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June 11, 2012
World's greatest athlete? Take your pick: In London, Americans Ashton Eaton, Bryan Clay and Trey Hardee could sweep the decathlon and return the spotlight to one of the Games' defining events
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June 11, 2012

Faster Higher Stronger

World's greatest athlete? Take your pick: In London, Americans Ashton Eaton, Bryan Clay and Trey Hardee could sweep the decathlon and return the spotlight to one of the Games' defining events

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"It seemed like every decision was turning out badly," says Hardee's mother, Jan DiCesare. "Basketball: cut. Track: college coach leaves. But all of those things had to happen for Trey to get where he is."

Hardee had gradually moved from the vault to the decathlon, and he finished second in the 2004 NCAA meet as a sophomore. In the fall of '04 he transferred to Texas, where he was paired with multievents coach Mario Sategna. It was a propitious match. Sategna has coached Hardee to both of his world titles, a 2008 Olympic berth and his 8,790 PR, in Berlin in '09. Only two Americans, O'Brien and Clay, have scored higher. Sategna, like O'Brien, Huffins, Dave Johnson and many others, sunk roots in the decathlon in the 1990s when Visa threw financial support behind the event. That backing has long ended, "but the success you're seeing now," says Zarnowski, "is a spillover from that program."

Hardee was leading the decathlon at the Worlds last summer with two events remaining: the javelin and the 1,500 meters. Before the javelin, he told Sategna, "I'm going to put some heat on these guys. I'm going to throw this like I'm trying to hurt myself." Hardee threw a personal best of 226'4½" on that first toss. "Not even a good technical throw," says Hardee. "I took nine crossover steps instead of seven. I thought, Oh, wow, we're about to throw really far tonight." He glided into his third attempt, faster than he can ever remember on a run-up, and as his right elbow passed his ear, he heard a loud pop. Hardee dropped to one knee and grimaced, grabbing the joint. American trainers examined the elbow and believed it was a ligament strain. In the 1,500 three hours later Hardee had the elbow taped at a 90-degree angle and ran through the pain to secure his gold medal. (The world hardly noticed, as moments later Usain Bolt false-started out of the 100-meter final. London will present a similar problem—the decathlon ends on the night when Bolt would run the 200 final.)

A week after Daegu, Hardee underwent an MRI in Texas that showed he had torn the ulnar collateral ligament—the Tommy John ligament—completely off the humerus bone. His mother, a CPA, works in the same building in Birmingham as noted orthopedist James Andrews and got Trey an appointment. Nineteen days after winning the gold medal, Hardee had Tommy John surgery.

"It went as well as you could want," says Andrews. "He had a very clean elbow. A lot of baseball players who have this surgery have chips and other arthritic components. Trey had none of that. But it's a 12-month to a year-and-a-half recovery."

The decathlon at the Olympic trials will begin nine months and six days after Hardee's operation; the London decathlon is 47 days later—still less than 11 months postsurgery. "If Trey makes it to the Olympics," says Andrews, "he would certainly break the record for recovery from surgery on the Tommy John ligament. But for a once-every-four-years event, it's worth the risk."

Hardee has done thousands of weight reps with his right elbow, under the supervision of Longhorns assistant athletic trainer Tara Burnett. Last November he started throwing tennis balls—painfully—40 feet across the training room. He graduated to weighted balls in January, threw a discus in February and a javelin, lightly, in April.

In 1998, Andrews performed Tommy John surgery on 22-year-old javelin thrower Breaux Greer. Nine years later the free-spirited Greer set a U.S. record in the javelin (299'6") that still stands. But Greer says he was ready to throw long before the 12-to-18-month window opened. "When I had the surgery, Dr. Andrews told me I was done with the javelin," says Greer. "So I didn't even do any rehab. I just sat back and let it heal on its own. Then the coaches came to me the next spring, so I started throwing after about seven or eight months, and it felt perfectly natural."

Greer, however, threw only 241 feet in 1999, 20 feet less than before his injury; it took him another full season to reach his presurgery distance. "A guy like Trey, an Olympic-level athlete, he's never babied himself in his life," says Greer. "When the time comes, he's going to let it go."

That time will be postponed as long as possible. "I hope it's in London," says Sategna. The goal is for Hardee to make the U.S. team primarily on the strength of his other nine events and not have to throw the javelin all out at the trials. U.S. track Olympians must qualify at the trials. Sategna says Hardee has recently thrown the javelin more than 165 feet with a short approach, which would be plenty sufficient to earn a spot in the top three. But qualifying is a particularly chancy proposition in the decathlon, with so many events in which things can go wrong. "Odds are, something will happen to one of them," says Sategna of the three favorites. "It's a shame, but that's the way we do it."

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