I asked Paul Merca to do a daily column for us on the 2024 Olympic Trials, and here is his second-day column. Paul Merca has covered the Olympic Trials since 1980.
Today’s column is on Heath Baldwin from Michigan State, who skipped the NCAA championships in favor of the Trials.
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In the 2004 cult classic movie Dodgeball, ESPN the Ocho play-by-play man Cotton McKnight, played by Gary Cole, announces that the Average Joe’s team, led by Peter La Fleur, does not have enough players to compete in the finals of the Dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas against the rival Globo-Gym Purple Cobras after La Fleur, played by Vince Vaughn, walked out on the team.

His analyst, Pepper Brooks, played by Jason Bateman,  answered with perhaps one of the most famous lines in the movie:

“That’s a bold strategy, Cotton—let’s see if it pays off for them.”

That was the thinking when Kalamazoo native Heath Baldwin of Michigan State, who scored a personal best 8470 points at the Mt. SAC Relays back in April, opted to pass on competing in the NCAA championships and a showdown with Texas’ Leo Neugebauer in favor of an all-out shot at making the US Olympic team in the decathlon.

It seems logical, given that there was only a two-week turnaround between the NCAA championship and the US Olympic Trials. This is not enough time to rest and recover, especially with the stakes as high as an opportunity to compete on the sport’s biggest stage.

However, that’s not the reality in college athletics, where some athletic directors don’t care about producing at the Olympic trials but emphasize conference and NCAA honors more.

At the Mt. SAC Relays, Baldwin’s final score of 8470, which was ten points over the automatic standard needed to compete at the Olympics, made the decision easy to bypass the NCAAs.

To keep himself sharp for the Trials, he competed in five events at the Big Ten championships at the University of Michigan, where he once competed before transferring to Michigan State.

He finished third in the 110 hurdles, took sixth in both the high jump and long jump, finished fourth in the javelin, and ran a leg on the Spartans’ 4 x 400 relay.

Heath Baldwin, Decathlon Olympic Trials Champion, photo by Chuck Aragon for RunBlogRun

Spartans director of track & cross country Lisa Breznau and jumps coach Richard Fisher made the decision to enter him in the 110 hurdles at the NCAA regional meet, where he missed qualifying for the national finals in Eugene by one place, running a personal best of 13.71 to finish 13th overall.

After a slow start, during which he ran 10.85 in the 100, he got rolling in the long jump, finishing third with a best of 24-5.75 (7.46m). He then won the next two events, setting a personal best in the shot put at 54-2.5 (16.52m) and a season-best in the high jump of 6-11.75 (2.13m) to climb into second overall.

To close out day one, he set a personal best in the 400, running 48.58 to take the overall lead with 4508 points, ahead of his first-day performance at Mt. SAC, where he scored 4469 points.

Knowing that decathlon veterans Zach Ziemek, Harrison Williams, and Kyle Garland would be breathing down his neck on day two, Baldwin opened day two by running 13.77 in the 110 hurdles to maintain the lead. At that point, Baldwin had 6252 points, while Garland was second, 21 points down, and Ziemek was third, 34 points off the lead. Harrison, whose strengths are in the final three events, was within range in fifth, 225 points behind.

Everything changed in the pole vault, as Garland sprained his ankle during warmups and could not continue in the competition.

Ziemek, who was the overall leader through the first four events,  retook the lead after winning the pole vault with a clearance of 17-6.5 (5.35m), while Williams finished second with a best of 16-6.75 (5.05m) to move into third overall in the standings.

Baldwin dropped to second, finding himself 121 points behind Ziemek. He cleared 15-11 (4.85m) to finish in a tie for sixth in the event.

In the javelin, Baldwin regained the overall lead by winning the event with a throw of 218-9 (66.69m), while Williams finished third with a personal best 194-10 (59.39m), and Ziemek eighth with a throw of 184-6 (56.24m).

Although Baldwin and Ziemek boasted personal-best efforts in the 1500 less than a second apart, Baldwin secured sixth overall, running 4:41.87, over eleven seconds ahead of Ziemek’s 4:53.65 to account for the final margin.

Heath Baldwin gambled on winning the OT decathlon! photo by Chuck Aragon for RunBlogRun

Williams ran 4:36.60 to finish second in the 1500 and finished with a final score of 8384 points. Ziemek’s final tally was 8516 points for second, while Baldwin and his Michigan State staff were rewarded with their bold move, as he scored 8625 points.

Baldwin’s final score is the sixth-best in the world this year.

Afterward, he said, “I was focused on trying to out-compete everyone else, event by event. I went with the mindset of winning the meet. I didn’t want to come here with the idea of making the team.”

“After finishing second in the NCAA indoor heptathlon (behind Neugebauer), I knew that things were coming together for me.”

“Representing the state of Michigan has always been a big thing for me,” Baldwin said when asked about wearing the Michigan State singlet with the big Sparty logo.

“Coach Breznau and coach Rich (Fisher) took a big chance on me skipping NCAAs, which was a really big deal for someone to do. I was happy to make it pay off for them.”

Like the fictional Average Joe’s, which went through teams such as Skiilz That Killz, Team Blitzkrieg, the Moose Knucklers and more to face off in the finals against the Purple Cobras, Baldwin will have to go through Neugebauer from Germany, who is the early favorite to win the Olympic decathlon title, along with veterans Johannes Erm of Estonia, Ayden Owens-Delerme of Puerto Rico, who beat Baldwin at Mt. SAC, and defending Olympic champion Damian Warner of Canada.

If Baldwin can get past them in Paris and make the podium, that would certainly qualify him as a true underdog story in the eyes of the world’s media.

Heath Baldwin: A True Underdog Story sounds like a great headline for the Kalamazoo Gazette should he medal.

Heath Baldwin did not compete at the NCAA Decathlon, he focused on the OT and won the Trials decathlon! photo by Chuck Aragon

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