Multi-event maestro Aaron Booth claimed an emphatic decathlon gold medal at the 2019 World University Games in Naples last month. Steve Landells tracks the Aucklander’s multi-events progress over the past two years to the top of the podium.
Standing at 5ft 11ins and weighing in at around 77kg, Kiwi Aaron Booth is small for a multi-eventer. But following the Aucklander’s World University Games decathlon title in Naples last month, the US-based athlete proved the Mark Twain quote true of “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s size of the fight in the dog.”
Winning the competition with a PB total of 7827pts to climb to fourth on the all-time New Zealand rankings was a huge step forward for the Kansas State University student – a moment to celebrate for the 22-year-old who first took up the sport 19 years earlier at the Glendene Athletics Club in West Auckland.
“It took a while to sink in,” explains Aaron of his gold medal winning exploits. “I was focused on a big points score but the most important thing was winning gold, that was the end goal. I was really happy and proud of what I put together across the two days and I’m proud of how I’ve handled the past two years.”
Born and raised in Henderson, Aaron, recognising he was no superstar athlete in any one individual events graduated to the multi-events at the age of 15. Making gradual progress in 2014 he won the national U20 decathlon crown.
The following year he competed in the decathlon at the World University Games in Gwangju, where he placed 13th, but his career really started to develop under the coaching of Matt Dallow – whom he connected with in early-2016. Making rapid progress under Matt’s passionate guidance, Aaron secured a bronze medal with a PB score of 7523pts at the 2017 edition of the World University Games in Taiwan.
However, as Matt had departed to live in the US it became difficult for the Waitakere City AC athlete to maintain their coach-athlete relationship and looked for an alternative solution.
Aaron looked at various options but took up full athletics scholarship to attend Kansas State University, where he would come under the coaching umbrella of Cliff Rovelto, a leading US coach high jump and multi-events coach who has guided 16 athletes to the Olympics Games.
“His main athlete at the moment is high jumper Erik Kynard (the 2012 Olympic silver medallist) but he also formerly coached the 2003 World decathlon champion Tom Pappas and two-time Olympic heptathlon medallist Austra Skujyte of Lithuania,” explains Aaron. “His multi-event programme has always been really strong, he’s been around the NCAA scene forever and he knows what he is doing.”
Cliff sets the main training programme but he insists Matt, who is now based in Atlanta - where he lives alongside his wife, Chelsea Lane, who works for the Atlanta Hawks NBA team – is still his mentor.
“I still send Matt training videos as he is another pair of eyes,” adds Aaron. “If I need advice around a competition I speak to Matt. Before World Unis I saw him in Atlanta for a couple of weeks. He still plays a big part.
Arriving at Kansas State University in early 2018 proved a challenge for the Aucklander, who just weeks earlier had torn his TFL (Tensor Fascia Latae) while wakeboarding. Initially unable to train at maximum capacity and struggling to adjust to the American winter was tough, but by the time he fully recovered from the injury in the second semester he started to feel more settled.
“Being injured was really hard but the good thing was I had lots of other decathletes around who made training fun,” he explains.
“Once I was back training and I started to make improvements, life become much easier.”
Despite a far from ideal preparation for his first summer season in the US he performed solidly. Opening up with victory in Tucson with 7397pts he finished second in Waco with 7508pts in his second competition to qualify for the NCAA Championships – the flagship event of the US collegiate season. However, feeling a little jaded from his effort to qualify for the event staged in Eugene, Oregon he struggled to find his best form and place 14th with 7458pts.
Wiser for the experience he then enjoyed a sustained spell under Cliff’s training regime, which was he says is “a lot different” to what he experienced under Matt.
“With Matt we’d do a lot more event specific work but in the US there are rules around training only so many hours per week”, he explains. “Typically we run three days a week and have three to four gym sessions a week. Then closer to the event we’d do each event once every two weeks.”
The more mature athlete has thrived under the regime, particularly his improved strength from additional gym work. This, the Kiwi believes, has resulted in greater consistency particularly in the pole vault and 110m hurdles; two events he had previously regarded as a weakness.
“I’m now running low 15s (seconds) for hurdles which while not that fast is good for me, he explains. “In the past two years I’ve dropped my hurdles time by around half-a-second and improved my pole vault by 60cm.
“I now know on any given day I can score at least 7600 or 7700pts in the decathlon - that is my baseline. My consistency has improved across all events.”
Overcoming his physical disadvantages by working hard on his technical efficiency everything come together in Fayetteville, Arkansas in January when he smashed Brent Newdick national record mark for the indoor heptathlon with a 5819pts haul.
Having set out that meet with the goal of scoring 5600pts, the performance, in which he claimed five individual PBs, came as a big surprise for the Kiwi and led to a huge sense of pride.
“To take the mark from Brent, who I grew up idolising, was pretty cool,” he adds.
However, the life of a multi-eventer is never straight forward and a couple of weeks later he started to feel a discomfort in his foot. Managing the problem as best he could he could not quite match the same level of performance at the NCAA Indoor Championships –finishing eighth with 5719pts.
Post the NCAA Indoors an MRI revealed a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal and for two months the West Aucklander, who is now based in the city of Manhattan, was restricted to four pool sessions a week on his road to recovery.
Experiencing a limited build up he nonetheless performed with distinction in Norman, Oklahoma to set a PB of 7602pts to qualify for the NCAA Championships.
However, his hopes of a great performance at the pinnacle US event for the season suffered a jolt when he picked up an untimely stomach bug just three days before competition.
Despite the far from ideal preparation he once again bettered his PB with a 7680ts total to place sixth and moved on to the World University Games fuelled by great confidence he could perform well in adversity.
In Naples he made a “reasonable” start with an 11.09 100m followed by a 7.19m long jump only for a below par shot put of 12.96m (his PB is 14.28m set indoors) to momentarily knock his bid for the title. However, he bounced back well with a 2.00m high jump and 49.77 400m to sit second overnight with a total of 3993pts – his second best ever first day score.
He began his day two programme with the second best 110m hurdles performance of his career (15.37) - despite his trail leg striking every hurdle and running into a -1.8m/s headwind. A couple of scratchy 39m discus throws were followed by a 41.65m in round three and he seized control of the competition with a 4.80m PB in the pole vault. A 60.51m javelin followed by a 4.31.38 1500m ensured the Kiwi claimed an emphatic gold medal by a winning margin of 234pts.
In a memorable competition for New Zealand Mat Atwell also set a PB of 7420pts to place fourth.
Setting a PB this year in every individual discipline except javelin, discus and 1500m bodes well for the future but despite a desire to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics; he is realistic and is wisely adopting a sensible long-term approach.
“Tokyo is going to be hard,” he admits. “The qualification mark is 8350pts, which is pretty big. It will also be tough to qualify via the rankings system because the US competitions don’t hold the same weight for bonus points as certain other competitions.
“But next year I certainly want to get up over 8000pts, which will hopefully set me up for future World Championships and Commonwealth Games and for the Paris 2024 Olympics.”