Standing on the edge of the runway, Austin Jamerson stares at the horizontal bar raised up on the other end of the high jump semi-circle. He couldn’t remember the last time he had completed a live high jump, and yet here he was, at the Ivy League’s most important track and field event of the year, competing for the decathlon crown.
“It’s nerve-wracking when you first step up for your first attempt, it’s like ‘I haven’t done this in forever,’ ” Jamerson said, recalling his sophomore year when a lingering knee injury had limited him in practice all year. For the entire season, he had high jumped just twice outside of meets.
“I could do drills, but as far as taking off, it would just aggravate it too much,” Jamerson said. “It was interesting going into meets: take some advil, and hope your knees holds together.”
Despite his knee injury, he would go on to place first in the high jump and second overall in the decathlon, scoring 7,070 points in the process, good for third in school history. The meet was part of Jamerson’s remarkably consistent stretch of improvement at the highest level, culminating with an individual Ivy title this past February.
His freshman year, Jamerson placed fifth in the indoor championship, and then fourth in outdoors a couple of months later. The next year, he took third in indoors and followed that up with the second place finish in the outdoor championship, before earning first at Indoor Heps held at Barton earlier this semester.
His consistent improvement is all the more impressive when you consider his only experience with multi-event before Cornell was a lone decathlon the summer before his junior year that he participated in for fun. Always interested in the possibility of competing in multi-event Jamerson said he “just of kind of showed up” to that very first decathlon in 2012.
“I spent about a week training,” Jamerson said. “I had never pole vaulted before, never really thrown anything. It was pretty rough.”
Despite the shaky performance on some of the events, Jamerson’s strong performances on events that he usually competed at — jumping and hurdling — were strong enough that he got some attention from various colleges. Eventually, Cornell gave him an offer to be a multi-event athlete for the Red. Then-head coach Nathan Taylor was “the resident expert” on the decathlon so almost all of what Jamerson learned early on came under Taylor’s tutelage.
Those first few months of adjusting to the various events were difficult. While he had experience with high jump, long jump and 110-meter hurdles, there was definitely a learning curve for some of the other events. Jamerson admits he had “no idea what [he] was doing” when it came to pole vault and the throwing events.
“For vault it was pretty much like ‘here’s the stick, we’ll go over some basics,’ and then the next day, it was ‘OK, run fast and stick it in and see how high you can jump,’ ” Jamerson said.
Through intensive practices his freshman year oftentimes lasting four hours and covering several of the different skill events of the decathlon, Jamerson began to learn the fundamentals of each event. Before winter break, he competed in his first multi-event since that decathlon way back in high school. With excitement levels at an all-time high, Jamerson posted some of his best numbers, including a long jump personal record that he wouldn’t best until earlier this year.
“It was nice doing all that training and finally having something to come away with,” Jamerson said.
The feeling of hard work paying off would become a familiar one for him. Early in the second semester of Jamerson’s freshman year, he earned his first chance to compete against the best of the Ivy League. Since then, he’s competed four more times against the conference’s most talented athletes. It is a select group, and Jamerson has built connections with those that he has competed with during his time at Cornell.
“Yes, we’re all competing against each other, but we all know how miserable it is as well,” Jamerson said. “There’s some camaraderie there. We spend the entire day with each other so we talk. It’s almost kind of a group effort to get through the multi.”
While he has made new friendships with multi-event athletes at other schools, at Cornell, many of those that trained with Jamerson in his first two years have graduated or transitioned into single events. Jamerson is the lone multi-event athlete on the roster this year.
Day-to-day, he works with head coach Adrian Durant to compile a schedule that allows Jamerson to focus on the areas of his athleticism that require improvement. Jamerson tries to work on each event at least once over a span of a week and a half. Yet this comes with its own series of challenges. The nature of a decathlete’s training program is a balancing act: building an advantage in one event results in a disadvantage in another.
“It’s tough because you can never focus all on one thing,” Jamerson said. “I know I could jump better if I just focused on jumping. But if I just focus on jumping then I’ll have no endurance and the 400-meter would drop.”
The combination of strength, speed and endurance make the decathlon one of the purest showings of athleticism in sports.
For all decathlons, there are five events on day one of the meet and five more on the second day. To prevent the athletes from having too hectic of a weekend, there is a mandated 30-minute break between each competition. But when individuals enter open events — competitions outside of the one’s for the decathlon — the half-hour grace period no longer applies.
“I remember freshman year I was doing open long jump and it was going on at the exact same time as decathlon long jump, because they had two pits set up next to each other,” Jamerson recalled. “I would literally jump in one pit, then they’d call my name and I’d get out of the sand, walk to the beginning of the other runway and go again.”
In the past, Jamerson usually competed in one open event in addition to the multi-event. But this year at the Ivy League Outdoor Championships to be held this weekend at Princeton, he is ratcheting it up. In addition to the 10 events for the decathlon, Jamerson will also compete in three open events, the most he has ever undertaken
The decision to participate in more events stems from Jamerson drive to help Cornell seek revenge on Princeton, the team that has topped the Red in the previous two Ivy League Championships. While he took first in the most recent championship, Jamerson wants to help his team score even more points in hopes of downing the Tigers, even if it means making his weekend a chaotic blur of hurdles, javelins and relay batons.
Out of that chaos, Jamerson has his sights set on winning the decathlon individual crown and helping his team to an Ivy League title, something that has eluded the team of late.
With Heps rapidly approaching, Jamerson is poised for a huge weekend. Despite the three years of training, the shattering of a program record and an Ivy title in February, Jamerson said he has only continued to improve, a promise that should scare his fellow decathletes.