Steven works on the hurdles two days a week, has running workouts twice weekly and has two “heavy lifting days,”
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Some fathers and sons played catch with a baseball or shoot a basketball together.
University of Michigan decathlon and heptathlon record holder Steven Bastien and his dad, Gary, instead had the hurdles, high jump, pole vault and other seven events that make up the decathlon.
Gary, a two-time All-American at Eastern Michigan and participant in the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, recalled taking Steven and his older sister, Sarah, to Ferry Field in the heart of the Michigan athletic campus when they were kids. They lived in Saline and enjoyed learning track and field events at the iconic facility where Jesse Owens set four world records in 1935.
Drake Johnson and his brother and father often were there with them, romping in the long jump pit or racing down the track straightaway. Johnson is an accomplished tailback for the Wolverines football team.
Gary was set on keeping Steven off the travel track circuit as a young boy, but they reveled in the pure joy of the sport.
Now, according to research by decathlon historian Frank Zarnowski, the Bastiens became the U.S. record holders in the father-son decathlon with combined personal-best scores of 15,261.
Steven, also an All-American with a pair of eighth-place finishes in the NCAA Indoor Championships, recorded a 7,417 total April 6-7 at the University of Georgia. His father scored a personal-best 7,844 for EMU.
“It was a goal of mine,” said Steven. “A lot of people may not keep track of it, but for my family to be able to say we set that record is pretty cool. Dad never pushed me at this, but he showed it to me and I enjoyed it. So, I ended up being good.”
Arkansas sophomore Brad Culp combined with his father, Greg, to break an 18-year old father-son record by pushing the mark to 15,250 on March 26. Steven’s personal-best score on April 7 eclipsed that mark by 11 points.
Gary said, “It’s a nice thing to have and be recognized for, but if it weren’t for Frank Zarnowski — in a Sports Illustrated story he was called the ‘Decathanut’ — such a record wouldn’t exist. It’s a great thing to have together, and we could lose it next week, but for our days, we’ve had this father-son record.”
It all began with the couch-and-dad jump.
“When the kids were little,” said Gary, 56, “we were in the living room, and the thing to do became jumping off a couch and over me. Outdoors, it was a long jump over the flower bed from the porch. Steven and Sarah would race me in the front yard.
“Then I began taking them over to Michigan. And what’s funny about it is that Drake Johnson and Steven ended up being the best track runners in this region. It seemed like they were always there with us. It was like we were playing catch, but it was track and field.”
Steven said, “I did my first multi-event (competition) in fifth grade. My dad introduced track to me when I was really little, teaching me to high jump and long jump. We connected that way and I felt that because of everything my dad knew, I had a leg up on everyone with knowledge.
“I’ve been doing the events at a more correct level for so much longer than others. So, when (Michigan) Coach (Jerry) Clayton works on things with me, it comes more naturally because of what my dad showed me for such a long time.”
Steven works on the hurdles two days a week, has running workouts twice weekly and has two “heavy lifting days,” coordinating and adjusting the schedule with Clayton.
The Olympic decathlon gold medalist has been labeled “The World’s Greatest Athlete” ever since the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, when King Gustav of Sweden told gold medal winner Jim Thorpe, “You, sir, are the world’s greatest athlete.”
U.S. decathletes winning gold and attaining that title include Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey, Bruce Jenner and Dan O’Brien. Mathias, who became the first two-time gold medalist in the event by winning in 1952, was Gary’s inspiration. He read a book by Mathias in the eighth grade in Grandville, Michigan.
“Bob Mathias was the head of the Olympic Training Center when I was there,” said Gary, “and he invited the 10 best decathletes in the country to his house for dinner. He went around the table and Mathias asked, ‘How did you get involved in the decathlon?’ I said, ‘I was at the library and came across a book by you.’ He got a kick out of that!”
Ken Doherty, who led Michigan to seven Big Ten championships in both indoor and outdoor track as head coach, 1940-48, also influenced Bastien, a member of the EMU Athletic Hall of Fame, with his classic textbook on the sport: “Track & Field Omnibook.”
“I read that and tried to do the stuff he wrote in the book,” said Gary.
