STORY WRITTEN BY KERITH GABRIEL, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER - JULY 16, 2023
Kyle Garland’s vision to be standing on a podium this time next year is affixed to a posterboard on a wall in his room, with the words “PARIS 24″ at the bottom.
Vision boards and self-affirmations have been a key part of Garland’s mental preparation as he looks to be a part of Team USA’s track and field contingent for the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. It’s led the Northeast Philly native to become one of the most successful college track and field athletes in the country — in arguably the sport’s most grueling event.
“I love everything about the decathlon,” Garland told the Inquirer, a week before competing in the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., in early July. Garland finished fourth overall in the decathlon, qualifying for the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary next month.
“I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge,” Garland continued. “This is probably one of the toughest and most grueling challenges I probably had to take on in my life, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s so fun. Decathletes are the ultimate athlete… and to be able to put myself in that category and not just put myself in that category, but to put myself at the top of that category it means a great deal to me.”
It may sound like a bold statement. But as a member of the track and field program at Georgia, he’s earned a number of accolades to back it up. This year, as a senior in the heptathlon, a modified version due to it taking place indoors, Garland won the 2023 NCAA Indoor Championships and set an NCAA record for the most cumulative points.
In the SEC outdoor championships, Garland posted the second-best performance by a college decathlete in history, finishing first in all but two events. His junior season he qualified for the U.S. Outdoor Championships for the first time in his career.
‘It’s not for the faint of heart’
Decathlon’s have been a test of strength, speed, and mental focus dating back centuries. Generally, the two-day competition consists of five track and field events ranging from sprint, middle and long-distance races to field events that include a variety of throwing and jumping competitions.
Each event is given a score based on finish and then the athlete with the highest total score is the winner. Garland, who grew up a track and field enthusiast and competed in the sport at an early age, was already involved in multiple events courtesy of his father, Keith Garland. But it was a meet official who introduced the decathlon to Garland as a teen.
“I was at a district meet, running the 100 [meter], 200 [meter], and the high jump,” Garland recalled. “I was having a good day and a meet official came up to me and said ‘You’re doing all these events and you’re doing them very well. Why don’t you start doing the multi-events?’
“At the time being a 14-year-old, that was the pentathlon. Next year, I was going to the decathlon. So the official of the meet waved me into the regional meet for the pentathlon. I had about two and a half weeks to kind of study what the events were and get myself prepared to do it. I did it at the regional meet and I won regionals that year.”
At that moment, Garland was hooked.
He took a deep dive into each event that the decathlon entails and saw where he was deficient. Garland attached himself to his former high school track coach, Tom Taft, at Germantown Academy, who Garland credits with getting him up to speed in everything — from learning how to throw a javelin to pole vault — in a week.
“I’ll never forget that summer, it was intense,” Garland said. “Credit to Coach Taft, he took me under his wing and really got me up to speed. I already was doing my research on what the decathlon was, but [he] taught me how to pole vault probably within a week’s worth of sessions. I went from not pole vaulting a day in my life to being able to clear about 10 feet.”
And the decision to stick with the decathlon?
“I realized that the athletes who choose to do this are a special breed because this isn’t for the faint of heart,” Garland said. “I wanted to be a part of that group and compete, but at the same, I didn’t want to just compete, I wanted to be one of the best.”
Paris, by way of Philly
When Garland officially donned a USA Track and Field jersey for the first time in last year’s USATF Outdoor Championships, it brought back vivid memories of the first time Keith bought Kyle a USA uniform for his birthday when he was 12 years old. Both Keith and Kyle’s mother, Joyce Garland have been his biggest supporters with Keith putting the Olympic bug in Kyle’s ear at an early age.
“Oh, the goal was early on and it’s always been, ‘let’s go be an Olympic champion,’” said Garland. “I have a picture of myself in that uniform that my dad gave me and I can remember looking back at that picture and then seeing the picture of myself actually competing in a uniform at a championship meet. It was probably the most fulfilling realization I’ve had in my career to date.”
Now at age 23, Garland has the opportunity to represent the United States for a second time. A top finish next month in Hungary could manifest the decade-long vision he and his family has had since he opened a box and found that mock USA Track and Field jersey inside.
Perhaps that’s why it’s prominently displayed on Garland’s vision board, one that travels wherever he may find himself on his journey to make Team USA.
“Just sitting and even talking with you right now and thinking about a moment like that, it gives me goosebumps,” Garland said. “Knowing that this opportunity [at the World Championships] puts me in a great position to represent the red, white, and blue and wear USA across my chest once again, I mean I really feel like I’m living my dream. Being there and standing on that podium in Paris is my goal and I’m going to do everything in my power to make it real.”