Bill Toomey, the 1968 Olympic decathlon champion, once described life as a decathlete this way: "You have 10 mistresses instead of one, all keeping you busy. More work, but more fun, too."
Who can say if there is a happier man in the world than the current, two-time Olympic decathlon champion, Daley Thompson of Britain? He likes to laugh, yet he works hard and his aim is an unprecedented third Olympic gold. "He's the most dedicated athlete I've ever known," a rival said. "He lives it. He loves it."
Similarly happy, Rob Muzzio today and Thursday in Baton Rouge, La., will be seeking a third NCAA decathlon championship. Muzzio, who graduated last month from George Mason University and continues to work out there, possesses the happy combination of height, weight, strength, jumping ability, speed -- and resoluteness -- to be a decathlete. "For me, too many people play football. I prefer playing something not too many people can do."
Forget the inclination to pity the poor decathlete. The lonely toil. The endless struggle. The obscurity. Toomey used to have to introduce himself even to officials at meets. "Er, excuse me, sir. I'm, uh, Bill Toomey." He might have added, Bill Toomey, the world's greatest athlete.
But decathletes love what they're doing. Really love it. Thompson said in his book, "The Subject Is Winning": "It's definitely hard work. Sometimes it gets to be too lonely and too much hard work. I've spent so long in isolation. . . . Every single morning, every single afternoon, every single evening. Terrible . . . I wouldn't change it."
Everybody should be so well adjusted.
That such eminently admirable athletes could be so widely unknown is our loss, not theirs. They don't have time to self-promote. We don't have time to see what they do.
Talk about the length of some sports events these days. It takes two days to do a decathlon.
The first day consists of the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump and 400-meter run; and, on the second day, the 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500-meter run.
On the third day, the decathlete rests.
If the public doesn't differentiate one day from another in the life of a decathlete, "that isn't going to make me want to do this any more or less," said Muzzio. He doesn't do decathlons to impress anyone.
Take the discus, one event within the event. "There's something about the discus," Muzzio said, "making it go as far as possible. Just me, a circle and an implement. There's nobody else to blame. To make it work, it's you. I like that a lot."
Say what you will of him, Muzzio is, first of all, precocious. For a decathlete. He's only 22. Toomey won his gold at age 29, and Thompson will be 29 next year at Seoul. "The decathlon is something you learn," Muzzio said. "There are always new situations. It's always possible to learn. You peak between 27 and 30."
He said this the other day at George Mason before going out into the brutal heat and humidity to practice. Practice, which he said "takes forever." Each day, he works on one to four events. Ninety degrees outside or not, his warm-up takes an hour and a half. The warmdown takes longer. He starts at midafternoon and it can be dark when he finishes. Another five to seven years of work days like this and he may reach his peak.
Despite being 6 feet 2, 200 pounds -- "No big guy likes to run," said Joe Showers, one of Muzzio's many coaches -- Muzzio likes to run the 1,500 -- the 10th and last torture test. "It hurts," he said. "But I like it because it's all guts. It comes down to how many points you're going to get in the decathlon. So you go for it. In that respect, it's nice."
Live now, pay later.
A decathlete needs a different mental approach for each event. The pole vault may be the most diabolical. You may have to twist your body over a bar, but it's more of a mind-bender, and can last up to four hours. Everyone gets three cracks at different heights; you have to keep waiting around, keep psyching up. "Fatigue sets in big time," said Muzzio.
Twice, Muzzio has missed landing pits. He calls himself "an injury-prone person" -- he's suffered pulled hamstrings, a puncture wound in a knee, tendinitis in an elbow, a bruised foot. Last spring he strained a calf muscle long-jumping and missed the season. This spring he took a knee to the lower back during a flag-football game and missed several weeks. Injuries add to the uncertainty a decathlete already faces -- anything can go wrong, and often does, in each of the events. What's more, Muzzio is asthmatic.
In 1984, Muzzio was third after the first day of competition in the Olympic trials in Los Angeles when he was done in by asthma and pollutants in the air. He collapsed after the 400 and could not compete the second day. As explained by George Mason track coach John Cook, who once raced cars, owns a Porsche and lapses occasionally into good old Daytona-500-gasoline-alley automobile-ese, "He just blew up and we just shut it down."
Who's to say how Muzzio will do this week at the NCAAs? With a decathlete, it's hard even for coaches to tell. One doesn't do many tuneup decathlons. "At that high a level," said Cook, "you've got to be careful how many a year you do." Four and maybe the body will let you know.
At Mount St. Mary's in April, Muzzio scored 7,869 points in what he hopes will be a tuneup for this week's NCAAs, and The Athletics Congress championships in June in San Jose, Calif. Muzzio's personal best score in the decathlon is 8,227 points (Thompson has done 8,847). "You have to be tenacious, you have to be single-minded," said Muzzio. If you have a poor competition, it's not like baseball. Decathletes don't play every day.
Just rounding up one's gear for a decathlon is an event in itself. When Muzzio goes to a meet, he carries enough different shoes to open a store. He has more coaches than some football teams. Don Seemuller is his main man, his throwing coach. Cook said, "I bring the shoes and hope he's happy in the afternoon."
Muzzio carries chalk for his hands, and tape, and rain gear, three poles for the vault, a javelin, a 16-pound shot, two 4.4-pound discuses. "I've got a real big bag," he said.
You would think that George Mason had to search to the ends of the earth to find such dedication. After all, its standout middle distance runner, Abdi Bile, came from Somalia. But Muzzio came from around the corner, in Fairfax. "I'm a home boy," he said.
He might have been a college football star. At Robinson High School, Muzzio was an outstanding linebacker and defensive end. He had numerous scholarship offers to play football, and UCLA wanted him for track. In choosing George Mason, which has no football, he made a hard decision that has turned out happily. With his periodic injuries, he hasn't had to stand in line behind a football team to get into the training room.
And if most of America's decathletes live and train on the West Coast, it doesn't bother Muzzio. "I kind of like being from the East Coast," Muzzio said. "I like being a little different."