Kyle Garland will be the untested youngster when he sets foot Saturday at iconic Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., to begin his quest for an Olympic berth in the decathlon at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials.
Never mind that the Philadelphia resident and redshirt sophomore at Georgia looks the part of an exceptional athlete at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds and enters the two-day, 10-event competition with the sixth-highest qualifying total, 8,196 points. Garland turned 21 less than a month ago and will be competing in only his second senior decathlon against veterans in their mid- and late-20s.
But as his father, Keith, a former sprinter at Temple, keeps telling him, “Why not you?” The younger Garland has taken that message to heart as he vies for one of three available decathlon spots on the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in Tokyo July 23-Aug. 8.
“I’m looked at as the young guy, or kind of the guy that’s not ready or whatever,” Garland, from Northeast Philadelphia, said in a recent telephone interview. “But I see myself as the underdog and I’m kind of ready to just go in there and attack it.
“I’ve talked with family and my coaches and everything, and we just kind of came to the conclusion that, OK, I qualified for this meet, I’m the only collegiate athlete that has hit this number, I belong here. So I’m ready to go in there and start attacking everything.”
Garland is the only current college athlete among the top 11 qualifiers. The No. 2 collegian, 23-year-old redshirt junior Markus Ballengee of Arkansas, is 12th with 7,895 points.
Trading football for track
Garland first became interested in competing in multiple track events when he was 13 and devoted his full attention to it after he stopped playing football following his freshman year at Germantown Academy. Keith Garland coached him from Day 1 and called the father-son, coach-athlete dynamic “a slippery slope.”
“It never became problematic at all,” the elder Garland said. “But there’s times when you’re constantly pushing, particularly when he got to 15, 16, he often pushed back. But we kept pressing. There were those times, our general motto, our protocol was, you win, we celebrate like crazy for 24 hours. That’s when the dad part came in. But after the 24 hours, we would go right back in it. It was constantly, ‘Let’s get better.’ ”
Kyle now is under the tutelage of Georgia head coach Petros Kyprianou. U.S. Olympic Trials decathlon contestants Garrett Scantling and Devon Williams are Georgia alums who were coached by Kyprianou. NCAA decathlon champion and Bulldogs junior Karel Tilga will compete in the Olympics for Estonia.
Still, the son receives plenty of encouragement from his father.
“I think his biggest message to me is that I belong,” Garland said. “He’s always telling me that. I wouldn’t have qualified for Olympic Trials, I wouldn’t have been able to be a two-time SEC heptathlon and decathlon champion throughout this year if I didn’t belong. That genuinely shows me that I belong, my dad believes it, and I believe it wholeheartedly.”
Garland’s road to Eugene has been fraught with injuries and the COVID-19 lockdown. When he won the decathlon at last month’s SEC Championships with his Olympic-qualifying mark, it was his first competition since the 2018 World Junior Championships in Finland.
The most serious injury came in April 2019 when he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. He recovered in time to win the 2020 SEC indoor heptathlon title 10 months later and was prepared to compete in the NCAA championships before the pandemic brought all sports to a sudden halt.
“It was just a little bit frustrating,” Garland said, “but when the time actually came for me to be able to show my talents, I was ready to just step into that and really embrace the moment, embrace everything and just kind of go out with a bang. So all that waiting kind of fueled me to be able to have a great time out there when the time came to actually compete.”
Out of the pandemic
That time came on May 13 and 14 when Garland scraped off the rust for his first decathlon competition in three years and won it, posting personal-best marks in six of his 10 events. Since he also repeated as SEC heptathlon championship almost three months earlier, he became only the fifth athlete in conference history to win the heptathlon-decathlon double in the same academic year.
The performance showed Garland how far he has come in developing the physical and mental strength needed to manage the grueling competition, something he admits he has “a love-hate relationship with.”
“There are certain days or certain weeks where I’m just completely on in practice, and other weeks where I kind of feel completely out of the loop,” he said. “Over the last couple of years, especially in college, I’ve learned that not every day is going to be a perfect day.
“That has taught me to kind of control my mind in doing a multi-event because if you have a bad event in the decathlon, you have to remember that it’s still a 10-event competition. You can still bounce back from that regardless if one event doesn’t exactly go the way that you prepared your mind for it to go.”
Garland and his father flew to Eugene for last week’s NCAA championships and remained there to prepare for the weekend. Keith Garland, a senior paralegal and trial specialist at Ballard Spahr LLC, calls the scene “hugely prideful” and “a pinch-me” moment. He is unfailing in his belief that his son can gain an Olympic berth this weekend and improve to become the best decathlete in the country.
“I tell him, ‘You put the work in. You’ve worked out just as much as the other people,’ ” Keith Garland said. “ ‘So why not you? Why can’t you shake up the world?’ It’s like a Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston situation. Cassius Clay was supposed to lose but we know what happened with that.”