Gary suffered an Achilles tendon injury in the months leading up to the 1984 Olympic trials, and wasn’t able to qualify for the team, but he remembers sitting on a bench next to Carl Lewis, who won four of his nine gold medals that year. Bastien had posted the third-highest U.S. decathlon score the previous year, winning a bronze medal at the U.S. national championships to earn a Pan American Games spot, but wasn’t able to perform at his best at those trials in Los Angeles.
The decathlon is a grueling, two-day event during which contestants compete for points in the 100-meter dash, 110-meter hurdles, pole vault, high jump, long jump, shot put, javelin, discus and runs of 400 and 1,500 meters.
It’s a one-man track and field meet.
“It’s cool that there are so many things to work on and you can always get better at something,” said Steven. “Every time you do a decathlon, you improve on something and do the best you ever have.
“My best event is the long jump (24 feet, 7 3/4 inches outdoors personal best) and the throws are my hardest events. I’ve been having the most trouble with the javelin (159 feet, 10 inches).”
His best 100-meter dash is 10.85 seconds and his personal-best high jump is 6-9 1/2 (indoors). Other individual bests:15.25 110-meter hurdles, 49:08 400 meters, 4:32.04 1,500 meters, 12-7 1/2 pole vault, 37-3 3/4 shot put and 130-4 discus.
His father, who coached at EMU after spending more than 20 years in advertising, coached Steven until he transferred two years ago from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I’ve gained a huge understanding of all the events from Jerry Clayton,” said Steven, a senior with eligibility remaining indoors and outdoors next year. “He knows the positions the body needs to get into to complete all these different tasks.
“My dad coached me through high school (in Saline) and then a little bit at my former school, but now he’s just given the reigns over to Coach Clayton. My dad still imparts bits of wisdom on me, but the actual coaching, Coach Clayton does all that.”
Gary said, “He showed Steven a way to get better lift if he got his shoulders lower in the high jump. I don’t feel I have to coach Steven any more. I don’t question anything Clayton teaches him.”
His mother also has played a role in his success. She was Kathy Lux, a track and field performer for the Hurons, when Gary introduced himself to his future wife during an EMU practice.
“She did the 400 hurdles and ran the 400 (and 800),” said Steven. “I haven’t talked to her too much about track because my dad talks about track a bunch. If my mom was also talking track, it would be just too much (laughter).
“But my mom’s uncle held the Michigan high school mile record, and she definitely added some extra genetics. I feel I’m pretty good at the 400 for a decathlete, and so she definitely added to all of it. She always supports me, too. “
Setting the Michigan records in the heptathlon (5,801 points in seven events) and decathlon has been special.
“Growing up in Saline,” said Steven, “Michigan and the block M is a really cool symbol of athletic achievement. I liked the football games, and now to be a part of the history at this school and be an All-American from Michigan is really cool and very rewarding.”
Steven has won a pair of Big Ten heptathlons at the indoor conference championships, and he’ll be going for his first Big Ten decathlon title this weekend in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I want to go out there and be aggressive,” said Steven, “and surprise myself.”
Gary is driving there, and seldom misses a big competition. He hauled the pole vault poles on the roof of his Chevy Equinox all the way to Athens, Georgia, where his son recorded his personal best and got them the father-son record.
“I’m not driving with the poles on the roof to Nebraska,” said Gary. “I ran into trouble with the poles buzzing really badly. If you get over 62 mph and the ropes aren’t tied just right, it makes a noise like, ‘Brrrrrrwowwww!’
“I didn’t tell Coach Clayton this, but it added three hours to my trip to Georgia. But I’ll take this little shelter for if it gets too hot. You know, driving to Georgia, another guy passed me with poles on the roof. I knew where he was going.”
Gary said transporting poles has supplied numerous funny stories.
“My favorite story was when I was carrying my pole through an airport in Austin, Texas, in 1980,” he said. “The woman in front of me held the door for me, saying, ‘I’ll get that.’ As I was shimmying through the door with my pole, I stood there and said, ‘Thanks a lot.’
“I looked, and it was Sissy Spacek, the actress!”
The challenges connected to the decathlon are numerous and the demands are high. Strength, speed, endurance, daring and throwing three different objects are required. It’s the standard for athletic versatility, and the Bastiens are the father-son standard for the world’s greatest athletes.