
Four weeks – that’s all he had before the IAAF Combined Events Challenge meeting in Ratingen. “I taped it, took painkillers, did everything I could,” he says.
Somehow he held himself together, Kazmirek managing to finish third in Ratingen with 8478 behind compatriot Rico Freimuth and Grenada’s Kurt Felix.
Staying on track
Coming into London, the injury problems meant Kazmirek’s expectations were tempered, aware that the six weeks of training he missed in May and June had left him unlikely to feature with the world’s best.
But class is a permanent commodity, and Kazmirek has never been short of it throughout his career.
Growing up in Torgau, a town in northwest Germany, he started his sporting life as a footballer, kicking a ball around with his schoolmates from the age of five. At the age of 11 he first tried athletics, and such is the all-round approach taken in the club system in Germany, he tried every event throughout his youth.
“We all start with combined events then branch off, so when you find an event you like you stick with it,” he says. “Germany is the land of combined eventers.”
In 2008 he was German U18 champion in the high jump, clearing 2.09m at the age of 17, but even then he was aware that he could only ever be quite good at that event, while he could be great at the decathlon.
“I said: ‘okay, I’m not good enough for one discipline so I will stay at the combined events',” he recalls.
He tried his first decathlon the following year, managing 7477 in his first attempt, which booked him a place at the European Junior Championships in Novi Sad, Serbia, where he set a lifetime best of 7639 to take the bronze medal.
But it would be a long time before he would reach another podium at a major championships. In 2010 he finished sixth in the decathlon at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada, then sixth again at the 2011 European U23 Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
The London 2012 Olympics would pass him by, his breakthrough tally of 8130 not enough to gain selection on the German team, but selectors would know his name once again in 2013 when he upped his PB to 8366, and more importantly won gold, at the European U23 Championships in Tampere, Finland.
His improvement has been consistent, his routine methodical, Kazmirek training alone at his home in St Sebastian, a small town of fewer than 2000 people. His primary coach is Jorg Roos, though for disciplines that need the most work – in Kazmirek’s case, the throws – he seeks the guidance of two additional coaches.
Last year, Kazmirek’s commitment to strengthening his weaknesses was rewarded with a spot at his first Olympic Games in Rio, where he had a breakthrough performance to finish fourth with 8580 points, an agonising 86 points shy of a medal.
If that wasn’t enough to earn a spot on a podium, what hope had he this year, after all his injury problems?
“I was just very happy to be here,” he said in London. “I missed six or seven weeks of really good training and it was a mental problem from then. I didn’t expect a medal.”
His first day of competition was far from ideal, inclement weather wreaking havoc with some of his performances early on. Nonetheless Kazmirek finished it in fine style, clocking the fastest time in the 400m of 47.19 to overtake German teammate Rico Freimuth and sit second behind France’s Kevin Mayer on 4421 points overnight.
Still, he didn’t quite believe, not when Olympic medallists were hot on his tail, guys like Trey Hardee of USA and Damian Warner of Canada.
After clocking 14.66 in the 110m hurdles to start day two, however, he started to think a medal might soon be his, mostly due to Hardee crashing out after hitting the third hurdle and another medal contender, Ilya Shkurenev, pulling up injured in the same race.
After a 5.10m clearance in the pole vault and a 62.45m javelin throw, Kazmirek headed into the 1500m with enough of a cushion over his closest rivals that he could coast to the finish without undue suffering, though after 10 events in two days nothing feels particularly good.
Except, of course, the bronze medal he was soon awarded, Kazmirek joining champion Mayer and silver medallist Freimuth on the podium, the Germans becoming the first pair from their nation to reach a World Championships decathlon podium since 1987.
“It was the night of the Germans,” said Kazmirek. “This is an indescribable feeling.”
It was a medal earned the hard way, not just through his mountains of training but following the inconvenience of ill-timed injury.
After he had finished speaking to the media in the bowels of the London Stadium, Kazmirek set off into the night to track down his mother and father, who had come to London to witness their son’s proudest moment.
“We’ll all celebrate together,” he said, beaming the smile of a man who couldn't be more content. “I think it will be a long night.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF