"I don't think anyone chooses the decathlon as much as it chooses you."
Olympian Bryan Clay's philosophy on the decathlon, as well as other combined events like the heptathlon and pentathlon, is something well understood by Texas Longhorns Leo Neugebauer and Kristine Blazevica.
Neither Neugebauer, who won the Big 12 title in the decathlon, nor Blazevica, who took the conference crown in the heptathlon, began their careers in the events in which they now excel. But as young athletes, an ocean away from Austin and the countries in which each has reached new heights, it was clear that the versatility each showed was something special.
The outdoor track and field season concludes next week with the NCAA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. The event will be held June 9-12 at the University of Oregon's historic Hayward Field in Eugene.
Blazevica is coming off a personal best in the heptathlon, when she scored a 5,947 May 26 at the Big 12 Championships in Manhattan, Kan. Her comeback in the final quarter of the 800 meters helped her outscore the rest of the field by 175 points. Her excitement for her first NCAA outdoor championships is evident, though there is a bit of uncertainty considering the inconsistent weather in Eugene.
"NCAAs are in two weeks and I always try to mentally prepare to imagine what I should focus on," Blazevica said in a recent interview with Horns Illustrated. "The only thing I'm worried about is the weather. I know the weather there is unpredictable."
Neugebauer, also headed to his first NCAA outdoor championships, agreed. He pulled out a two-point victory with a score of 7,793 in Manhattan, his first outdoor conference championship at the collegiate level. The German was powered by a long jump of 7.43 meters, the top mark in the field, and a 50.45-second 400-meter dash time, which earned him a half-second victory over second-place finisher Fynn Zenker of Texas Tech.
"I'm super-excited to compete there," Neugebauer said. "I'm in really good shape right now. I have some minor issues in my foot, but that shouldn't hold me back for anything. I'm excited to go out there and compete for my team and do my best to get points for my team. That's just my goal."
It could be said that track and field has always been in Blazevica's blood. Her mother, Jelena, was an Olympian who represented Latvia in the triple jump at the 1996 Summer Olympics, and placed seventh. But Kristine did not take up track and field until the age of 13. She quickly realized that, for her, the path to greatness in track and field laid in the combined events.
"I think it was my coach," Blazevica said. "I wanted to do track on a better level, and my coach was a combined events coach, and coached the Latvian record holder Laura Ikauniece, who was an Olympian. So I started as a long jumper and then ended up being a combined events athlete because I needed to represent my team, (as) we didn’t have a lot of athletes. I tried combined events to get good at long jump, and when I started to do better than my teammates who were actually training for combined events, we decided it was time to (make the switch).”
Considering her mother's achievement as an Olympian, and the fact that she has been influenced by plenty of Latvian Olympians during her early years of competition, Blazevica said she has her eyes on a strong performance at NCAAs right now. But reaching the Olympics is her ultimate goal.
"The Olympics is the biggest goal for athletes," Blazevica said, "especially track and field athletes."
Neugebauer's path to success in the decathlon lay in the German model for youth track and field. From a young age it was clear that Neugebauer's versatility and athleticism would not be confined to just one or two events. He had the talent to do 10 on any given weekend.
"So in Germany, the way we do track and field, is from a young age, you start out doing basically everything," Neugebauer said. "In the beginning, you do sprinting, jumping and like throwing a ball or something. That's how everyone starts, and then, the older you get, the more advanced you are at coming to the multi-events. We slowly graduated from doing three events, then five to seven to nine."
But only a small group makes it up to nine, then 10 events.
"Along the way, many people start to specialize in a certain event," Neugebauer said. "If they get better in one event and are not as good in another. I was always good at everything so I always stuck with the multi."
The ability to compete at a high level, yet not specialize in just one event, is a large part of the intrigue around the combined events. Over a period of two days, athletes in both the decathlon and heptathlon must compete in a sprint hurdles race (100 meters for women, 110 meters for men), the long jump, high jump, shot put, javelin throw, a longer sprint (200 meters for women, 400 meters for men) and a distance race (800 meters for women, 1,500 meters for men). The decathlon also includes the pole vault, 100-meter dash and discus.
With so many events, the practice time for these athletes is that much longer, and their mental fortitude has to be that much stronger.
"Physically, you don't want to do too much the day before you compete in a decathlon," Neugebauer said. "You want to feel really good and you have to take care of your body. Mentally, it is the same thing, because you have so many events and one bad event can pull you down. That is why you have to beat the individual athletes you have to beat for the individual events. You can't look at any other events. You just have to focus on the one event you're doing right now."
"I just try to focus on what I'm doing right then," Blazevica said. "For example, if I'm doing hurdles, I'm not thinking about the 800 meters or long jump. Also, when you're going from one event to another, you shouldn't think about what you already did. You need to go forward, and almost forget what you already did.
"It's not just you. There are other girls competing and you don't know what will happen to them. Especially on the second day, with the long jump, a lot of things can change. So you should never give up on your goals."
"The way I see it," Neugebauer said, "many people calculate for you. 'OK, you're able to hit this mark and you have to do this in order to get this' ... and that kind of thing. I try to not look at those things as much as possible, because if you do that, you'll have in your head what you have to do in order to get a certain point total. If you do that, it screws your whole decathlon up, because from event to event, you're getting lower and lower under that point score that you want to have. That's why (I try) to live in the moment, and enjoy the event."
The combined events are as much mental as physical, and having a competitive edge is in the DNA of both Blazevica and Neugebauer. Each said championship competition fuels the drive toward success.
"I was really happy with my performance — I didn't expect much," Blazevica said of her performance at the Big 12 Championships, her first collegiate outdoor championship meet. "Before Big 12s, I was really excited to compete, and not as nervous as I usually am. There were girls (at the conference meet) around the same level if not better than I am, so I needed to push hard for the win."
"I love doing championships in general," Neugebauer said. "That's a big thing for me, to have that experience with a team, because in Germany, I had never really had a team. I was just involved in a small club, so I'd be competing more for myself, to get a high score. But here it's really about the team. I have a great team. There's a reason why we have won so many Big 12 championships. It is so cool to compete with so many people on such a high level."