After failing to complete a decathlon for two years, Kevin Mayer met the Olympic qualifying standard in December last year. Free from injury, he can now prepare for Tokyo by training hard and competing in single events, as he plans to do on 19-21 February at the French indoor athletics championships. The Rio 2016 silver medallist talked exclusively to Tokyo 2020 about his plans for the next five months.
Last year, Kevin Mayer received his Christmas present six days early. On 19 December, he booked his ticket to Tokyo 2020. Qualification could have been a formality for the decathlon world record holder. Instead, it turned into a hard fight.
For over two years, since the day he wrenched the world record away from double Olympic champion Ashton Eaton with a score of 9,126 points, Mayer wasn't able to complete a decathlon. His Achilles tendon injury refused to go away, with the toughest moment being the 2019 World Championship in Doha when the reigning world champion was forced to retire midway through the pole vault – the seventh event of the decathlon – while in the lead.
But last December, during the La Réunion athletics meet, those two complicated years came to an end. After a full year of hard training, he met the Olympic qualifying standard with an 8,552 point performance that included a personal best of 13.55 in the 110m hurdles.
While his usual standards are far higher than that score suggests, the Rio 2016 silver medallist arrived in the Indian Ocean island plagued by doubts.
"I arrived with a lot of uncertainty and it was hard to get into the competition. To finish was a huge relief. I got my confidence back and I even improved with a PB in the hurdles.”
The path to Tokyo was now clear and Mayer could continue to prepare with a greater sense of serenity.
Two months later, his improved form was confirmed with a new PB in the 60m hurdles event at the indoor meet in Liévin.
Everything for Tokyo 2020
Even after registering multiple personal bests within just a few short months, Mayer knows he isn’t yet completely ready for the Olympics.
"I will be 100 per cent ready for Tokyo 2020. That is what I'm preparing for."
For now, it is time to train. And Kevin Mayer knows what he needs to focus on over the five months leading up to Tokyo 2020.
“I’m working a lot on my high jump and long jump technique,” he explained from his home in Montpellier, just hours after visiting a school to share his experiences with students and promote sport as part of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Week.
"I felt a lot of knee pain when competing in those disciplines over the last three years and I basically couldn’t train for high jump. I was only jumping during competitions. But over the last three months, I have jumped once every two weeks. Revenge is sweet.”
[Decathlon] is not natural at all. Every time we compete we owe a debt to our body.
And as time passes our performances get better and our debts get bigger.
A debt to the body
From the Achilles to the knee, pain and injury are an inherent part of any athlete’s journey. But this is even more true of a decathlete.
The event consists of 10 athletic disciplines, which competitors are required to complete over two days. The strain it puts on your body is immense, which is most visible after the final event of the decathlon, the 1,500m, when athletes look completely exhausted and are often seen congratulating themselves for the effort they have put in.
"[Decathlon] is not natural at all. Every time we compete we owe a debt to our body. And as time passes our performances get better and our debts get bigger.”
This is the reason Mayer competes in just one decathlon per year, while only participating in single events during competitions and national championships.
Along with the physical strain, there is also a mental one – something he particularly felt during all the years when he struggled with pain.
“I’m always scared to feel the slightest pain during the first events [of a decathlon] because they grow exponentially.”
"I don't feel sorry about my failures"
By the time Mayer began the pole vault event in Doha, the pain was already too much for him. It forced him to stop midway through his run-up, before collapsing in tears in the stadium. This image remains one of the hardest things to watch from the World Championships.
But even though, in the moment, he found it mentally challenging, the 2017 world champion didn’t carry the weight for too long, thanks to his mindset and ability to block out bad thoughts.
“I don’t feel sorry about my failures, in fact, Doha taught me a lot about myself. You don’t think a lot when you train, but when you train less you ask yourself a lot of questions. But you mustn’t take them seriously, you have to accept the bad thoughts. If you think things aren’t going to be OK, it’s fine to switch to a positive mode when you’re back on track.”
“And I knew what I needed to do to make a comeback. I had tests done the following day [after Doha] and, even though my Achilles tendon took a long time to heal, I went straight back to training.”
Advice from Renaud Lavillenie
Today, Mayer is back in training with Tokyo 2020 in his sights. Along with the high and long jumps, he will focus on sprinting, as “when you improve your sprinting, you improve everything”.
And, of course, he will also focus on the pole vault, the event he couldn’t complete in Doha.
“I feel there’s sort of a mental block with that. I need to jump without being scared but for now, the comeback is going well.”
Fortunately, Mayer has been able to rely on the advice of one of the greatest vaulters in history, London 2012 Olympic Champion Renaud Lavillenie.
"I talk a lot with Renaud,” said Mayer. "He is passionate about pole vault and could talk about it for four hours. The most important thing that he told me was to lift my pelvis above the bar. It helped me during Rio 2016, when I beat my record [before he improved it two years later with his world record performance]."
An Olympic gold… and a record?
Mayer also takes advice from Melina Robert-Michon, the Rio 2016 women’s discus silver medallist, as well as from Pascal Martinot-Lagarde and Wilhem Belocian, two of the best hurdlers in Europe.
It may be this that makes the difference in Tokyo, when he attempts to fulfill his Olympic dream. At Rio 2016, he failed to beat decathlon legend Ashton Eaton, who won his second gold medal in a row with an Olympic record 8,893 points. The U.S. athlete has since retired and, with the world record in his possession, Mayer is seen as the favourite. However, he won’t be thinking about that when he steps out into the Olympic Stadium .
“It won’t be on my mind when I step into the starting blocks. I have great opponents.”
Indeed, the likes of German 2019 World Champion Niklas Kaul and Estonian Maicel Uibo will do their best to beat Mayer. But he won’t make it easy for them, particularly as he'll only be thinking of one thing when he trains over the next five months. Or, two things, perhaps.
“I’m aiming for gold, no matter the cost, but a world record would be amazing. However, I don’t think you have to think about a world record to beat a world record. But the euphoria of the medal may lead me to the record.”