Trey Hardee - A Champion Of Adversity
The 2017 multi-event season comes to an end this weekend with the DECASTAR competition in Talence, France. USA’s Trey Hardee will not be in the competition, as he announced his decathlon career has come to an end earlier this summer.
With in injury tattered regular season, Trey Hardee eventually got into form before the United States Championships. Hardee won his fourth US Decathlon title, qualified himself for the World Championships and headed to London in search of a medal. After an unfortunate fall over the fourth hurdle and three more discus throws, Trey Hardee said it was time to ride off into the sunset, which leaves USA decathlon without a captain for the time being.
American decathlon fans have been spoiled with the success of the American athletes who have become World/Olympic champions for the past nine seasons. Ashton Eaton, Bryan Clay and of course Trey Hardee won every global title from 2008 to 2016. To be clear - these were not just medalists or top ten finishes, they were World Champions, Olympic Champions and World Record holders. Over the past nine years, global championships became the norm.
Many of us fall into the trap of watching an athlete make everything look easy and we overlook the amount of adversity athletes go through when preparing to compete at their best. We should not only be inspired by their achievements but also should learn from how they were able to overcome their struggles.
The struggles throughout Trey Hardee’s career teach a powerful lesson. The amount of grit and fight Trey Hardee allowed us to witness for over the past decade should not be overlooked nor forgotten. If Hardee were to ever find himself in academia at the University of Texas, he would teach a class called "The Straight Line of Success."
In 2005 Hardee won his first NCAA decathlon title. Ten months later, Hardee broke the Collegiate Record in the decathlon at the 2006 Texas Relays. When you become the best NCAA decathlete of all time, no one anticipates there to be anyone besides Hardee to be atop the podium come June. Well, welcome to the decathlon.
Hardee destroyed the competition at the 2006 NCAA Championships through five events. After the first day, Trey had 4311 points while no other athlete in the competition scored over 4000 points. Hardee held an extensive lead until pole vault. After three attempts at his opening height of 4.80m, the scorecard read “X X X.” Trey continued the competition by throwing javelin and finishing the 1500m in hopes of still scoring team points for Texas, but finished one spot out of scoring position.
A few weeks later at the 2006 USA Championships, Hardee again failed to clear a bar in the pole vault. With a rough finish in 2006 and an injury filled 2007, twenty-four months went by without a single completed decathlon.
Twenty four months of injury and defeat is easy to read about, but with the 2008 Olympic Trials and Olympic Games around the corner, actually focusing on progress and disregarding past failures is a difficult task. Hardee was down for the fight and two years post-collegiate record, he qualified for the 2008 Olympic Trials and also achieved the 2008 Olympic Entry Standard during a great meet at the 2008 Texas Relays.
In the 2008 US Olympic Trials decathlon, all eyes were on Bryan Clay, the reining Olympic Silver Medalist of the Athens Games. Despite who may be the favorite, Team USA can send three athlete to the Olympic Games, therefore the goal is to finish top three. Finishing first, second or third all means the same thing - Olympian.
With the wind in his face during the 100m and Long Jump, eight events later Hardee was the 2008 Trials runner up in the decathlon with 8534 points. Two years after the collegiate record, two years after the NCAA title slipped away, Trey Hardee became an Olympian for the first time!
Similar to the 2006 NCAA Championships, Hardee’s Olympic experience started fast, he was in great position after the first five events on day one. After the hurdles and discus on day two, Hardee was sitting one spot out of medal contention. This quest for a medal was unfortunately derailed by the eighth event - pole vault. Trey Hardee was “on pace” for a finish somewhere between 5th and the medal stand. But again - this is the decathlon. Points are earned here and now, in ten disciplines over two days - not after 60 minutes of trial & error or over the course of 9 innings. Hardee failed to clear a bar in the pole vault in his first three attempts.
No clearance = no points = no medal. Hardee would head into the off season with a disappointing finale in his Olympic debut.
