“I DON’T THINK,” explains Kyle Garland, “there’s ever been a situation where I’ve stepped into something and didn’t think I belonged. When I go into a situation, whether it’s a competition, in a classroom, or any extracurricular activity, I always think that I’m supposed to be doing this. It’s not just coincidence that it’s happening. I’ve always felt like this is what I’m meant to be doing.”
The 21-year-old Georgia decathlete felt that way in Fayetteville at the World Championship Trials, where he ended up 2nd with a Collegiate Record score. He continues, “Especially on the track & field stage, it’s like I was meant to be here. I was meant to make this team and I belong here.”
That’s the mindset that drove him through the grinding final events of the 2-day competition, where he astounded observers by racking up big numbers that exploded any previous notions of his potential. Garland could no longer be considered a future prospect — Garland the world-class 10-eventer is happening now.
Throughout the day, the mantra he kept repeating was to stay consistent: “I couldn’t get too excited. I mean, realistically, when I got into the pole vault and I cleared 4.55 [14-11], 4.65 [15-3], I knew there was a very, very strong possibility of me making the team, but that was if I stayed consistent in my javelin and ran a fast time in the 1500.
“I really had to stay on the task. I couldn’t let the excitement of the moment get to me yet. I had to process each event one at a time. I couldn’t sway away from what I was doing as a decathlete. I had to stay as a javelin thrower when I got to the jav and stay as a 1500 runner when I got to the 15. Once I was able to do that and I got that mindset together, I knew that I wasn’t not going to be on the team and I wasn’t not going to get that collegiate record.”
As he stood on the starting line of the 1500, he had already hit five PRs and tallied 8060 points. He could literally saunter through a 6:35 and break his decathlon best of 8196. Instead, he drove himself to a PR 4:43.21. The end result, a shocking 8720, added 524 points to Garland’s PR. It also added 192 points to Ayden Owens-Delerme’s Collegiate Record set a month earlier. Additionally, it made him No. 8 among Americans all-time and No. 19 in world history. But here’s the crucial bit: no one has ever scored higher at such a young age. (Continued below)
It took days for Garland to be able to grasp his achievement. “It just started to set in,” he says. “I’ve been on cloud 9 since I got back to Athens, but it’s just about time to start easing myself back into training. I knew, in a sense, that if I really put everything together, there was a possibility I could get a big score like that, but to be able to actually see that number pop up on the board, it shocked me a little bit. I can’t even lie to you: it did shock me.”
Now, in addition to his appointment to do battle with Arkansas’s Owens-Delerme and the rest of the NCAA on June 08-09, Garland has to test himself against the best decathletes on the planet on July 23-24 in Eugene.
He says, “I knew that down the line in this track & field career, there was going to be a strong possibility that one day I would, hopefully, step on a podium at a World Championship or Olympic Games. But now to be 21 — turning 22 at the end of the month — and have that be a strong possibility this year, it has just made me even hungrier. There’s not that many people in the world that at a young age have been able to step on a decathlon podium so young. The last guy was Niklas Kaul in 2019, I believe.” The German was just short of 21 years, 8 months when he won gold in Doha.
“Just to be able to have that as a possibility, going into the World Championships, it puts another chip on my shoulder. I mean, I want to be in the conversation to be one of the youngest guys to get on a podium.”
All the same, the jump from 8196 to 8720 means some recalibration is required: “I started with very big dreams and I was like, ‘Oh one day, hopefully, I can be on a medal stand.’ Now it’s like, ‘OK, I have to go back to the drawing board with coach. What do we do? Where can I improve?’ This is my reality now. Everything that I can do to get myself to that level and get myself on the podium, ultimately, that’s the way my life is geared right now.
“It definitely is a different transition mentally as opposed to physically. For me, I’m a huge mental guy, I process everything, but now it’s like, ‘OK, we’ve got to process this. We can’t get too overly excited. We’ve got to embrace the moment rather than just basking in it.’”
For Garland, the road to multi greatness started early. He began sprinting in age-group track at 7. It was before high school that he discovered the multis, when an official at a New Jersey meet suggested he try the pentathlon. “I love to try new things, so I got into it,” Garand recalls.
He placed 5th in the AAU Junior Olympics that year, and was hooked: “I could take this a little bit further and I wanted to. I wanted to be one of the select few people across the world that actually specialized in the decathlon. I studied the history of the sport and American decathlon specifically. I just kept working, kept grinding, and now we’re here.
“It’s been a long process, it’s been a grueling process, but it’s also been a very, very fun process.”
As a high schooler at Germantown Academy in Ft. Washington, Pennsylvania, Garland captured 4 events at his State Meet (110H, 300H, long jump and javelin), then won the USATF Junior title with 7562 points (U20 implements) and placed 7th at World Juniors. His individual-event skills were so good (7-2/2.18 high jump, 13.69w hurdles) that a number of recruiters tried to sway him away from the decathlon.
“A lot of people wanted me at their schools to be a high jumper and other schools wanted me to do hurdles as well,” he details. “Then I had other schools, they saw my size alone, 6-5/220 [1.96/100], and wanted me to play football. Ultimately, I was like, ‘What do I want to do? What do I enjoy most?’ I sat back and realized that my love is for the decathlon. Just to ultimately get to a position where [I could be] winning a World Championship title or an Olympic title and be named the best athlete in the world. I didn’t think there was anything else like that in any other sport. I definitely wanted to pursue this.”
That took him to Georgia, a noted mecca for the multis, where for three years he trained under Petros Kyprianou, alongside Garrett Scantling and other notables. After sitting out ’19, he won the SEC heptathlon indoors the next winter. Last year he was NCAA runner-up indoors, captured the SEC decathlon with 8196 points, and placed 6th in the OT. Then came a transition, as Caryl Smith Gilbert took over the reins as the Bulldogs head coach and brought in James Thomas to handle the multis, as he had at Texas Tech.
“The transition was ultimately very, very good,” says Garland, who admits, “At first it was definitely tough. I wouldn’t say we butted heads, but there were definitely some ups and downs. After the indoor season [where he again was NCAA runner-up], we made a few philosophy changes. It worked out for the better. We were able to hammer everything down in training and we were able to put together this meet.”
He adds, “I absolutely love the environment. They’re great people and they’re great coaches as well. It’s an amazing place to be.”
The key to Garland flourishing there — or anywhere, for that matter — all comes down to belonging. “The biggest thing for me is just knowing that I belong. I don’t think there’s anybody on this earth that could tell me I don’t belong because at the end of the day, if I’m doubted, I’m going to show you that you shouldn’t have doubted me.”
Of this there is no doubt: he is one of the bright stars of his chosen event, and there’s more to come. “I definitely think there’s a good deal of improvement let for me over the coming years.”