Going to the Olympics, beginnings of his career, and balancing sports and studying – let’s talk with Damian Czykier, Polish champion and the fourth athlete in the 110m hurdles at the European Championships, as well as a student of civil engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology.
How do you feel before leaving for Rio?
When I met the Olympic minimum and received the official confirmation that I’m going to the Olympics, I was mostly excited. I’ve already received the outfits, and on the 4th of August, we’ll take the oath. Our flight will be on the 8th or 9th of August. There are a lot of positive emotions. The closer the take-off, the more we concentrate.
Athletics begin on the 12th of August. When will you appear on the track?
On the 15th of August. That’s when I participate in the heats.
Even though it’s your Olympic début, I can’t imagine you’re going all the way to Rio just to wave the flag, and later tell everyone: “Hey, I went to the Olympics”.
That’s true. The truth about sports competitions is that you have to win. I train, because winning – not participating – is what gives me the greatest satisfaction. I will fight for the finals in Rio [eight athletes participate in the finals (Ed.)]. When I see my runs, for example, at the European Championships in Amsterdam, I still see technical mistakes. I lack stamina. I can’t fix this before the Olympics, but if I succeed with a few nuances, I’ll be able to run at the personal-best level.
I checked the Olympics results starting from 1992. Your best time (13.32 s) wasn’t enough to qualify for the finals only once – four years ago, in London.
It’s unnerving that this was such a short time ago, but the finals are my real objective in Rio. If every top athlete ran their personal-best times, I’d have to run 13.10 s to qualify, but it’s not how it works. It’s a big event, mistakes are made and people get anxious.
How do you handle the pressure?
Right now, I have a clear head. It’s a matter of experience. A few years ago, I was stressed out at the Polish Championships, but it’s a killer, it makes legs heavy.
So, you just managed to take nerves out of the equation?
I began training intensively. There’s no stress when someone is prepared and has good results.
Tell us, how did you get into hurdling?
I’m from a sports-oriented family – my dad was a football player and mum played basketball. I simply had to practice sports (laughter). The adrenaline really got me going. I played football, basketball, hockey… When I was in high school, all of my sports were over. Then I found an athletics coach that made every athlete do hurdles. I went there, I tried it, and I liked it. After three months of training, I went to the Polish Championships for younger juniors, and I already competed for a place on the podium. That’s the norm in athletics – if you feel the spirit of competition and adrenaline, you stay.
You mention in interviews that you trained hurdling semi-professionally for three years.
Yes, in high school. Because I didn’t have to do strength training yet. I relied on my talent alone, I trained technical skills, and I did fitness and flexibility exercises.
You were a promising athlete, your parents professionally practised sports. Why did you choose to study at the Warsaw University of Technology after high school?
I’ve always been good with Maths, I’ve also did well in Physics. I won various competitions, I was one of the best at the Mathematical Kangaroo; I also have an elementary school diploma – “Mathematical Ace”. Choosing the Warsaw University of Technology felt very natural. I wanted to study at the best Polish university of technology. Especially since I didn’t have any plans or objectives related to sports.
Why civil engineering in particular?
There are two reasons. First, it had the most restrictive threshold scores after IT, and I didn’t care about IT at all. Second, I can say that civil engineering is my passion. When I was a kid, I was a big fan of Lego. I had tons of bricks. I even found a drawing of a football field with exact measurements. I think it was from kindergarten. Afterwards, I learned basic rules of technical drawing during my first year at the university.
You choose a difficult major. How did you combine studying with sports?
Everything I did made me feel great. I attended classes from 8 AM to 3 PM, training began at 5 PM, I came back home at 8-9 PM. I didn’t need a lot of time for leisure. A free weekend was all I needed. Training camps were the most difficult, since they took 2, or even 3 weeks. When I came back, I didn’t know what happened at the university. Well, when I wasn’t participating in high-level competitions, i.e. when I fought for medals at the Polish Championships, but I didn’t participate in international events, it was easier to balance studying and running. Nowadays, sport takes a great deal of my time.