It’s tough to deal with failure in our lives. We’re taught to dust ourselves off and get back on the saddle, but that option isn’t always there. An Olympic medal is only up for grabs every four years, and no matter how hard you work today, tomorrow or next year, it still doesn’t mean the best athletes in the world are promised a medal. There was no fixing what was in the past and if Hardee was to be successful in the future, he would have to swallow this defeat and prepare for the next opportunity.
2009 was when Trey Hardee competed at the world famous event, Hypo-Meeting in Gotzis, Austria for the first time. There Hardee scored a monstrous 8500+ score to place second behind Michael Schrader of Germany. Later in the season Hardee had another first - he left the US Championships with a Gold Medal around his neck. Back on track!
At the 2009 World Championships, Hardee’s girlfriend (now wife), Chelsea Johnson took the Silver Medal in the Women’s Pole Vault on the third day of competition. With a little bit of inspiration from Chelsea combined with the confidence of his own preparation, Hardee was ready to go.
“I just felt good,” Trey recalls on Episode 038 of The Athletic Experience Podcast.
On August 20th, 2009, Trey Hardee won the World Championship along with the title “World’s Greatest Athlete.” 8790 points, a personal record that would rank him as the 9th greatest decathlete in world history and the 3rd best American ever. Hardee’s 2009 season was as dominant as they get.
The next few years, Trey Hardee went on a streak that athletes only dream of. He won the Silver Medal at the World Indoor Championships behind compatriot Bryan Clay in the Indoor Heptathlon. In 2011 Trey Hardee won his first Hypo-Meeting title in Austria. With an automatic bid into the World Championships, Hardee was able to do select events at the 2011 US Championships in the decathlon to tune up for the World Championships. Hardee was ready to go. He won the 2011 World Championship and became the first athlete since Tomas Dvorak of the Czech Republic (1999 and 2001) to defend the World Championship decathlon title.
With the victory, Hardee did not leave the meet unscathed. During the 1500m at the 2011 World Championships, Trey Hardee ran with his right elbow heavily wrapped. In the previous event, javelin, Hardee tore his UCL. This injury would eventually require Tommy John surgery, an injury often had by MLB pitchers which on average requires 12-16 months of recovery. On the night Hardee injured his elbow, he was less than 10 months away from the 2012 Olympic Trials, and had yet to learn the severity of his injury (nor scheduled surgery.)
Whatever the plans were headed into the 2012 Olympic Trials and Olympic Games, those plans were now completely gone. Trey Hardee’s resiliency was going to be tested in a new way this time.
After surgery with Dr. James Andrews and an intensive rehab schedule, Hardee had to figure out how to train for an Olympic medal in the decathlon with one working elbow for a few months. The king of the weight room wasn’t going to be able to do his bread and butter Olympic style lifts to prepare his lower body for the speed, strength and power that the decathlon demands.
The 2012 Olympic Trials decathlon started off in the pouring rain and Ashton Eaton started off faster than anyone in history. Hardee was dominant as well, with big marks on day one and winning the shot put outright. Not bad for someone who was unable to have full use of their elbow all year. Javelin was going to be the final test for Hardee, and on his first attempt, Hardee threw a clean 57 meter throw and yelled at the implement during it’s entire flight. One legal throw was all Hardee needed. A finish in the 1500m would put him on his second Olympic Team. Five minutes and six seconds after the gun, Hardee booked his ticket to the 2012 London Games.
Ashton Eaton set the World Record during the Olympic Trials, so even though Hardee was a 2x World Champion, he would not be the favorite in London.
In 2012, Team USA was only able to send two decathletes to the Olympics. Eaton set the Olympic Record scoring 8869 points and Hardee won the Silver Medal with 8671 points. This was the first time since 1988 that two athletes from the same country took home the Gold and Silver medal in the Olympic Decathlon.
It was the javelin again that tested Hardee and his recovering elbow. His first round throw of 62 meters pretty much guaranteed him the Silver, but to be sure, Hardee took a second throw. He unleashed a 66.65m bomb and went berserk. Screaming and jumping around with joy, Hardee threw his elbow brace to the ground like Gronkowski spikes the football after a playoff touchdown. Injured elbow - no problem.
