To a decathlete, both those new to the 10-event, two-day ordeal and those aspiring for loftier goals, 8,000 points is a standard of excellence not unlike a sub-4-minute mile for middle-distance runners.
It is THE bar that must be cleared sooner or later. And the timing of such an achievement is what was staring North Allegheny graduate and USC freshman Ayden Owens squarely in the face as he prepared for his collegiate decathlon debut.
"That was the question: 'How soon?' because I had it written down coming into freshman year," Owens said of scoring 8,000 points with taller hurdles and a heavier shot and discus. "I wanted to definitely surpass 8,000. I had a higher goal than that, but coming into this meet, I said I want to open with an 8,000 mark.
"It was my goal going into it and to actually achieve it and surpass it by 130 more points, that surprised me. I can't say that I expected to really go 8,130. It was a very big accomplishment, and I'm still kind of riding the wave (and) excitement from last night."
Still only 18, Owens was definitely the youngest and most likely the least experienced multi-eventer in the final section of the decathlon at the Bryan Clay Invitational on April 17-18 at Azusa Pacific University, but he didn't let it show or affect his performance. He never trailed in the opening day, PR'd in seven events and recorded the No. 3 performance ever globally for U-20 decathletes with the senior implements.
In soaring all the way to the all-time top 5 for teens, Owens leapfrogged one of the event's luminaries in Great Britain's Daley Thompson, who is one of only three two-time Olympic champions in the event, broke the world record four times and still is No. 6 on the all-time senior list (8,847) despite retiring in 1992. Owens also improved by almost 800 points over his last 10-event score (7,354) with the junior implements last June in New Jersey.
"My adjustment to them, it really wasn't that bad," he said of moving to a 16-pound shot, 2-kilogram discus and taller hurdles as a college freshman. "The 42-inch hurdles have not proven to be that daunting. The first time you go over them, it's a little bit difficult. I think I am working my time now, trying to get back to where I was over the 39s, and that's coming. With the throws, I haven't really trained as much as I needed to, but it's just the season opener. We have so much more work to do."
Owens' performance went to No. 1 in the world in 2019 and remains atop a group of only five athletes - all at least four years older - that has topped 8,000 this year.
Up against the pros
By his own count, Owens has competed in a little more than a half-dozen decathlons since his freshman year at North Allegheny. While each of those 10-event challenges was significant in its own way, his entry last month in a decathlon at the event named to honor one of America's top decathletes and Olympic gold medalists held a level of significance far above the others.
"It was really amazing to go to a meet (named after) one of America's best decathletes and to compete with professionals," Owens said, acknowledging that his knowledge of Clay's accomplishments did not match that of his contemporaries and former world-record holder Ashton Eaton. "That was really something that I've never done. To go out there and really hang with (veteran decathletes) and win taught me a lot about myself."
The final section included former NCAA decathlon champions Tim Duckworth and Lindon Victor, U.S. Olympian Zach Ziemek, former Michigan standout Steven Bastien and conference rival Harrison Williams of Stanford. Led by Victor's best of 8,539, all in this group had 8,000-plus point PRs entering the meet.
The NA graduate did not waste any time in assuming control of the group of veteran multi-eventers at Bryan Clay, blasting a PR 10.43 seconds in the 100-meter dash to force the field to play catch-up.
Owens' 992-point performance in the opening event was worth an 82-point edge over his closest competitor. His lead grew to 102 points over the field after a second consecutive PR in the long jump, a former high school specialty that he briefly led (and almost won) with a 24-foot, 8.5-inch (7.53m) leap.
Day 1 concluded with another lifetime best of 47.66 in the 400 for 4,266 points and a gap of 74 points over Williams, who is the defending NCAA heptathlon and Pac-12 decathlon champion.
"After day 1, I had three great PRs - long jump, 100 and 400," Owens said. "I felt good about what I had done in the 400, but after I ran the 400, I was exhausted. I was just ready to go home. You kind of just feel the same after day 1 - it's always just like let me just go home.
"Forty-two hundred points ... was a pretty big deal. I knew that having gotten 4,266 I was in contention to really go 8,000. My coach said, 'You really don't know what you're going to do' like 'You're on pace to do something crazy' and I really believed it."
With his specialty - the 110 hurdles - first up on Day 2, Owens again added to his lead with an event-best 13.91 clocking for 986 points and a 123-point cushion over Williams. The gap between Owens and the field reached its peak before the USC freshman became the pursuer and not the chased as a 141-6 discus throw pushed the margin to 134 after seven events.
"It's about doing it smartly, about taking it event by event," Owens said of his approach to the decathlon. "If you take the decathlon as one big chunk of an event, it will beat you. If you take an event, I only have the 100 right now. That's it, and then you move on to the long jump. If you always aim at the event you're in, that makes it all that much easier."