Often people who don’t know what it’s like to be an athlete believe that studying athletes are treated preferentially at universities.
I never went to a class, said “good morning” and got an A. It’s not my goal. I went to the university to gain as much knowledge as possible, to become an engineer, and to work in the field.
Sometimes I asked for additional sittings for tests or exams due to training camps or competitions. Bogumiła Chmielewska, Ph.D., the Vice-Dean of Studies at the Faculty of Civil Engineering, has been helping me with formalities, for example, with leaves of absence. I also remember a Building Materials exam with Piotr Woyciechowski, Ph.D. (Eng.). I took it with extramural students. I came prepared, received a C, and the doctor praised me for my performance. He still roots for me. He congratulated me when I placed fourth at the European Championships in Amsterdam.
So, you want to work in the construction industry in the future, but you’re going to the Olympic Games. There had to be a moment when you said to yourself: “I’m into sports now”.
During my second year at the university, after the third semester, I decided to focus on sports and took a dean’s leave. That decision was catastrophic, I ended up with an injury. Still, because of it, when I returned to the university next year, I only had one class, and I could focus on training. That was my breakthrough.
The funny thing is, that I reached the athletic plateau when I told myself to study seriously. It was the third year, which they say is the hardest year in civil engineering. The semester lasts 15 weeks, and I did my designs on weekends, fourteen of them, because I didn’t have time for this during weekdays due to classes and training. When I started studying in earnest, I met the first minimum for an international event – the 2015 European Indoor Championships in Prague. Since that time, I decided to focus on sports again.
This time successfully.
I very much regret the last year. My condition was on the rise, and I went to the Universiade in Korea to get a medal. Shortly before leaving, I injured my biceps femoris muscle. It was my own stupidity. I was moving, carrying some things, and I went to training. I had to give it my all and run some distances, and during one of them – boom – I sprained the muscle. I wasn’t able to train normally in Korea. On the competition day, the pain went away and I could run. I came in fourth. I cried tears of happiness at the finish line, because I was able to participate. But, if I were healthy, I would have been easily able to fight for a place on the podium.
This year, I didn’t make such a mistake and, when I was moving, I called a moving company.
Did you yearn for more after placing fourth again, this time at the European Championships in Amsterdam?
Yes, just after the run. I ran for the finish line, looked right and saw that I’m fourth. I jumped in anger, because I knew that it wasn’t my best run. I tried to compete too aggressively at the start, instead of quickly and flatly jumping over the first hurdles. Guys just went past me then. Now I’m happy with that result, and I’m aiming for a better one next year. My body hasn’t reached its full potential yet. It’s the fourth best time in the history of Polish athletics. It would be a shame not to try and grab the first [the Polish 110m hurdles record is 13.26 s (Ed.)].
Regardless of the results, including Rio, will you be coming back to the University?
Of course. I’ve only got six exams left before obtaining the title of engineer, I want to pass two of them in September. Then I’ll do my best on the final exams and write my thesis.
Damian Czykier was born on 10 August 1992. He represents the Podlasie Białystok sports club. He is the son of Dariusz Czykier (former football player of, among other teams, Jagiellonia Białystok and Legia Warszawa) and Elżbieta Stankiewicz (former basketball player of Włókniarz Białystok and Polonia Warszawa).
Damian has won many medals at the Polish Championships (individually and in relay races, 4x100m and 4x400m, outdoor and indoor). This year, for the first time in his career, he won the 110m hurdles at the Polish Championships. He has improved his personal-best time several times. His best time – 13.32 s – was set during the semi-finals at the European Championships in Amsterdam. Artur Noga’s Polish record stands at 13.26 s, while the world record holder – at 12.80 s – is Aries Merritt from the USA.
To date, only three Polish athletes participated in the finals of 110m hurdles at the Olympics. Jan Pusty (1980) and Artur Noga (2008) placed fifth, while Leszek Wodzyński (1972) placed sixth.
During 110m hurdles races, athletes jump over ten hurdles, each 106.7 cm high.
Interviewer: Agnieszka Kapela