Double Z Is Getting The Hang Of The Decathlon

His nickname prominently tattooed on his left biceps, Zach Ziemek has spent many years mastering the 10-eventer. (KEVIN MORRIS)

THE DECATHLON’S LEARNING CURVE, it stands to reason, is longer than for any other event: 10 events, 10 different skill sets. In a sport where throwers and jumpers can spend many years perfecting their technique, decathletes have to develop mastery at 6 different field events, not to mention developing proficiency out of the blocks and over hurdles.

At 28, 2-time Olympian Zach Ziemek (Zie rhymes with pie) is finally starting to get the hang of it. The 6th-placer in Tokyo has been working hard with longtime mentor Nate Davis to figure out the right training mix.

“My coach and I have really picked up on what training has worked for us. It’s a difficult task. It’s just difficult in general to find out what training you believe will take you to the next level.

“That’s where we were at in 2021. When we came out in 2016, that was my last year in college, I made the Olympic team, and we had a World team under our belt. I took 7th in Rio and we thought, ‘OK, how do we push it to the next level?’ Because we weren’t satisfied with being just in the top 10 anymore. We were thinking, ‘How do we become the athlete and coach and score the scores that we want to score?’

“It took us a couple years to figure out what we wanted. And now that we have, I think it’s just going to be building from here on out.”

The two have worked together for 7 years now at Wisconsin, where Davis is the vertical jumps and multi coach. Ziemek scored All-America honors 5 times for the Badgers and won the ’16 NCAA heptathlon before finishing 2nd (first American) in the decathlon that year.

“We have a relationship that goes way beyond track & field,” says Ziemek. “That’s what makes it special. We can communicate with each other on a deeper level. I’m excited for the future.”

That said, he explains that they’re not doing anything new, per se, in training this year. “We’re just building on everything that we’ve done over the last couple of years. You know, in 2019 I had a really bad hamstring injury that put me out for quite some time. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to compete again.”

After getting through rehab and rebuilding his strength for the Olympic year, Ziemek says he is ready to make up for lost time. “We found the right training and now it’s going to take a little bit more time. I’m fully healthy now and able to put some of that workload in.”

When he showed up at Georgia’s Spec Towns Invitational last April, it was his first full decathlon since Talence in June ’19. He finished 3rd in 8213 behind Estonian Karel Tilga and fellow American Garrett Scantling. It was the No. 6 performance of his career, and put him in solid position for the Trials little more than 2 months later.

In Eugene he put it all together, scoring a PR 8471 that was boosted by a trio of individual PRs, including two amazing jumps, 7-¼ (2.14) and 18-2½ (5.55). That 3rd-place finish sent him to Tokyo.

In Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium the decathletes faced searing heat. “I think it was the hottest meet that I’ve ever competed in,” Ziemek says, worse even than Beijing ’15 or Sacramento at the USATF Champs in ’17. “It was hot and humid the entire time that we were there for training and even more so for the decathlon.”

Calling it a “great experience,” Ziemek still admits to having mixed feelings on his performance in scoring 8435, 36 points short of his best. “As a multi-eventer, I don’t know if you’re ever really happy with your performance. There were a couple events that I missed out on, but to be able to represent my country my family, my coach, my medical team so well, I’m very proud of it.”

Discovering his inner decathlete came early for the 6-3/194 (1.90/88) Ziemek, who was introduced to the event by his high school coaches. “They said, ‘Hey, do you want to see if you want to do the decathlon?’ And I had never heard of it before but I was always a person that loved to train and I loved to mess around with some of the other events. I started doing decathlon stuff my sophomore summer of high school, I believe.”

He wasn’t the only one the coaches at Lake Park (Itasca, Illinois) roped into the 10-eventer. He notes that fellow OT decathlon competitors Tim Ehrhardt and Scott Filip were high school teammates of his.

“I just fell in love with it,” he says. “I loved the variety; I loved the challenge it brought. I couldn’t train for it full time in high school, so I usually just spent about 6–8 weeks in my summers training and doing a couple of decathlons. But I knew I wanted to do it full time in college. And then my goal was hopefully to continue, and I was lucky enough that it has.”

The nature of the event means that every major competition is a reunion of sorts. “So many of those guys [at the Trials] I grew up competing with in high school and college. You grow a relationship over the years; you start off as 18-year-olds and by the time you’re starting to get where we’re at, 26-, 27-, 28-years-old, it’s just fun to see the relationships that have grown among all of us.”

Looking forward, Ziemek is excited about gearing up for a World/Olympics every season through ’25. “Absolutely. That gap year is always hard and Nate and I have always thought, as much as I love the World Championships — it’s amazing to make the teams and do well there — at the end of the day, we want the Olympics and to use these next two years for the Worlds to do great on and then to have an Olympics, now three years away, it helps. It helps as I’m getting a little older too, that we’ll have some major stuff every year.”

The news that USATF will hold its multi trials earlier than the main body of the nationals this year has made both athlete and coach happy. “Everyone across the world has a big advantage compared to the United States, if they don’t have a trials and they get 60–70 days to get ready for Worlds. That would give us a strong U.S. showing at Worlds if we’re able to have that same amount of time.”

As for his own prospects, Ziemek sees only upsides. “Now that I’m fully healthy, building on the strength and really dialing-in the events, I think there’s a ton of room for improvement.”

COMING SOON: Features on the other multi stars in the USA’s Olympian trio of 2021 World Rankers, Steven Bastien and Garrett Scantling.