2-time Olympian, Itasca native Zach Ziemek takes aim at world decathlon championship
Itasca native Zach Ziemek won four state titles with Lake Park High School in 2010 and 2011, helping the Lancers win Class 3A track and field championships from 2010-13.
Who, though, could have foreseen the heights Ziemek has attained on the national and world stages in decathlon?
Training at his college alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with Badgers multi-events coach Nate Davis, 6-foot-4 "Double Z" currently ranks No. 4 in the world in decathlon.
A four-time All-American, the 2016 NCAA heptathlon champion and gold medalist at the 2018 USA Outdoor Championships, Ziemek placed seventh at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games and sixth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Second to Harrison Williams this July 6-7 at the USA Championships at Oregon's Hayward Field, Ziemek heads to the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary. Over Aug. 25-26, he hopes to top his 2022 World Championship bronze medal finish, also at Hayward Field.
The Daily Herald reached Ziemek to discuss his journey. Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
DH: You finished second at the USA Championships while setting one personal record, in shot put. Does that give you encouragement for more in Hungary?
Ziemek: Absolutely. I'm at the age now -- I'm 30 years old -- that I believe I've started to come into my prime last year and even more so growing into this year. Like you said, it was one PR, and I had my third-best score (1205, with 8508 points). Last year at Worlds, I had only two PRs, which was in shot put only by 10 centimeters, and javelin, which was by a meter. That meet, taking third was not, I wouldn't say, an unbelievable amount of points or PRs for that meet, either.
So this meet (USA Championships), it was awesome to have a PR, to have a great score, to be able to make it through to Worlds, and that is kind of my mindset at this stage. In order to fight and become a world champion, to have world medals, the U.S. meet has to be a meet where I have to get through being prepared, but I can't be anywhere near my peak. I have to come home, I have to train again. I've needed these six, seven, eight weeks to be able to prepare for this next one. To do what I did at USA, I was very encouraged by what could happen at Worlds in Budapest.
DH: Does anyone competing in multi-events look forward to the 1500?
Ziemek: I'm going to be dead honest with you. Of all the people I've talked to, whether they're not the fastest at it or whether they're best at it, they do not. It's after nine events.
I personally don't train a lot for it because it's a different event than the rest. It's such a taxing event mentally, and you're so fatigued after two days. Some of the major championships, we're at the track on and off competing for 15 hours. Some of those mornings we are up at 4:30 a.m. to get to the bus to get to the track, we don't get home and back to bed until 1 (a.m.). Then you do it again the next day.
Over the years I've done much better at it. Some strategy and training has gone into it. I wouldn't say, yes, I'm super-excited for it, but it is an event where you don't have to think as much and you can really put it on the line. If you have a lot to run for, it makes it really worth something because you're trying to shave off a couple seconds and it could lead to a PR. You're going to go for that, right?
DH: Who are you looking forward to competing against in Hungary?
Ziemek: It was amazing to compete against the guys in the U.S. A lot of the younger guys were a lot of Big Ten guys that I've seen the results of, and some of my training partners here at Wisconsin. It was great to compete against those younger guys in the youth of the decathlon. When I am done and retired they will hopefully continue to create excellence for the United States.
As we go to Worlds, I'm very excited to compete against the top-name guys: Damian (Warner, Canada), Kevin (Mayer, France), Pierce (LePage, Canada), the list just goes on and on. I want to be the best in the world and the only way to be the best in the world is to compete against them.
DH: At the 2019 U.S. Championships, you ruptured a hamstring. Mentally, what does it take to come back from something like that?
Ziemek: Mentally, yeah, it's a really tough battle. You do everything you can to be prepared for one meet. Sometimes it's one meet every four or five years, at the Olympics. That's why some of the structure and being disciplined in what you're doing, it actually sounds ridiculous at times to people who are maybe not fully understanding it, but all it takes is maybe a little bit of a slip-up to hurt you. Or not even a slip-up -- you stay out a little bit too late or you try to go somewhere with some friends and you're around a bunch of people, you get sick. Or you get a little bit less sleep and you put yourself at risk for injury or sickness.
