It’s been a long road to Glasgow 2014 for Stephen Cain, writes James Sullivan.
Make no mistake athletics at the elite level is a tough sport. The training is gruesome, yet the financial rewards for most are limited at best. For the vast majority, the opportunity to wear a national vest at a major international championship is reward enough, an experience which one can’t place a price on. But for some, the pathway to such level of participation is more long and arduous than for others. Not many athletes typify this consistent dedicated drive more than Stephen Cain.
Cain, aged 30, a decathlete from Melbourne, Australia, has been involved in athletics for over 15 years. He’s been crowned national champion on multiple occasions, and has been a stalwart for his club St Kevin’s AC, competing regularly in grassroots interclub competition, when many athletes of such standing stay away. He’s represented Australia at the 2011 World University Games in Shenzhen, China, placing seventh, but up until the 2014 Commonwealth Games, had never competed in a major senior championship, being denied selection for the 2010 edition in Delhi, despite achieving the qualification standard.
“You don’t look back. Even at the time, it’s a fine line being disappointed with not being selected and knowing that perhaps you just weren’t quite good enough at the time.”
The Melbourne native was on course for a possible qualification for the 2012 London Olympics, setting a PB of 7844 points in his opening decathlon of that year, at the Victorian Championships, when injury ruled him out for the rest of the Australian and European seasons. Cain insists that it’s these difficult moments which made his appearance in Glasgow last month, and competing in front of 45,000 people at Hamden Park, all the more rewarding.
“To stick at it for the number of years that we have, and to finally get somewhere, we were definitely going to enjoy it more than anything. Whether we scored a PB or didn’t, this doesn’t come around every day so it was great to sit back even during the events, like when we were doing the pole vault and look over at that ‘Glasgow 2014’ sign and think that six months ago we were working towards this and we’re sitting on the runway now. It’s those moments that help you get over the bar at times when your body probably doesn’t agree with it.”
Day one of the Commonwealth decathlon resulted in solid performances from Cain, with season’s best results in four of the five events; 100m, long jump, high jump and 400m. “The first day, the high jump was the standout amongst the five. It’s the second highest we’ve jumped. We’ve jumped two metres a couple of times but 1.99 is a mark we haven’t hit for a very long time.”
At the half way mark, he sat down the field in twelfth position, but being particularly strong in the more technical day two disciplines, areas where many multi-eventers struggle, he steadily climbed the standings, to finish in a highly respectable fifth place, scoring 7787 points, the second highest tally of his career.
“The second day in general was really good. It was good to start off with a reasonable hurdles, and the second furthest I’ve ever thrown in the discus. The pole vault, especially considering what form we’ve had going through, it was probably unrealistic to expect too much more than 4.70 or 4.80, so to jump 4.90 was great. Just to get through the javelin was awesome as we haven’t thrown far at all since nationals, and definitely there was a lot more in that javelin. We hit 62 and a half but it wasn’t the best throw, I think my legs were tired and weren’t quite working.”
Cain’s consistent use of the word ‘we’ is reflective of the type of setup required to be an elite level decathlete. Numerous disciplines create the additional challenges of multiple coaches, training venues and training groups, which single discipline athletes do not have to manage. Cain insists it has very much been a team effort to get him to the level of being strongly competitive at a championship as prestigious as the Commonwealth Games.
“It’s easy to look back on the last couple of weeks and reflect on the results based on those around you at the time. The medical staff, the physio, and the coaches on the team have all been great to get us to the line, but it’s definitely a lot more the people back at home. Efim Shuravetsky and his team of coaches, with Larissa Turchinskaya and son Julian, that have looked after me since I was fifteen years of age. There are not a lot of athletes out there who have stuck with the same coaches for fifteen years and they’ve gone through just as much as I have. Gus Puopolo has helped me out the last couple of years with strength and throwing. But you can’t go past the best girlfriend in the world, Danielle Galea. Without her support and understanding of what it takes to get to where we need to go, it would be a lot harder for sure.”
Despite the sizeable team he has around him, the Melbourne athlete has come to realise over time that this too can create additional challenges and that there is a huge importance in taking responsibility for oneself in managing the sometimes conflicting advice which a multi-eventer receives. “You need a lot of people around you, but it’s very hard to manage all those people because they don’t always agree with each other. Some people say get strong, some people say get fast. Some people say don’t do too much, some people say do too much. So it’s always down to you as to how much you do, what you do and when you do it.”
The experience of competing in multi-event disciplines are said to differ greatly to other events in athletics. The fact each athlete spends two full days with the same competitors, not only on the track and in the field, but also in the holding room for the remainder of the time, creates the type of special bond and level of camaraderie which other athletes simply will never experience. However Cain noticed some difference between the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and the decathlons he is more accustomed to back in Australia.
“Most of the decathlons we’ve done are in Australia, and when you’re in your home town you know most people, you know where they’re at and what they want to get out of it and their PBs and you can support them with what they are wanting. With a comp like this, I didn’t research everybody within the event. It’s not what I do. I focus on myself and hope everyone else does well.”
“There were no language barriers which is really good in an international comp as you can actually talk to people and congratulate them knowing that they will understand you. Everyone got along really well, before the comp, during the comp and even after we caught up for a couple of feeds. They’re great guys and I’d be lying if I said any other event got along better than the decathletes and heptathletes.”
After the highs of his long overdue senior major championship debut, the Australian has not yet decided whether to continue on for another couple of years, to attempt qualification for the 2016 Olympic Games, or to call time on his athletic career.
“There’s not a lot more time and energy that we can give. It’s just whether or not there’s a different way we can do what we are doing and a different place we can put our energy to get better results and stay more injury free. If we can find those answers then maybe we can keep on and give it another crack for another couple of years to Rio. But having said that, you do that for two years and then you’ve got Gold Coast two years after that, so it does linger on. It’s been a long journey up to now so I’m sure either way we’ll be happy with what we decide.”
Whatever the future holds for Stephen Cain, his experiences in Glasgow are lessons to younger athletes that this sport often works in funny ways, but that long term dedication can pay off eventually.