Two years ago, behind the decathlon medal-winning trio of Kevin Mayer, Rico Freimuth and Kai Kazmirek at the World Championships in London, a breakthrough was happening. 23-year old Estonian Janek Õiglane was having the performance of his career, finishing fourth with a lifetime best of 8371.
His emotions during the competition were palpable. You need only spend five minutes in Õiglane’s company to be imbued with the infectious energy he brings to the decathlon. But an injury-ravaged 2018 caused him to draw on every ounce of that energy for the physical and mental journey to the start line at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.
Memories of London
After climbing 14 places to sixth during the decathlon in London, a superb javelin PB of 71.73m had moved Õiglane into fourth, where he remained, setting six PBs overall. He lights up as he recalls the competition.
“Oh, the memories are still so bright and glorious!” he says. “I know it was fourth, but for me that was like winning. The UK crowd was just amazing. They know about track and field. The venue was just so perfect, and I enjoyed the competition so much. One month before, in really bad conditions, I did 8170 to qualify. I knew in reserve I had 100-150 points. But it was surprising that I beat my previous PR by 200 points.”
Õiglane then spent three months on manoeuvres in the forest with the Estonian army and returned from a training camp in South Africa in good shape. But in March 2018 he injured his heel while testing a new pole in competition.
“I couldn’t walk properly for two months,” he explains. “It was three weeks before Götzis when I started sprint training and I thought, ‘ok, Götzis is just coming too fast, I need to say no’. But then two weeks before Ratingen I ruptured my hammy. It was bad. The season was over.”
Like pages torn from a book, Õiglane’s 2018 season was lost. Rather than wonder what might have been, he directed his energy towards healing, and learning.
“I needed to understand it’s part of the sport and I need to be mentally strong to get over it,” he says. “All that was weak in my body I was working on to get better next year. It was good that I had that kind of season, to understand how to be better with these things.”
Stronger, faster, higher
After almost a decade with his previous coach, Õiglane moved in late 2017 to work with Andrei Nazarov, the Estonian former decathlete who had a best of 8322. He joined the training group which included 2015 world bronze medallist Laura Ikauniece, 2016 Olympic long jump finalist Ksenija Balta, and combined eventer/hurdler Karl Erik Nazarov.
“We are trying some new stuff, and I love it,” Õiglane says. “Strength and conditioning are a lot better, and sprinting and lactic training is different from before. I’m a pretty slow guy for a decathlete. Karl Erik is a lot faster so I’m pushing myself thanks to him. And Ksenija and Laura are top athletes so it’s good to see how they get ready for competition.”
The changes paid off. In February he became the eighth Estonian to exceed 6000 points for the indoor heptathlon and qualified for the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow. But his return to international competition was thwarted by a freak incident during the pole vault, when he landed on the edge of the box and sliced his ankle. “I can see the bone,” he called to his family in the stands. This time, the injury affected him more deeply.
“When Glasgow happened, luckily it was just a scratch,” he says, referring to the gaping five-inch wound in his leg. “But mentally it was hard. I was a little bit shaky. My confidence and some technical points had gone.”
Race to 8200
Injuries healed, but confidence dented, Õiglane’s first decathlon in almost two years was Götzis in May. “I thought I was in shape to do 8200. But after the first event I knew it was going to be a struggle. Now it’s a big boys’ game. When the first day was done, I was so exhausted. It was hard to stay with the boys.”
He scored 8050, well short of the World Championships 8200 qualifying score. The next meeting was the European Combined Events Team Championships in Lutsk. In the 100m, Õiglane didn’t hear the recall gun and sprinted almost the full distance before realising the error. In the re-run a few minutes later, he managed only 11.40, compared to 11.28 in Götzis.
“I had lost 100-150 points already,” he says. “It was mentally hard after that. But I needed to get the points for the team. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t like to drop out.”
With 7996 and still no qualifying score, Õiglane considered his options. Next was the Estonian Championships at the end of July. No one else in the field had broken 8000 points. And three decathlons in two months, on return from injury, was a big ask.
“Oh, this was one helluva pain! I only had three weeks to rest. The toughest point was when I needed a third attempt in the opening height in the pole vault. I jumped 4.79m, which was pretty bad. I was so disappointed. I was so tired. It was so hard competing, literally, with myself.
“But after that I had a huge javelin throw, and then I knew I was going to do it. I am going to the World Champs!”
And he was. His brave solo effort, including a javelin PB of 72.38m, had produced 8251, safely securing the automatic qualification standard.
Full circle in the Middle East
The World Championships decathlon started well. Õiglane broke 11 seconds for the first time in the 100m with 10.94 and finished the day with a lifetime 400m best of 49.14. But disaster almost struck in the 110m hurdles. He hit the first barrier and stumbled. He stayed on his feet, still in the game with 15.13, although far from his 14.34 season’s best. But while Õiglane clung tenaciously to his competition, Mayer, Kazmirek and Götzis runner-up Lindon Victor were out of contention.
“After the first hurdle I thought, ok, now it’s over,” he recalls. “I don’t know what kept me going, but I somehow finished. I’m so sad about Kevin, Lindon, everyone. I want to compete in the best field in the world.”
He kept his cool. In the penultimate event he launched the javelin to a PB of 72.46m, second only to eventual champion Niklas Kaul’s 79.05m. And finally, Õiglane finished sixth with 8297, his second-best score ever.
“I haven’t had such good shape, ever. I knew that I was in shape to score 8500. After this competition I know I can do it in the future. Right now, I’m just surprised that I got sixth place. I’m proud of myself, to be honest.”
From breakthrough in London to one of the last men standing in a brutal decathlon in Doha, Janek Õiglane’s story had come in a very happy full circle.
Achieving things the hard way
Over the past two years, Õiglane has drawn strength from his support network, both the famous Estonian fans – “I’m the crowd person! I get myself going with the energy from the crowd” – and his family.
“My parents are one of the biggest reasons I’ve succeeded so far,” he says, gratefully. “I’m so blessed, and I do my best to show my appreciation with my results in the field.”
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He also has two Samoyed dogs. “They are incredible, more like humans than dogs,” he beams. “We have our own language. When I see them, they make me feel more positive.”
Õiglane’s success in 2019 gives rise to the age-old question: why are Estonians so good at decathlon?
“I am literally bad in every event!” he laughs. “But Estonians are stable in every event as well. We are hard workers, and we love to get those hands dirty. Estonians don’t want anything the easy way. We want everything the hard way.”
Gabriella Pieraccini for the IAAF