Mentally, it is a huge grind to stay committed all the time, and that's all you can do. I put my full effort forward, and at the end of the day I couldn't do anything more than that. Then there would be no shame of whether you took dead last, didn't make a team or you're world champion, Olympic champion, world-record holder. It's all about what you've done to prepare yourself for that.
DH: What does it mean to you, to be an Olympian?
Ziemek: It's a huge honor, right? I'm still in it and I still have so many more goals that I want to hit for myself and the people that I work so closely with, my family and everyone who's a part of this.
Two-time Olympian is amazing, not many people, especially in decathlon, do that. My father-in-law said that in the United States there's been 13 people with myself included that have done that. And to be a three-time Olympian for the United States in decathlon, only one person (Tom Pappas) has ever done that.
It's great and it's such an honor to be able to represent my country and everybody who helped me get there. But I still have so many more goals of winning more medals and scores that I want to achieve.
DH: Tell us a memorable Olympic Village story.
Ziemek: From this past one, it is absolutely true that the beds in Tokyo were of a plastic Styrofoam. The beds are maybe the size of twin beds. The actual structure of the bed was cardboard, and then the bed was kind of a zip-up sheet that was on, if you could imagine, those plastic bubbles, but more like a foam structure. I'm 6-4, so my feet are definitely dangling off.
DH: When and how did you decide to specialize in multi-events?
Ziemek: I started to do the multis actually when I was at Lake Park. For all that USA Track and Field stuff in the summer, it was brought to my attention by Coach (Tom) Kaberna. At the time, Coach (Doug) Juraska was my pole vault coach, Coach Kaberna was my long jump, triple jump coach. As a kid I was always bouncing off the walls wanting to do different things.
They started the DuPage Track Club and (Kaberna) brought to my attention the decathlon, that I could throw and do some running. I wasn't thrilled about all the running at the time because I was such a short-distance, field eventer, where I'm just pole vaulting and long jumping and triple jumping, a little high-jump.
He brought it to my attention my sophomore summer. I did it a little bit my sophomore summer, in the decathlon, started to get more into it my junior and senior year, and then I was full-time decathlon when I came to Wisconsin.
DH: In one national meet, you and Lake Park graduates Scott Filip and Tim Ehrhardt all were in the field for decathlon. In July, Danny Spejcher was with you in Oregon. Do you think you were an inspiration?
Ziemek: I'm not sure if I inspired it, but it is crazy, that stat. It was the Tokyo Olympic trials. Myself, Tim and Scott, we were the first for decathlon, all three from the same high school. Interestingly enough, Danny was only one or two spots out of Olympic Trials that year. I have never talked to them about that. I am not sure if I inspired them. I'm sure that they saw that I wanted to do some of it.
I think all kids doing track and field should start out doing the decathlon. You get to find what events you'd love to do, you're young, you're messing around with all the events, your body's moving in different ways, you're out there having fun. It's such a learning event that your brain is working as well. It's just so much fun to be able to do that stuff.
Obviously as you get older if you want to specialize, that's amazing. There's only two events that are multis, the women's heptathlon and the decathlon. Starting out young, it gives kids the opportunity to have more success.
DH: What was the atmosphere like at Lake Park when you were there?
Ziemek: It was an amazing atmosphere in the sense that we all were so competitive -- every single coach working there, all the athletes. They created such an amazing culture where, even after when I left, of all the success that they had, of state champions and team titles afterward, it was very intense because you have training partners and every day you're doing drills and pushing each other. It's a competition, every single thing that you're doing, whether it's the weight room or the short sprints or the jumping, whether it's the core and the exercises we're doing as part of the warmup -- even before the warmup.
The amount of friendship and love that the teammates and the coaches had for each other, that was because we were all on the same mission of just truly pushing ourselves to see what our potential is. That's what I love about track and field, athletic sport, is that you want to push yourself not only physically but mentally, and to test your character.
