By Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
LONDON, Ont. — Damian Warner was the kind of kid who slips through cracks.
Painfully shy and ambivalent about school, he sat in the back of Dennis Nielsen's Grade 10 English class — on the days he decided to show up — and didn't say boo.
He went the entire Grade 11 basketball season without speaking to coach Gar Leyshon.
"Not one word in practice. Not one word in a game. Nothing," Leyshon said. "He floated through school and nobody knew who he was and he didn't come to school anywhere near as much as he was supposed to. He was sort of invisible."
The better part of a decade later, the three — Warner, Nielsen and Leyshon — are an unlikely team, forged through the more troublesome times and held together by unbreakable bonds that keep Warner training in London, Ont., despite pressure to move elsewhere.
"Gar and Dennis have been like fathers to me. I think my dad would say the same thing," said Warner, whose father Kevin Warner, has lived for most of Damian's life in Barbados.
"My dad got to meet them when he came to the (2012) Olympics. He gave them hugs. He just appreciated so much what they've done for me. My mom (Brenda Gillan) feels the same way."
And Warner is anything but invisible these days.
The 25-year-old with the dazzling smile and fashion-model good looks is on the cusp of becoming Canada's greatest decathlete ever. He's aiming for the top of the podium at July's Pan American Games in Toronto, and isn't afraid to say he's gunning for gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics — a feat that comes with the unofficial title of "world's greatest athlete."
And if anyone is capable of breaking American Ashton Eaton's world record, Team Warner says Damian is the man to do it.
The six-foot, 183-pound Warner once dreamed of playing in the NBA. Vince Carter was his hero. It was basketball that brought Warner back to the classroom.
"There was a lot of skipping. I'm not sure why exactly because I was never a bad kid, and never out doing anything crazy," said Warner, looking puzzled. "Just skipping and not wanting to be there for some odd reason. (Nielsen and Leyshon) came to me and said 'You're not going to play on the basketball court unless you start doing well in school.'
"I thought 'They're going to take away the one thing that I love if I don't start going to school.' I started dedicating more time to school and actually started to enjoy it."
Nielsen and Leyshon were responsible for starting the track team at Montcalm Secondary School, and they still coach the squad. On an unseasonably hot spring day, Leyshon is doing double duty, ferrying his high school athletes from a track meet before returning for Warner's practice.
The training session is relaxed. Nielsen and Leyshon keep up a comedic back-and-forth. Leyshon jokes about how he cajoled Warner into running by telling him another boy was faster.
"That's just sad," Nielsen mutters.
"We try to make things as much fun as possible. Not sweat the little things," Nielsen goes on to explain.
But there have been some big things. There's been "tons of pressure," Leyshon said, from Athletics Canada for Warner to leave London and train elsewhere, either in Calgary with multi-events coach Les Gramantik, or in Toronto.
And Nielsen and Leyshon receive no funding to coach Warner, so they scrape up the money to travel to meets — including the 2012 Olympics, where Warner was fifth, and 2013 world championships where Warner won bronze. They buy tickets and cheer from the stands.
"They said they'd take turns giving each other piggy-backs to a meet, if that's what it took," Warner says, flashing a wide smile. "Those guys are dedicated and their love for me and the sport is huge."
Nielsen bought tickets to watch Warner at the Pan Am Games, but Leyshon refuses.
"I'm done buying tickets to see him compete, I just think that's ridiculous," he said.
Their good friend John Acquaviva, a London-based DJ who is popular in Europe, regularly donates his air miles to the cause.
Nielsen and Leyshon both flew on Acquaviva's miles to Gotzis, Austria, for the prestigious Hypo-Meeting in May.
Peter Eriksson said in the almost two years he's been head coach of Athletics Canada, there's been no pressure on Warner to move.
"We have offered to help him out with his weaker events at times if he wants to go to Toronto, because we have Derek Drouin's coach (high jump coach Jeff Huntoon) there. So we've offered him to go there and train with him," Eriksson said.
"I know from the past that they tried to move him to Calgary, and I know Damian well enough to know he's never going to move out of London. So that would be a meaningless exercise in stupidity from our behalf to try to do that."
Nielsen and Leyshon admit they knew little when they got into coaching track nearly a decade ago. But they've become avid students of the sport and regularly consult with Gramantik and others.
They've formed a solid team around the athlete, including jumps coach Vickie Croley, pole vault coach Dave Collins and strength coach Maria Mountain, a small fireball of energy who lists among her clients numerous NHL and MLB players and ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
"I've told Damian a hundred times 'When we're not able to help you anymore, find somebody who can,'" Nielsen said. "It's not about us, it's always about him."
It's a situation that works, Warner says. London, which is also home to his girlfriend, 400-metre hurdler Jen Cotten, is where he's comfortable.
"Those guys have put so much effort and time and money into me and have never asked me for a thing in return. They could care less if I went out and didn't do well, they just want to see me just go out there and try to be the best I can be," Warner said.
"And just knowing I have people like them behind me, there's no doubt I'm in the right situation and able to achieve what I want to."
The decathlon consists of the 100 metres, long jump, shot put, high jump, and 400 metres on Day 1. Day 2 is the 110-metre hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and 1,500 metres.
Warner compares it to golf. He's had to learn not to let one bad event ruin the rest.
"You go great for three shots, then one goes off to the side, and you're like 'What happened?' then the next one goes off to the side," Warner said. "You eventually get your rhythm back, but it's never a perfect game."
Warner's best score is 8512 set in 2013.
Michael Smith holds the Canadian record of 8626, set in 1996.
Eaton, whose wife is Canadian heptathlon record-holder Brianne Theisen-Eaton, set the world mark of 9039 in 2012.