Just four short years ago, world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm was devoting his energies to not one event but ten – as a budding young decathlete. Here the Norwegian star looks back on the significance of competing at the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene.
It might be a stretch to describe Karsten Warholm’s decathlon experience at the 2014 World Junior Championships as providing the catalyst for his future decision to switch to the 400m hurdles.
Yet without question his rich experiences in Eugene helped crystallise a few thoughts and acted as a crucial stepping stone on the Norwegian’s road to success.
Warholm had already served notice of his enormous potential by striking gold in the eight-event octathlon at the 2013 IAAF World Youth Championships in Donestsk but in Eugene, the then 18-year-old knew he faced a very different challenge in the ten-event decathlon at his next major global age-group championship.
“Having done the octathlon, I had never before competed in either the pole vault or discus throw,” he explains. “And leading into Eugene, I had probably only trained for half a year in both events.
“Of course, it was a hard adjustment. I was a strong sprinter and jumper and in octathlon I had six strong events and two weak ones - in shot and javelin. But to compete in four weak events, I knew I had no chance (of a gold medal in Portland).”
After booking his ticket for his Oregon adventure by posting a qualification mark with a 7137 tally in Sandnes, Norway, he headed over to Eugene for a pre-championships camp with the Norwegian team.
Experiencing his first US trip was a thrill for the teenage Warholm who holds some fond memories of his time on the Pacific northwest coast.
“We had a good atmosphere on the team and I made a lot of new friendships,” he recalls. “That feeling of competing at a World Championship made me so proud and to compete at Hayward Field for the first time was also very special.”
On the track and in the field, the Norwegian from Ulsteinvik enjoyed a very promising first day. He led the competition after two events, following a 100m personal best of 10.55 and a long jump of 7.53m. At the end of day one, a solid 2.00m high jump and 47.21 400m placed him third overall with 4238 points, 91 adrift of overnight leader Cedric Dubler of Australia.
“The first day went really well, it was a fun experience to lead the decathlon, although I knew my weaker events were to come,” he explains. “All I was trying to do was to do my best, like I always do.”
Day two, predictably, proved more of a struggle for Warholm. He enjoyed an impressive 14.14 clocking in the 110m hurdles to retain a hold on bronze but plunged down the overall standings after a 36.05m discus and 4.20m pole vault. He had set a PB in both events but such was his lack of quality and experience in both events, comparative to many of his competitors, he had terminally fallen out of the medal picture.
After crossing the line in the 1500m, Warholm was, however, proud to set a big new personal best of 7551 for tenth overall - in what was only his second decathlon.
“I was just trying pull off the best results I could under the circumstances, and I felt like I did that,” he explains. “It was a very rewarding feeling. The decathlon is such a fun event to do at a championship, it is like a journey, and there is always a nice bond between the decathletes.”
Describing Eugene as “a good reality check” and taking a well-deserved break in San Francisco and Los Angeles following the event, he persisted with the decathlon for one more season before his athletics career was transformed by trying his hand at the 400m hurdles in 2016. That year he set a national record of 48.49 en route to the Rio Olympic semi-finals – he had discovered a new event, and one where he could make a major impact.
Then last year, in only his second full season in the discipline, the Norwegian caused a sensation to win the world title in London and provided, arguably, the iconic image of the championships, as his stunned look of sheer disbelief after crossing the finish line went viral.
Firmly established as one of the global stars of the sport, his Portland experience may already seem like a distant memory but he insists it formed an important part in his career development.
“I learned (by competing in Eugene) how to perform on the big stage, and this was important because it is not something everyone can do,” he adds. “I also learned about controlling my nerves and emotions in a call room for a positive sporting outcome. All of these experiences made is safer for me when I compete at other major championships.”
For those athletes set to compete at the IAAF World U20 Championships Tampere 2018, he had a clear message.
“The most important thing at any age when competing at a major championship is to have fun,” he says. “But at a junior championship, performing is only one part of it. It is also the opportunity to make new friends, gain inspiration and go back home motivated to become even better.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF