As the athletics world took its first few tentative steps into 2020, the 2019 World Championships decathlon seemed a world away. Personal bests set under the purple October night sky of Doha made way for new indoor marks in the crisp January air, and familiar names took up their places on the indoor world lists.
But suddenly, as if from nowhere, a figure came streaking across the sky. Scorching the world lists and standing proud with one of the best heptathlon marks of 2020. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No…it’s Garrett Scantling!
Transforming from mild-mannered financial adviser to high-flying decathlete (with a side-step into the NFL), the man who finished fourth at the 2016 US Olympic Trials is back and he has unfinished business with the decathlon.
Faster than a speeding bullet
Scantling was last seen in decathlete form in the summer of 2016. Emerging from an intense NCAA career at the University of Georgia (UGA), he had a decathlon best of 8232 and an invitation to compete at Götzis, the honour to which every combined eventer aspires.
“Götzis was a surreal experience,” he recalls. “You don’t get that atmosphere anywhere else, people who care that much about the decathlon. A group of fans had ‘G-Scan’ written on their body – it was incredible!”
And ‘G-Scan’ did pretty well in his first professional competition. He started the event with a 100m PB of 10.66 and finished seventh overall with 8107, making it on to the famous Hypo-Meeting podium alongside the likes of 2019 world bronze medallist Damian Warner, and world record-holder Kevin Mayer.
But after just missing out on qualification for the US Olympic team a few months later, finishing fourth at the trials behind Ashton Eaton (who went on to take his second Olympic title in Rio), Jeremy Taiwo and Zach Ziemek, Scantling found himself going in another direction. American football and the NFL were calling.
More powerful than a locomotive
The call from the NFL actually came during a decathlon in April 2017. “I was on the field announcing the UGA Bulldog Decathlon,” Scantling recalls, “when my agent called. He told me that I needed to drive up to the Atlanta Falcons facility and sign the papers.”
He signed with the Falcons that day and suddenly his world changed. “People were coming out of the woodwork that I hadn’t heard from for years,” he says. “People wanted to be around me, wanted to talk to me. It was like I was a different person.”
While it was very much still the same Scantling underneath the padding and the helmet, there was a lot more of him.
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“I put on 20 pounds, I was a big dude!” he laughs. “I was the biggest I’ve ever been in my life. But I was also the strongest and quickest. It was great being in an NFL locker room with some of the most famous athletes in American football history, with so much success and so many people behind them. I learned a lot about life while playing football. Football taught me that if you don’t put in the work, if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, someone else will come in and take your spot. It’s that easy.”
Channelling Clark Kent
Scantling’s experience in the rich and glittering world of football set the scene for his next transformation. “You have 20-year-olds in football who suddenly have millions of dollars and they don’t know what to do with it,” he says. “Many of them come from backgrounds where they never had much money.”
Scantling had studied financial planning and services at UGA, and after a brief spell on the Falcons’ books, he became a financial professional. With a background in sport, he found himself able to connect with successful young athletes, and advise them on the financial management of their new wealth. “They have all this athletic ability,” he explains, “and they have to focus all their time on being ready physically. But managing money in the right way is not something that a lot of people know how to do.”
He returned to his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida and settled into life. Be-suited, bespectacled and behind a desk, it was a far cry from the passion and physical feats of the supermen on the sports field. And talking about supermen, isn’t there something a little familiar about this double life?
“I’ve got my Clark Kent on!” he roars with laughter at the suggestion. “I love that!”
Leaping tall buildings in a single bound
The lure of the decathlon was strong, however, and it stayed with Scantling, three years after he had retired from track and field.
“I had my job, my house, my dog and I was doing really well in Jacksonville,” he explains. “But one day I realised that I was sick of sitting at a desk. I wanted to run. I wanted to jump. I wanted to pole vault. But it was a harder decision to come back than it was to leave in 2016.”
Scantling took the leap of faith and returned to Athens, Georgia and his former UGA coach, Petros Kyprianou, in the summer of 2019.
“I wanted to see how my body responded to intense training,” he recalls. “I’m more aware now, more in control of every aspect of what my body does. I’m stronger, and I’m smarter about how I take care of it. I’m ahead of where I was in 2016, and I feel that I have a shot at making an Olympic team. When the indoor season came around, the results helped me realise that I was doing the right thing.”
The results were impressive. In Scantling’s first indoor competition in January 2020, he scored a heptathlon PB of 6110, consolidating that a few weeks later with a further PB of 6209 to win at the US Indoor Championships in Annapolis, a world lead at the time and second overall in 2020.
Those are the sorts of results that will have Scantling snapping at the heels of his college teammate, training partner and friend, the 2019 world silver medallist Maicel Uibo.
One of the good guys
Superman didn’t have a sidekick but, if he did, in Scantling’s case it would likely be drawn from his family away from home at the ‘Decathlon Academy’ in Athens.
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“There are four guys who have been there from the beginning for me: Petros and my brothers Maicel, Karl-Robert Saluri (who competed in Rio for Estonia) and Devon Williams (2019 US decathlon champion). I can’t thank them enough. My career would not be where it is without Maicel Uibo. He’s been a role model for me. And Petros is the father figure for the group – he’s there for you, no matter what,” he says, emotionally.
“The decathlon is the hardest thing you can do to your body. I’ve done a lot of sports. I’ve done a lot of stuff. When you’re done with that 1500m… I have never felt anything like it. I’m so grateful to be back and come the next season we get to compete… I just can’t wait.”
From ‘G-Scan’ to the NFL, from Jacksonville to Athens, from financial reports to scoring tables. There’s one more transformation remaining on his list. And that’s Garrett Scantling… Olympian.
Gabriella Pieraccini for World Athletics