By David Porter | On the continuum of athletic pursuits that tax the human physique, the decathlon probably ranks somewhere between ultra-marathoning and swimming the English Channel. Yet sport’s quintessential multi-taskers may ultimately have it tougher: While those single-minded endeavors can produce a comparatively short list of injuries related to repetitive use, there is no part of a decathlete’s body that is immune to being strained, sprained or pulled.
For that reason and many others, decathletes are not born so much as made, painstakingly, with an emphasis on the pain. To hear Max Westman C’09 describe his first collegiate competition is to gain an insight into the mental gyrations that must accompany all that sprinting, jumping, and throwing.
“It was my freshman year, I think at Wake Forest, and I scored about 6,700 points, which is pretty decent for a first effort,” Westman recalled. “It was a long, hot day and by the end I never wanted to do another decathlon. I remember stepping off the track and saying, ‘I never want to do that again.’”
Thankfully, Westman overcame his initial reservations and built himself into one of the best decathletes in Penn’s long track-and-field history. In April he became the first Quaker to win the decathlon in more than seven decades (full disclosure: the event wasn’t contested at the Relays from 1933 to 1978, but still) and followed that up with a win at the Heptagonal championships in May. His top score of 7,327 points, set when he was a junior, is the sixth-best by a Penn athlete.
Westman began developing his persona as a jack-of-all-trades early on, as a youngster on Philadelphia’s Main Line. He began running at age 6 with local clubs and by the time he reached Lower Merion High School he was already a promising sprinter and long jumper who also dabbled in the 800 meters and other events. In what has to be seen in retrospect as a portent, while rehabbing from a hamstring injury he took up the javelin and discus to keep busy, and soon had added those events to his repertoire.
His arrival in West Philadelphia came at a fortuitous time, as Penn already had Kyle Calvo W’08 and Mike Hall C’08, two accomplished decathletes who, along with assistant coach Jamie Cook, took Westman under their collective wing and taught him how to tackle the grueling, two-day event.
“He was a very gifted athlete and able to do a lot of things very well,” Penn head coach Charlie Powell said about Westman. “He came and fit right in with those guys.
Decathletes “are incredibly hard workers—your work ethic has to be above and beyond, which is why there’s a huge fraternity and they all help each other out,” Powell continued. “We always say you compete against Mother Nature, Father Time, and the decathlon tables as much as against each other.”
Ah, decathlon scoring. Understanding it has been compared to trying to perform brain surgery or explain rocket science. While it may not be as complex as all that, it does put a premium on surpassing personal bests, which means a competitor can pile up points without necessarily winning each event.
For the uninitiated, here is the order of events for this two-day torture test: First day, 100 meters followed by the long jump, shot put, high jump and 400 meters; second day, 110-meter high hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and then the 1,500 meters, or as Westman describes it, “every decathlete’s nightmare.” There is a 30-minute rest period between events that is used for stretching, rehydrating, and grabbing a quick snack. The days begin early and end late, and the mental toll can be profound.
“The toughest part is the mental part,” Westman said. “You’re always trying to get a personal best, and if one event goes south, sometimes it’s hard to get back up for the next event. But you just have to keep your spirits up and forget about it.”
Westman’s performance at the Penn Relays offers a perfect illustration of the peaks and valleys that dot the landscape. His 100-meter time was subpar, but he rebounded in the long jump and shot put. His high jump of 5-feet, 10-inches was encouraging, but his 400-meter time left something to be desired, and left Westman to brood overnight. Day 2 nearly started off disastrously when he came close to disqualifying from the hurdles, his strongest event, after hitting several barriers, but he responded with strong performances in the discus and pole vault. Then, he felt something pop in his elbow on his first javelin attempt. Luckily, the throw was long enough to allow him to not make any more attempts and head into the 1,500-meter run with a commanding lead.
Two and a half weeks later, Westman broke 7,100 points at the Heps, about 300 more than he’d scored at the Penn Relays. The mark qualified him provisionally for the NCAA championships, meaning it was lower than the automatic qualifying score but potentially good enough depending on how many other athletes hit the automatic mark. The score ultimately fell short, however, and Westman passed up a chance to improve his score at the IC4A meet in mid-May, the product of an accumulation of aches and pains throughout the indoor and outdoor seasons.
“This season I felt like an old man,” Westman said ruefully. “In indoor season I had pain in both knees, then I hurt my wrist pole vaulting. Then things started to pile up: My hamstring injury came back, then the elbow thing. I could have made one more go of it, but it was only a week later and I didn’t want to go out and disappoint myself or hurt myself worse. It was a tough decision, but I feel it was the right decision.”
The science, technology, and society major isn’t keeping still while he recuperates: Westman said he’s working on developing a wind energy business with his father.
Quick, name Penn’s most successful coach of the last half-century. If you didn’t answer Dave Micahnik C’59 ... well, shame on you. Even if you’ve never made it out to watch Penn’s men’s and women’s fencing teams over the last, oh, three and a half decades, these numbers should impress even the most jaded fan: 34 years, 34 winning seasons for both teams; 16 Ivy League titles; an overall won-lost record of 722-210; too many individual titles and All-America honors to count, not to mention the dozens of Penn fencers who have competed internationally. Micahnik, whom athletic director Steve Bilsky W’71 called “a Penn treasure,” stepped down this spring, leaving big shoes to fill but a legacy that will guide and inform his successor.
David Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.