PERHAPS IT’S A CASE of absence making the heart grow fonder for OT decathlon winner Garrett Scantling, the Tokyo 4th-placer.
Back in ’16 Scantling, then a Georgia senior, placed 4th in the Trials with an 8228 score, just 4 points off his PR from the previous season. From a place some athletes might have seen as the start line for a run to the next Games, Scantling walked away. For three seasons. He has no regrets.
Scantling explains, “Making an Olympic team was my dream and it almost felt like the four years after that was going to be too long for me to stay focused on what I was doing. I just wasn’t ready for that commitment yet. And, you know, I had a dream to play football. That was kind of what was on my mind and I almost felt like I gave track everything I could have at that point. So I wanted to move on.
“Giving football a shot, honestly, is what I attribute the most to making the Olympic team last year.”
While playing wide receiver for Episcopal of Jacksonville Scantling had caught for 1200-plus yards and 13 touchdowns in his prep senior season. While his attempts in ’16 and ’17 to catch on with the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars were for nought, as Scantling sees it they have fueled his revived deca career.
Make no mistake, Scantling’s 10-eventer performance last season deserves superlatives beyond a mere “revived.” With his 8647 Trials score he rose to No. 8 on the U.S. all-time list and his 8611 Tokyo tally brought him within 39 points of bronze. Had he matched, say, his 158-0 (48.17) discus PR from the Trials he would have sewed up a medal.
For these achievements, as well as what he aims to achieve in the three seasons ahead, Scantling credits his gridiron foray.
He says, the brush with pro football “just kind of taught me how to be a professional in sports — actually living, sleeping, breathing your sport. I mean, that’s the only way to be successful against the best in the world. So just kind of getting that perspective.
“And also understanding that no one really cares what you can’t do, people care what you can do. So it’s all about creating more opportunities for yourself by practicing, preparing so that you can do more.
“I guess that’s kind of the mental perspective that I brought in the Olympics. Honestly, it took me all the way through to now. I still use it and I think it’s going to be one of the best things that I have in my arsenal when it comes to being a pro. For the next few years, I think it’s my secret weapon.”
To his sport, Scantling — who also worked in finance during his time away — brings seemingly limitless energy. Training in his hometown of Jacksonville with his former Georgia coach Petros Kyprianou and his new pro group, Scantling also coaches the throws and pole vault at Episcopal.
“Training’s been just absolutely wonderful down here in Jacksonville,” says Scantling, “and things are going perfect. So I can’t complain. I know I’m busy, but I’m happy. So I guess that’s the point, right?”
It cannot hurt either that Scantling is surrounded by elite training partners in fellow Georgia alum Devon Williams, Britain’s heptathlon world champ Katarina Johnson-Thompson and also in a parttime capacity Williams’ sister Kendell, the Tokyo hept 5th-placer.
In ’19, as he prepared to gear back up in the multis, Scantling returned to Athens as a Bulldog assistant to Kyprianou. From that experience, Scantling says, “seeing the way Petros does things, It’s kind of given me a different perspective. So I think, honestly, that when my competing days are over, being a coach in the NCAA is a dream of mine.”
A decade ago, Scantling arrived at Georgia for the ’12 season having won all four jumps at his prep district meet the year before. “But,” he says, “pole vault and high jump were my main focus, and those are the hardest events to learn in the decathlon. So it was kind of like a perfect fit kind of thing.”
The 2½ years Scantling spent in the financial services field had actually been a decent fit as well. He was Principal Financial Group’s regional financial advisor of the year in his first year and says, “It also showed me how to work. It showed me that if you don’t put in the work, you won’t get paid. So that’s another thing that I kind of bring with me nowadays.”
The one drawback, he says, “was sitting still. I have a very short attention span. It’s been like that my whole life. So sitting behind a desk was tough and it made me miss track. And National Running Day in 2019 was when I saw everyone posting about it online, and it just really made me miss it. It made me want to give another shot at the next Olympics. So that’s what kind of triggered that.”
Scantling’s return to competition indoors in ’20 brought a pair of hept PRs straight out of the gate, 6110 and then a 6209 score to win the USATF crown before COVID scuppered the World Indoor and his plans to compete in the meet. There was a silver lining.
“That extra year of training, honestly, gave me everything I needed to prepare for the Olympic year,” he says. “It was perfect because under Petros, I feel like you need that second year of training just to kind of get your body back underneath you.
“So when I came back for indoor season in 2021, I mean, I felt powerful, everything was awesome and it was so much better. So that year off kind of helped me a lot, to be honest.”
The long training block set Scantling up for Tokyo, and his 4th-place finish at the Games was inspirational — in marked contrast to the experience of finishing in the same spot at the ’16 Trials.
“Honestly the Tokyo 1500 [a 4:35.54 PR] was the easiest race of my career,” he says, describing newfound focus over the last lap and a half.
He recalls, “It was over so fast. It felt incredible; I know I didn’t do exactly what I needed to do, but it was almost like I left everything I could have on the track. That’s really all you can ask yourself to do.”
As for Damian Warner’s burst into 9000-point territory in Tokyo, Scantling takes heart in his Canadian rival’s example even after feeling his heat.
“I had a thing all last year even in practice against my training partners,” Scantling says. “If I beat you, I call you barbecue chicken. ‘I just cooked you. Call me, Chef Garrett.’
“It was like that in all the races up until the Olympics. And, of course, in every single race [at the Games] I was right next to Damian.
“I have never felt like barbecue chicken before, but my goodness, it was just like he was on another level in every event.”
Scantling is OK with that: “I’ve worked with the perspective that I want to get where he is, if not better.
“I’ll be 31 when [the Paris Olympics] comes around, the same age as Damian was in Tokyo. That’s the prime age for the decathlon. I mean, you need your mental to catch up with your physical. It takes a while to mature in dec so 27 to 31 are the best years that you can have.
“That’s why I’m excited to see what my body is capable of. Even this year I feel faster than last year, I feel stronger. And if that progression stays then the sky’s the limit.”