Headed into the 2013 season Hardee probably figured his yearly training plan would make a bit more sense because his elbow would be coming back into full form. As the defending World Champion from 2011, Hardee automatically qualified for the 2013 World Championships. During the fourth event Hardee began to cramp in his legs during the High Jump and was unable to clear his opening height of 1.93m. Eaton went on to win the World Championship, his first, and Hardee went into the summer with an unfortunate DNF.
In what is referred to as an off year, (a season where there is not a World Championship (odd years only) or an Olympic Games (every four years on even years)) Hardee bounced back with two stellar decathlon performances in 2014. Hardee won the Gotzis Hypo-meeting and won another US Championship, where he obliterated the field. Some would speculate it was unfortunate that there was not a global championship this season, because at the ripe age of 30, Hardee was back in the driver’s seat.
The 2015 US Championships featured another decathlon dominated by Trey Hardee. Before the decathletes lined up for the final event, the 1500m, in Hayward Field, I was studying the current standings to see if I would be able to move up a few positions with a solid performance. I saw Hardee’s score at the top of the list through nine events. 8081 points, six points higher than the World Championships Standard of 8075 that year. “Trey, you know you can just line up for the 1500m and jog off the track after 300m and you’re good to go for Worlds,” I joked. “Ohhh - very tempting!” Trey replied. But Trey was on track for an enormous score, a score that would be his second highest score ever. 8725 points in front of the Eugene crowd. What a confidence boost for the accomplished decathlete as he prepped for the World Championships later that summer.
Hardee opened up his 2015 World Championships decathlon in fine form in the 100m. During Long Jump however, when Hardee popped out of the sand to check the distance, something went wrong. His back seized up, he was crippled in pain.
Not knowing the exact cause of the injury, Hardee decided to push on and see if his body would come back around and cooperate. It did not. After two World Championship titles in 2009 and 2011, Hardee had now DNFed the 2013 and 2015 World Championships.
The 2016 Olympic Trials would be Hardee’s third and final Olympic Trials. Hardee was looking to make his third Olympic Team despite any troubles he experienced over the past few years. During the High Jump, Hardee voiced his frustration about cramping in his hamstring, a similar situation to the 2013 World Championships. Nonetheless, Hardee found a way to clear a height and not make the cramping worse - he was still in the hunt of a top three finish. The next event was the 400m, which is already tough enough to warm up for when you’re completely healthy. Hardee was in an inside lane and looked strong as he went around the curve and down the backstretch. About 300m in, the crowd lets out a gasp as Hardee slowed to a jog. Hardee finished the race, but was hurting badly. It's possible Hardee would have been better prepared sometime later in the day, but in this moment his body couldn't go.
While I rested up for day two, I wondered if Hardee would be able to work out the kinks, get ready for the next five events and rally for an Olympic berth, but such a rally was not in the cards. After the hurdles, Trey Hardee went onto the infield and addressed the crowd over the PA system. He stated that this wasn’t his year, but he’s thankful for the fans at Hayward that saw him qualify for the previous two Olympic teams. Hardee also stated that he’d be back for the 2017 season, fighting for more points and more medals. Of course he'd be back for more.
In what we now know as his final season, Hardee planned on competing in a regular season decathlon prior to the US Championships and World Championships. He chose to skip Gotzis and cruise through a decathlon in the States. He was too banged up for Texas Relays, DNFed in Santa Barbara and No Heighted at Texas Greatest Athlete. Welcome to the decathlon.
After an appeal to USATF to get him into the 2017 Championships without a qualifier (an auto-entry that no one disagreed with him earning) Hardee found himself in what might have been the hottest decathlon ever contested. It was 113 degrees on the track and some whiz-kid measured the heat on the high jump pits at 135 degrees. Nonetheless - everyone charged on.
Hardee led after day one and started off day two with a fast time in the hurdles, only trailing Devon Williams of Georgia, one of the greatest decathlon hurdlers the world has ever seen.
