June 9, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Upon the completion of the first five events -- the 100 meters, the long jump, the shot put, the high jump and the 400 meters -- Wisconsin decathlete Zach Ziemek definitely felt like he had put his best foot forward in the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
It would be the other foot that would cause him problems.
“Aw, man, I was just devastated,” he would say later.
On the strength of personal bests in the 100 meters and high jump, Ziemek rolled up 4,112 points, a career high for the first day of competition. At the halfway point, he was in sixth place, which was impressive considering the depth of the decathlon field. He could not have scripted it better.
The following day, Ziemek, the Big Ten champion, was still in sixth overall after completing his first event, the 110 hurdles. But when he reached the finish line, he pulled up. “After the race, I felt this shooting pain through my heel and Achilles,” he said. “I tried to keep going through it.”
Ziemek got through the discus in decent shape and then cleared 16 feet, 4 3/4 inches in the pole vault, the fifth-best mark of the day. That left him in seventh place -- and in contention for All-America recognition -- with two events remaining in the decathlon: the javelin and the 1500 meters.
“But I came out for the javelin and I couldn’t plant -- I fouled on my first two throws,” said Ziemek, who consulted with Ed Nuttycombe, then the UW head coach, on whether he should consider dropping out.
He didn’t, not yet. “I got my last throw in,” Ziemek said.
That left him in 10th place. But it was becoming more and more obvious that he was not going to be able to finish. “I started warming up for the 1500,” he remembered, “and it was just not happening. It was so painful that I couldn’t keep going anymore and I had to withdraw.”
Ziemek was left alone with his thoughts -- for three long days in Eugene, Oregon, the site of the nationals. He was done on Thursday. But the team didn’t fly home until Sunday. “It was brutal,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Why did this have to happen now after coming off a Big Ten win, my first big win?’”
He was also thinking about “how I could get better over the summer” and what he could do “to try and stay health over the next year.” He didn’t know what to think about his injury. “I thought maybe I had a heel bruise or a sprained Achilles,” he said. “I really didn’t know what happened.”
A little over a month later, Ziemek learned that he had fractured his heel. Knowing the severity of the injury didn’t make him feel any better about how it all ended for him in Oregon. But it made him even more committed to return. “I’ve wanted to get back there for awhile,” he said.
This week, Ziemek will once again enter the NCAA outdoor competition as the Big Ten decathlon champion after successfully defending his title in mid-May. Ironically, he had personal bests in the event that he got hurt in (110 hurdles) and the event that he never got to run in (1500 meters) last June.
“Right now, he’s as healthy as he has ever been for this time of the year, which was one of the goals we talked about,” said UW assistant Nate Davis, who trains the Badgers’ multi-event athletes. “He really has a grasp of the technical side of all of his events which is going to give him a lot of confidence.
“We really made an effort in the indoor season to kind of gear him back (though Ziemek still finished fifth in the heptathlon at the NCAA indoor meet for a second straight year). One of the things that we talked to him about was, ‘Indoors is great, but track is an outdoor sport. You’re a decathlete and that’s a big deal.’”
|“You can’t just go out there and try hard. You have to have that passion to persevere,” Davis said. “Zach has got that. He’s the most passionate kid I’ve ever been around.”
Davis also relayed a simple game plan to Ziemek for his return trip to Eugene.
“If you’re healthy and confident, and you do what you did to get there, good things can happen,” Davis told him. “My only expectation is that he goes out and competes and has fun. You really can’t control what the other guys are doing. Crazy things happen at that meet.”
Going into this year’s NCAA decathlon, which gets under way Wednesday, Ziemek is seeded No. 4 behind Georgia’s duo of Garrett Scantling and Maicel Uibo and Oregon’s Dakotah Keys. The defending champion, Texas sophomore Johannes Hock, is No. 12.
Hock had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow during the offseason and opened the spring by throwing the javelin with his left hand. In general, Ziemek has a good book on the competition, particularly Scantling, a junior from Jacksonville, Florida; and Uibo, a sophomore from Polva, Estonia.
