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Report from 'The Age'

A man for all disciplines
Adam Cooper
January 29, 2012

Leap of faith: Steve Cain is focused on qualifying for the London Olympics.

Photo: Simon Schluter

A ticket to London could be decathlete Steve Cain's biggest jump yet. ON WINNING the gold medal in the decathlon at the Stockholm Olympics a century ago, Jim Thorpe was given the rarest of compliments by the King of Sweden. ''You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world,'' he said, to which the American replied, ''Thanks, King.'' Whether it was humility or exhaustion that prevented much more, it's unsure.
''World's greatest athlete'' is the title still reserved for the Olympic decathlon champion but that doesn't seem to capture it all. Add ''maths star'', ''multitasker'', ''mind guru'' and ''shoe lover'' and you're getting closer, although inscribing all of that on one medal is a challenge as worthy of the event itself.

Melbourne's Steve Cain competed in his first decathlon more than a decade ago, has won two national titles and harbours dreams of representing Australia at this year's London Olympics. But even he admits he's yet to master the complexities of an event comprising 10 disciplines, from the intricacies of the pole vault, the power behind hurling a javelin and the speed needed for various running distances. ''I'm still trying to get my head around it,'' he says.

Even as a full-time decathlete, Cain finds he can often go days without practicing events while working on others. He has a team of three coaches behind him (head coach Efim Shuravetsky oversees his entire progress) and divvies up his time to a couple of events a day. But he must be conscious of where best to devote his energy. Improving in one event must be weighed up against refining another, as to maximise point scoring in competition.

''At the moment my pole vault earns me the most points. You jump five metres you get 910 points. To jump 5.20, you weigh up how much training you need to get to that performance and there's another 60 points,'' he says. ''In an event where you're not quite as good, say shot put, to get that same 60-point difference might mean you have to train and train and train and to get that [muscle] bulk might mean it's detrimental to the other events. ''It's a mathematical balance. I'll get a few here and a few there and if I run faster my hurdles, long jump and high jump will all get better. It's that sort of trade-off.''

Those considerations occur across the world in decathlon, depending on a competitor's technique, physique and skill. Cain, a tall, rangy athlete, found the high jump and hurdles his calling as a junior but admits mastering 10 disciplines is beyond most mortals. Czech Roman Sebrle came closest, when he accumulated 9026 points at Gotzis in 2001, but even the likes of past world champions Daley Thompson and defending Olympic champ Bryan Clay could not get everything right, often labouring in the 1500 metres.
''One of the top guys in the world is awesome at nine events but he can't throw the javelin, meaning no disrespect, but if the best are throwing 70 metres and the best you can get is 50 that's a very big gap,'' Cain says of the challenge.

The devotion required for the decathlon means a special bond exists among competitors and an appreciation from followers. The masochism of such a tough competition draws a respect through meets, which usually end with decathletes collapsing in physical and mental exhaustion after the long run.
''To get through one is a big deal and to get through one well is another step on top of that,'' says Cain, 27, who is one of just a handful of Australian decathletes with a personal best above 7000 points (his is 7734, set last year).

''There's a great camaraderie you build among the competitors throughout a weekend. You start at nine or 10am one day and finish at seven or 8pm the following day. You spend two days in battle, I guess, with however many guys there are, but everyone seems to be there to support each other.
''It's not competing against you, we're all competing together - I'd like to beat you and you'd like to beat me but we'd prefer to beat ourselves. You know how good you are based on your previous performances and you want to get better than that.''

The logistics of staging a decathlon mean competitors can go anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours between disciplines and multi-sport events require strict mental focus, resisting looking ahead but also moving on quickly.

Then there is the equipment. Cain takes about 12 pairs of shoes to an event - everything from soft soles for the discus to various running spikes - and has about 80 pairs sprawled across his Box Hill home. Sometimes he takes his own javelin, always his own vaulting pole. He found out the hard way he couldn't carry a discus as hand luggage on aircraft, and doesn't bother with a shot put. ''When weight is an issue an extra 7.26 kilograms will weigh you down a fair bit,'' he says.

Cain was sidelined by knee and ankle injuries for five years after a bad fall in 2003, but since returning to competition he has steadily improved over the past three years. But he admits earning an Olympic berth in 2012 would require ''another two steps forward'' and most likely for Athletics Australia to use its discretionary powers favourably. Attaining the magic number - 8200 points - at the national championships, which double as Olympic qualifiers, in April is possible but everything would have to click . ''Nailing all 10 is every decathlete's dream,'' he says.



Courtesy The Age