John Wise remembers worrying about a discus thrower getting ready to run fast in the biggest meet of the season.
If you’re thinking that’s unusual, so does Wise. Wichita State senior Austin Bahner is the kind of athlete who makes coaches do unique things, which is why Wise found himself telling throws coach John Hetzendorf to prepare Bahner for a relay race soon after the discus in the Missouri Valley Conference track and field meet.
“We’re trying to figure out our best (400-meter) relay team,” said Wise, sprints coach at WSU. “When he’s healthy and ready, he’s one of our guys. He got seventh in the discus and then he came over and ran on the relay and we got the points we needed.”
Bahner’s versatility is on display this summer as he prepares for the Thorpe Cup, a decathlon and heptathlon competition matching the United States against Germany. Seven men and seven women from each country compete July 27-28 in Chula Vista, Calif. Bahner, from Heights High, qualified for the team by finishing seventh at the USA Championships with 7,574 points.
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“I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “It’s an honor to represent my country like this.”
The past four months rocketed Bahner from a good decathlete to one of the nation’s best collegians. In late April, he scored 7,449 points at the Arkansas Team Invitational, then the second-best score in WSU history. In May, he set a WSU record with 7,599 points and finished second in the MVC meet. In June, he set the record again with 7,847 points and finished 10th in the NCAA championships. Two weeks later, battling fatigue from the busy schedule, he went to Des Moines for the USA Championships and performed well in an elite field.
That string of performances tells WSU coach Steve Rainbolt that Bahner is reaching his potential. He came to WSU as a jumper and quickly showed Rainbolt the speed and determination to excel as a multi-event athlete. Early in his career, Rainbolt said he told Bahner that a failure to earn All-American status would be a letdown.
“Speed is such a huge asset, and I knew he was an athlete because of his achievements as a basketball player at Heights,” Rainbolt said. “I figured he would be able to pick up the athletic parts of the decathlon — learn how to throw, learn how to jump, learn how to hurdle, learn how to pole vault.”
With Bahner pushing toward 8,000 points, Rainbolt, who coaches the multi-events, sees bigger things ahead on the national and international stage. Bahner turned 22 recently and his peak is years away.
“If he continues on, and if injury doesn’t sidetrack him, I think he can be one of our country’s top guys,” Rainbolt said. “I’m talking about his 7,847-point score at the NCAA championships as a junior in college. That’s a young guy to score that high. Every decathlon athlete on the planet is better at age 26 or 27.”
A hamstring injury slowed Bahner late in the indoor season. As the results show, his health returned for the outdoor season and now he can see a future in the sport.
He enjoys the challenge of learning and perfecting the 10 events. His speed makes the 100 and 400 easy. He is a natural at the long jump and high jump. He learned the discus quickly and mastered it so well WSU uses him in the open discus.
The 110 hurdles remain his biggest obstacle, likely because of a lack of flexibility in his hips. The pole vault is his favorite new skill because of its difficulty.
Rainbolt recruited Bahner for the triple jump and soon recognized his ability as a multi performer. Bahner took to it immediately.
“I think I peaked at the right time,” he said. “A multi has to love what they do. It’s really hard to keep doing something after college, let alone continue the decathlon. I love it.”