Thursday, March 26, 2015

Luca Wieland: the Path to the Championship

Luca Wieland and Garrett Scantling approach the finish of the 1000
Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota
The journey to the NCAA Indoor Track men's heptathlon title began two years ago in an unlikely place, Berlin, Germany.  It was then and there that a promising young athlete named Luca Wieland was making plans for his future when opportunity presented itself in the form of a University of Wisconsin Madison coach who came to Germany to entice talented German athletes to give the US collegiate system a try.

Unbenownst to Luca the coaching staff at the University of Minnesota was also searching for a specific talent to recruit. Steve Plasencia, the Gopher's head track and cross country coach, notes that the coaches divide up the recruiting according to their event responsibilities.  "We all recruit our own areas," said Plasencia. That meant that Paul Thornton, an assistant coach for the Gophers who works with the sprinters, hurdlers, and multi-event athletes was charged with finding some multi eventers who would be interested in Minnesota.

Each "recruiting class," student athletes with the talents the Gopher's want that year, has specific goals.  In 2013 one of those goals was to find multi event athletes.  The search for prospects begins "in our back yard," said Thornton, looking at athletes from around the State and surrounding areas.  They also get inquiries from recruiting services. In 2013 one of those the service provided was Luca.  After sorting through all the prospects "we were looking at three guys," said Thornton, "and one of those was Luca."

A soccer player until he was 14, Luca's parents urged him to try track.  Without practicing specifically for track "I won" my events, said Wieland.  "You always like what you're good at," he said, and from that point on he was a track athlete.

His success in track got him thinking about the future.  Luca wanted to "go pro," become proficient enough in track to make an Olympic team, to rise to the top of the sport.  "I'm a really ambitious person," Wieland said, meaning that he didn't want to be just good.  He wanted to be the best he could be.  In Germany the opportunity to mix being the best he could be academically and athletically wasn't possible, he said.  You had to choose one or the other.

In the US he saw the opportunity to get a first class education while training to reach his equally lofty goals in athletics. Thornton got in touch via email, followed up with Facebook messaging and then talking the phone. Talking a "couple of times a week" during the recruiting process, said Thornton.  Wieland was not only a potentially top athlete, he was a top student as well, said Thornton.  Wieland wanted a school that could satisfy his academic as well as his athletic needs.

The Gopher program offered Wieland both, said Thornton.  "He was attracted by the big city(Minneapolis)," Thornton said.  "He was impressed with the quality of education he could get, the history of multi event talent we've had here at the University...The decathlon is such a demanding event that it is important to have training partners. It's not the sort of event you train for alone."  The coaches wanted a decathlete who could also score points in an individual event.  Luca fit that description as he "has a lot of speed" and was a good long jumper with a PR of 24'3".

Wieland had interest from other schools as well, but decided on Minnesota early, and began to put a plan in place.  "He had a plan on how to develop," said Thornton.  In athletics and academics, you need to have a plan to succeed, he added.  Life is always throwing you curves, but it helps to have a foundation to build on or switch to and from if you want to be successful.

Academically, Wieland decided to enroll in the business program at the U of M with the ultimate goal to go back to Germany after his collegiate career was over and attempt to get into medical school. The main advantage being that medical school in Germany is "free," no cost for the tuition, which is a major burden for medical students in the US.  The challenge in Germany is to get into medical school, not how to pay for it.

It's an intense, six year program, after which you start practicing medicine.  Depending on how things go in 2016 and beyond, Wieland may have to shift his academic/career goals until his athletic career has run its course. Luca will have his first shot at making the German team for Rio in 2016.  With his win at this year's NCAA Indoor championships and breaking the 6000 point barrier,  Luca believes he has the potential to achieve that goal. "I am really ambitious person," he repeated, but not unrealistic.

His score at NCAAs ranks second among German multi eventers this year.  He accomplished despite some significant obstacles.  When he arrived in Minnesota last year, he was hobbled by a persistent hamstring injury.  Much of his first year was dealing with that injury, getting healthy.  At points along the way he wondered if his lofty athletic goals were possible.  He believed he has the talent.  The question remained would he be able to develop that talent despite his seemingly fragile hamstrings.

One answer to that question may have come via this year's Big Ten indoor championships.  Prior to the event, Luca was not sure he would get to or through the meet.  The hamstring troubles had flared up again and resulted in treatment from the Gopher trainers.  "They did a great job getting me through it," said Wieland,.who whe won the Big Ten title and gained confidence in time for NCAA's two weeks later.

In Arkansas for the ultimate collegiate test, Luca's talent blossomed.  While he didn't come into it with his eye on the national title, he said he knew he had the talent to win if things went right.  They did as he scored personal bests in nearly every event and came into the last event having only one obstacle separating him from the NCAA heptathlon crown, the pre-meet favorite for the title, Georgia's Garrett Scantling.

"What an outstanding competition," said Thornton of the battle between Luca and Garrett.  "(Scantling) did everything he could to win it."  While Scantling came up two points short he and Luca may have begun a rivalry with this being Act One.  Luca used his speed and jumping ability to take the lead early on, open a 100 point gap after day one, and continued to produce clutch performances on the second day to come away with the win.

For Luca it was a confidence boost and a relief that the injuries may be behind him and the athletic goals that he has are more than just an ambition.  Plasencia was impressed with Luca's ability to focus on the challenge and execute under pressure.  "He never showed any kind of chink (in his armor)," said Plasencia.  When it came time for the last event, the 1000 meters, not a strong suit for Weiland, he and the coaches talked over the strategy, the race plan.

It was a simple plan, but the execution was not.  Luca had to be Scantling's shadow, stay close and hope that Garrett couldn't break him.  "I wanted to beat him(Scantling),"  said Wieland.  He didn't want to feel like he was "backing into" the title.  His plan was to follow Scantling through to the final straight and launch his kick off that final curve.

He was in position, but also in "traffic" as several other runners became obstacles and Scantling was able to navigate the congestion better than Luca.  As a result the final straight kick was not a triumphant charge toward the finish, but a mad dash to maintain his lead.  Luca kept the two point gap and learned a lot about himself.

"I didn't think could push myself that hard," said Wieland, but he discovered that he had what it took when the pressure was on and the title was up for grabs. The path to the title was not easy, but that only made it more rewarding.

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