It’s been a dream come true to be able to know Trey and to compete in the same Team USA jersey as him. From watching him on TV and learning from him on YouTube, I am glad to say I was able to compete with the legend, Trey Hardee, in his last decathlon
During the pole vault I went over to my coach, Josh Priester, after my second clearance in the vault and we began discussing what we should work on for the next attempt. Hardee was lined up on the far pit and started the clap. I asked my coach what attempt Hardee is on and he told me, “third attempt, opening bar.” “WHAT!?!?” I say, as Hardee began to truck his way down the runway. Good plant, looked smooth, and - over the bar! Hardee said something to the effect of “Yeaaaaahhhhhhh wooooooooo!” during his fall to the mat. It never gets easier - in every decathlon you have to earn every single point. After two more events, Hardee won his fourth US title in the decathlon. Off to London!
After day one of the 2017 World Championships decathlon, Trey Hardee was sitting in 5th place overall. With the hurdles, discus, vault and javelin on the horizon, most would think Hardee had a great chance to put himself on the podium.
Three hurdles in to the 110m race, Hardee struck the 42 inch barrier and could not regain his balance before the fourth hurdle. Hardee crashed to the ground. Slowly he got up, processing what had happened, why he fell, if he was ok and what this meant in the scheme of the meet. Hardee then proceeded to five-step his way toward the finish line, finishing the race with the crowd applauding his effort. With a salute to the crowd, Hardee unfortunately knew they meet was over for him. After three attempts in the discus, he pulled out of the competition. Later in the day, Hardee spoke with NBC about his decision to not finish the meet and call it a career in London.
What I hope people can learn from Trey Hardee and his decathlon career is that adversity is something that we should work through, not something that should stop us. Hardee was a monster athlete, but that only gets you so far in a 13+ year decathlon career. Even with all his potential, Hardee was pummeled with injury, accidents, failures and mishaps on the largest of stages. There were moments throughout Trey Hardee's career where he must have doubted himself and wondered if this is really something he wanted to continue. Two years worth of training for a freak injury to occur - Battling back from defeat and then right into another no height - Figuring it out and having his body just fail... Despite all this, he kept coming back for more.
Being resilient in the face of adversity. These are the examples of toughness the next generation of athletes need to learn from. These are the comebacks people can respect and relate to. Hardee is a role model for all those dealing with adversity. Our situation is never going to line up perfectly, but we have to keep pressing forward. Whether it's sport or life - it’s about your attitude, your focus and moving toward your goals. That is how to deal with adversity.
The whole reason I moved to Austin was to train with Trey. He cared about everyone that was part of our training group and it was such a positive environment to train in. It was cool to train with someone who pushed me every day but was still humble and down to earth. He is a class act. He was respectful to all his competitors and he has a love and respect for the decathlon that was evident in the way he competed and carried himself. He is leaving the US decathlon better off than it was and has made such a huge impact on generations of decathletes to come. I don’t know if you could ask for a better legacy to leave behind in the sport of Track & Field.
- MILLER MOSS (Clemson All American - 2x Olympic Trials Decathlete - Hardee's professional training partner of four years)
Trey Hardee had an all but perfect career, and that is what made it so remarkable.
2x World Champion. 2x Olympian. Olympic Silver Medalist. Collegiate Record. NCAA Title. NBC telecaster. An inspiration to all who know his story.
Congratulations on the tremendous career, Trey
Listen to Episode 038 of The Athletic Experience to hear Trey Hardee speak about many of the
moments covered in the above article: The Athletic Experience - 038 - Trey Hardee
Tom FitzSimons is a retired decathlete who represented the Santa Barbara Track Club and Mount St. Mary's University. Over the course of six USA National Championships / Olympic Trials appearances, Tom has placed himself on the podium once, placed 4th at the 2015 US Championships and competed for Team USA internationally twice. Less important, but just as entertaining, Tom holds a Guinness World Record - Check it out here. He is the host and owner of all things related to The Athletic Experience. TheAthleticExperience@gmail.com