Beyond competing against them in NCAA meets, Ziemek faced them in April at the Bulldog Decathlon in Athens, Georgia. Scantling was the winner with 8,169 points, followed by Uibo with 8,123 and Ziemek with 7,860, the third-highest total in UW history.
“Obviously with such a small field (in Georgia), I was around them a lot and I got to know them a little bit,” said Ziemek, adding that decathletes tend to be more friendly than adversarial around each other. “That’s just because you see them for two days in a row. Maybe if it was a sprinting event, there would be a little more tension between everyone.”
Davis agreed that it would be counter-productive to handle it any other way. “It would drive you crazy not to like them,” he said. “It’s such an individual thing. You have that struggle with yourself and your own performance. You’re competing against them, but it’s more like they raise your level. That’s what the competition does. You couldn’t make it through the event mentally (otherwise).”
When Davis was reminded that he can speak the language of decathletes because he was one himself in college (Lebanon Valley), he laughed and protested, “But I was terrible. The only thing I gathered (from competing in the decathlon) is that you need somebody to support you every day. That’s what I try to give him (Ziemek).”
So what is the common thread between all decathletes?
“Passion, passion,” Davis repeated for effect. “You have to be out there three hours a day for practice alone and then there’s all the treatment to keep your body going. The learning is just so important because you have to know the event; you can’t just go out there and try hard. You have to have that passion to persevere. Zach has got that. He’s the most passionate kid I’ve ever been around.”
Wisconsin’s Mick Byrne connected the same dots in profiling a decathlete.
“Zach brings a lot of passion to the event; they all have to have that,” said Byrne, who coaches and oversees the men’s and women’s cross country and track programs. “Zach is one of those guys where he could have a bad event and he’ll be all upset and you’ll see him kicking and banging and throwing things around. But he can compose himself very quickly and concentrate on the next event.”
Win or lose, Ziemek has always carried a passion for pushing himself “to learn and get better.” Growing up in a Chicago suburb (Itasca, Illinois), he played a little baseball as a youth and really enjoyed basketball before he felt obligated to give up the sport up so “I could pursue my track and field dreams.”
That pursuit eventually led him from Lake Park High School to Madison and UW. He fell in love with the campus and the academic opportunities presented by the school, along with a few other things. “Obviously, the track and field history drew me here,” he said.
As a freshman, Ziemek came under the influence of some top-shelf people and decathletes in David Grzesiak, Derek Steinbach and Ian Jansen. “They were all huge leaders to me in teaching me the ropes,” said Ziemek, who also benefited from being around another teammate, four-time Big Ten heptahtlon champion Japheth Cato. “We became really good friends and training partners and pushed each other every day.”
Reflecting on his development, Ziemek recalled how he grew into the decathlon from his strong roots as a high school pole vaulter; he was a two-time state champion in Illinois. The long jump is usually another reliable source of points for Ziemek.
“If you look at the history of the top guys (in the decathlon),” Davis said, “the main thing you see is they don’t have a glaring weakness. You can’t win with a glaring weakness. But what they have is one event where they set themselves apart.”
Ziemek has gone to school on the best of the best, a couple of his role models: Ashton Eaton (an Olympic champion and world record-holder in the decathlon) and Trey Hardee (a two-time world champion). He even has their posters on his wall.
“They were just all-around good athletes,” Ziemek said. “Usually, you get a multi (event athlete) who’s good at some specialized event and they struggle in other areas. But these guys were so athletic and powerful and they were just all-around good in everything.”
The NCAA West Preliminary Round was not a good meet for Ziemek. But it wasn’t expected to be. “That happened,” he explained, “because I was training through it, me and Coach (Davis), were looking at the bigger picture: nationals. It was kind of a practice meet, and it wasn’t a good practice.”
But he’s still feeling good about his chances at nationals.
“I feel like I’m ready to go out and put up a big score,” he said.
Noted Byrne, “He goes into this meet thinking he can compete with everybody in the country.”
Ziemek’s confident attitude can be traced back, in part, to the success that he had in April competing with Scantling and Uibo on their turf in Georgia.
Afterward, Ziemek thought to himself, “I put up a decent score and I feel like I’m in the running this year. I feel like I can actually make a good splash at that (NCAA) meet.”
He has, after all, some unfinished business in Oregon.