For U decathlete, risk has reward

The Gophers' Jack Szmanda has progressed from breaking bones to breaking records as he prepares to compete in the NCAA track meet.

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Gophers junior Jack Szmanda set personal bests in half of his 10 decathlon events at the Big Ten track and field meet last month and scored 7,862 points. He finished second behind Nebraska junior Bjorn Barrefors, Sweden’s national champion.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Jack Szmanda admits he is a bit crazy because of the pursuit he chose.

But the Gophers decathlete, who will compete in the NCAA track and field meet starting Wednesday at Drake University, always has been a daredevil.

He grew up in Wausau, Wis., next to a ski hill.

"I went off a couple of jumps that I shouldn't have and tried things -- I have broken many bones," Szmanda said.

His injuries have come ski jumping. Or skateboarding. Or mountain biking. Even pole vaulting, which he says came easily to him in high school.

"[The pole vault] is pretty extreme," Szmanda said.

The event is still his best, but now the 6-3, 210-pound architect-in-training has diversified. He is one of the best college-age "multis," which is how athletes in decathlons, heptathlons and pentathlons refer to themselves.

At the Big Ten meet last month, Szmanda broke the Gophers record in the decathlon with a score of 7,862. He set personal bests in five of the 10 events.

That score is the sixth-highest in the country going into the national meet. It also means Szmanda probably will qualify for the U.S. Olympics trials on June 22 and 23 in Eugene, Ore. He is only 30 points short of the automatic standard in the decathlon, and has met the B standard.

"I never thought I would be at this level," Szmanda said. "It is kind of surreal."

"When we initially looked at him, we thought he would be pretty good," said assistant coach Paul Thornton, who came to the Gophers the same year as Szmanda, a redshirt junior. "[But being] able to place second at the Big Ten meet and you are able to break the University of Minnesota mark, you can never speculate that. And this is [only] his third year doing it, so there is a lot of room for him to actually grow."

Szmanda became comfortable with a heavy workload as an all-conference football player at Wausau Newman High School. He was a hurdler, high jumper and pole vaulter in track, and was a state champion in the latter event.

"They are the three most technical events in the dec," Szmanda said, "so it was easier to transition to just the decathlon [as a Gopher]. It was a good fit. I feel like training for one event would get repetitive and boring."

As a redshirt freshman, Szmanda placed ninth in the seven-event heptathlon at the NCAA indoor meet but, hampered by hamstring injuries as a sophomore, had not qualified for a national meet since then until this week.

In the first of his two decathlons this spring, Szmanda set six personal records at the Mt. Sac Relays in Walnut, Calif., on April 20-21. The Big Ten meet in mid-May in Madison, Wis., was his second test.

"It was great weather, [my] training was where it should have been," Szmanda said. "I was feeling good body-wise. I wasn't sore. I wasn't tired. And it all came together."

He set PRs in the first two events, the 100-meter dash and the long jump, his most inconsistent event.

Then the second day he almost no-heighted in the pole vault, needing three tries to clear his opening height (16 feet, 3 inches).

"I was a little tired from doing the open vault the day before [where he finished third, at 17-3] and the first day of the dec, so I was having a hard time getting down the runway," Szmanda said. "I was putting together the best dec of my life and I was pretty nervous."

He eventually cleared 16-11. The javelin was his next event, the second to last. And Szmanda, obviously relieved, set a PR by about 26 feet, at 178-7. His final 10-event total of 7,862 was only 35 points behind Nebraska junior Bjorn Barrefors, who is Sweden's national champion.

"We are kind of crazy putting ourselves through it," Szmanda said of the mental and physical rigors of the decathlon, "but there are all different kinds of athletes. We are just a different breed. I always have to be doing something."

  • NCAA OUTDOOR TRACK AND FIELD CHAMPIONSHIPS

    When: Today-Saturday • Where: Drake Stadium, Des Moines

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