Is this sport making me a better person? Is this going to help me later on in life? Whether or not you do college sports after high school or if you go on to be a professional or make the Olympics, make pro teams, it's all about what that base has done to you, your character. Has it made you a better person, do you continue to want to drive in life, to have success? That's what I thought was really special and what I'll never forget about Lake Park.
DH: You've outlined it well, but is there anything else from Lake Park you still use today?
Ziemek: Obviously a bunch of skills that I learned from pole vault, long jump and triple jump, the throws with Coach (Bob) Nihells, and some of the sprinting and hurdling with Coach (Jay) Ivory -- so much of my base was ingrained from them. But it's so hard to teach kids the competitive nature and that competitive drive in a fun way, where it's not hurting them emotionally or making them feel bad about themselves or other people. This is the drive that you have and not only are you competing against other people, but you're competing against yourself. And if you're competing against yourself and you're bettering yourself, that's all that matters.
That was the main thing that I learned from there still to this day, is always trying to better myself.
DH: What has surprised you about this process?
Ziemek: When I was at Lake Park and even before that (I was) just kind of going out and having fun. Then it started to ramp up to be more serious. Some of my goals have changed.
In high school, your goal is to be a state champion, you want to break records. Then you go to college, you want to be an NCAA champion. Even when I was starting in college I didn't know exactly what world teams were -- but everybody kind of knows what the Olympics are. To be able to hit some of those goals, those were my goals as a kid.
It's kind of crazy to this day to say that I have hit some of those goals when kids don't realize at times how hard it is to become an Olympian. That's like a huge honor when I first made that team -- I was still competing for Wisconsin, I was able to do that, which was nuts. That's kind of the first goal that I ever had as a kid that I kind of marked off the box.
What's been surprising maybe to me a little bit is how long the journey has been, and the ups and downs.
I'm 30 years old now, and it's crazy to I think that right now I'm more at my peak. I thought I would be in my peak in my early 20s, when I first made that team. I thought after Rio my peak is going to be in these next couple years, I'm going to get all that I want done now and I'll probably end up being done after the 2020 Olympics. If I was to look back it would be surprising; now, day to day I see it not as much. I'm continuing to grow as an athlete and as a person. It's pretty crazy to think that I've been able and lucky enough to continue to do it this long and I want to keep doing it. When the time comes to stop, I'll know when that day is.
DH: What is to come for you?
Ziemek: The short term, after Budapest, is to take a little time off. A lot of the years, I've only taken between 7 and 10 days off. This year, I'll probably take not that much longer, about 14 to 20. I'm going to go on some fishing trips, which will kind of get me away from the sport a little bit.
It's crazy that the Olympics are next year already, and it's an early Olympics, too, the camp runs Aug. 1. I actually think it's one year from today will be the Olympics in Paris. You think of a year being a long time, but a year is not a long time.
So in that short term, after Worlds, rest a little bit, mentally be prepared for the amount of work and the grind that I'll have to put in through a Midwest winter and into a Midwest spring to get me prepared for that outdoor season and the Olympics.
For my track career, my coach and I, longer term, want to continue to 2028. It would be amazing to do that. There's a lot of other steps that have to go into being able to compete that long, but Im' excited for the opportunities where I am health-wise now and training-wise, to continue through that.
When I'm done with track -- most likely it would be after that time frame, it could be earlier, I have no idea -- I definitely will want to somehow give back to the sport, whether that be coaching or consulting of some sort. But I think I'll definitely need some time to step away to be with my family, my wife (Victoria) a little bit longer, potentially our own family.
They give so much time and effort into me and they are so understanding of all the things that I have to do to be prepared for this, and they understand that what I do is just not a 9-to-5 job. This is 24/7 for the last 12, 13 years of my life, where I have to be prepared and I have to continually build for this.
When I'm done I'll definitely want to step away and be able to give my time to spend with them. Anything that they need from me that I can give (for) the effort that they gave to me would be amazing.