Despite another PR of 15-1 in the pole vault, Owens was in a 17-point hole after Williams cleared 16-8.75. The small deficit was not unexpected as Owens was a 14-foot vaulter before the meet and Williams had a PR of 17-8.5.
Competitive spirit takes over
Not only did the pole vault results create a flip-flop at the top of the event standings, they also lit a fire inside Owens and put his competitiveness on display. The result was a flurry of PRs by the freshman and a place in decathlon history.
"A lot of people say it's just you against the points, you against the clock in the decathlon," Owens said of an old track-and-field adage. "For me, it's more than that. I think it's the competition, too. You do want to beat the guy next to you. In the 1,500, I knew Harrison was the only guy I had to get because I knew he was a 4:30 1,500 runner.
"I asked my coach what time I had to run to get 8,000 and he said, 'I'm not telling you. You just have to run. Get Harrison.' Alright so it's a competition now. I think competition will drive you more than your desire to get a certain time. For me to be able to go run a race and try to beat the people next to me, that's what gets me the times."
Owens put himself back into the lead by 10 points on the strength of three consecutive PR throws in the javelin and then closed it out by passing Williams on the final lap of a PR 1,500 run. His time of 4:28.90 was a lifetime best by almost 16 seconds and one of two events that was the most satisfying to the newly minted decathlon standout.
"I had not jumped over 7 meters this year (in the long jump) and I popped 7.53 meters so that was pretty big," said Owens, who turns 19 on May 28. "With the 1,500, I did not know I was capable of running sub-4:30. I had run 4:44 at (IAAF World U-20s) last year, which is a PR. I thought that was pretty decent. I was like 'I'll just run 4:35 maybe.'
"I didn't try to get my splits. I just kicked at the end. Knowing I can run 4:28 gives me a lot of confidence of what I can really do in this event. The 1,500 was the biggest surprise to me, 4:28 is something I did not know I could do."
About the only question to be answered after his 8,130 performance is if his debut effort with the international implements will be recognized as the U.S. junior record. Interpretation of a rule change adopted in December by the USATF on athletes with dual citizenship will determine if Gunnar Nixon's 7,892 performance from 2012 retains the top spot on the list.
"Actually, I am not sure whether I do have it," he said of the U.S. record. "Some people have been saying I HAVE the American junior record. I think that I would have it, but if I threw away my America card by competing for Puerto Rico, then I don't."
Because last summer's USATF Junior Championships were the same weekend as his graduation from North Allegheny and a wedding, Owens was not able to compete for a spot on the U.S. team headed to Finland for the IAAF U-20 championships. Instead, he pursued and earned a spot on Puerto Rico's team as his maternal grandparents were born in the U.S. territory and he obtained dual citizenship for the Caribbean island.
"Either way, I do have the Puerto Rican national record," said Owens, who currently has two profiles and athlete code numbers on the IAAF website. "I'm competing for Puerto Rico still at this point. Whether I'm granted that (U.S.) record or not, it really doesn't matter to me, but it's truly an honor to be considered one of the best American decathletes or Puerto Rican decathletes to come through."
Rest of the season
Owens was back in action on April 28 at the annual grudge match with crosstown rival UCLA and PR'd again in the javelin with a throw of 173-3 (52.81m). He also long jumped, pole vaulted and ran a leg on USC's 4x100 relay, which zoomed to No. 10 in Division I with a 39.34 performance. He did not compete in the decathlon this past weekend at the Pac-12 multi-event championships at Arizona.
Owens said he has continued to match lofty goals in the classroom and on the track in his first two semesters at Southern Cal.
"To do track and that is a fun time," he said of his biomedical engineering major. "I really am handling the academic side. I made dean's list last semester over 3.5. I'm not just an athlete. I like to be considered a student as well."
The next decathlon on his schedule will be the NCAA championships at the University of Texas in early June. The top 24 scorers from the regular season automatically qualify for the two-day Division I final in Austin.
Despite recording one of the best performances ever by a teen-ager with the Olympic-level implements, Owens said there is definitely more to come from him in 2019.
"I'm super underdeveloped in a lot of areas," said Owens, who is one of only 350 men ever to reach the 8,000-point plateau. "Even my coach recognizes that I was pretty unprepared heading into that meet.
"It was the season opener, I'm not supposed to be prepared necessarily. I think coming toward nationals I will be scoring some numbers that might be pushing some records."
While his high school and college GPAs might be comparable, Owens noted that his decathlon debut at USC surpasses anything he accomplished at North Allegheny.
"I don't think it's really comparable," he said. "I did some cool things in high school, won a couple of states, won nationals. I don't think anything compares to using adult implements and coming out here and competing with pros and collegians and to win and to put up over 8,000.
"I've been searching for that my whole life. I think that this is the biggest accomplishment thus far in my athletic career, but it's just the season opener. There's more to come."