You don't become the world's greatest athlete without a truly Olympian set of stones, and right now Tom Pappas is showing his off. Even though we're on a near-empty track in Tennessee, it's hard to believe what he's doing, or the fact that he plans to pull this same routine right before the biggest moment of his life this summer at the Olympic Stadium in Athens.
Not some cool, slouchy stutter-step: I'm talking full-on, schoolgirl skipping, with the swinging arms and little hop and singsong rhythm. "Just like this," he's coaxing me, ignoring the fact that we'll be nearly a quarter-ton of male meat skipping side-by-side in skimpy shorts through the heart of Old Dixie.
All right, I think – what the hell. Because when Tom Pappas shares one of his training secrets, you listen: Last summer the 6'5" Pappas stunned the track world by defeating Czech Roman Sebrle to become world champion in the decathlon. Sebrle still holds the world record, but after his breakthrough, big Tom Pappas from tiny Azalea, Oregon, is now the favorite to come home from Athens with gold – and the highest decathlon score of all time.
But first the 27-year-old Pappas, whose father was a drag racer and whose grandfather was a professional wrestler, has to get to the games without an injury. That's the devilish paradox of the decathlon, and of cross-training in general: Switching events allows you to work one muscle group while resting another, true, but it can also be counterproductive to your primary sport and create new weaknesses and unexpected injuries. In that way, the world's greatest athlete is not unlike the weekend warriors who are constantly hopscotching from mountain biking to golf to summer league softball. If Pappas builds too much bulk for the shot put, he'll be crap on the hurdles; if he runs distance for the 1,500, he'll lose a step in the sprints; if he puts too much zing in his javelin fling, forget about a good push on the pole vault. And once he figures out those pairings, he's got four more events to deal with: the 400-meter run, discus, long jump, and high jump.
Furthermore, it takes a decade or so to master all 10 sports. So just when a decathlete is hitting his peak he's in his late 20s – the age when his joints and ligaments are approaching mandatory retirement.
And that's why we're skipping. Pappas's coaches believe one of the keys to defending against the decathlon's almost inevitable injuries is an "active warm-up," which includes a handful of doofy exercises. It's the opposite of what you were taught in gym class; instead of stretching first and then easing into your main event, the active warm-up makes you run the engine first.
When I meet Pappas on a sunny April day at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, we start with a half-mile run – that's run, not jog – around the track. Right from the start we move at an eight-minute-mile pace, and when we round the curve on our final lap, we've jacked up our heart rates and broken a good sweat.
I'm already warmed up, believe me, but Pappas is just getting started. After the run we work our way through a series of striding lunges, jog-along jumping jacks, hurdler's cariocas, and, finally, a stiff-knee run down the track. Then the skipping. As we're a-tisket-a-tasketing down the track, I can actually feel stuff loosening that I never knew was stiff, especially my lower glutes and hips. "A lot of people don't realize that the hips are the key to explosive power," Pappas says.
"Push-power comes from the legs, and it's pivoted through your core, at the hips," adds Brian Brophy, one of Pappas's coaches. "If you're inflexible at the hips and your core is mush, all that leg power is lost."
After our skipping session Pappas disappears into a trackside shed and returns with a couple of six-pound medicine balls. We set up about 30 yards apart and take turns heaving back and forth: first flat-footed, then with a single step, and last with a complicated little sidestep-crossover-straight step, which each time threatens to flatten me on the track. The bucket toss is our encore: We drop into a squat, swing the balls between our legs, then heave them back over our heads, going for maximum height and distance. Finally, almost as an afterthought, Pappas spends a few minutes doing conventional stretches for his groin, hams, and quads.
We've now been on the track for an hour, and Pappas is ready for his workout. His first attempt at the high jump pit is above most men's heads – 6'3". He nails it, soaring backward over the bar with daylight to spare. Six jumps later Pappas clears 6'7", then hits the track for a double loop, as much to stay warm as to sneak in a little extra endurance work. He does this throughout the day, so by the end of the workout he's logged three miles without noticing the tedium.
With his heart rate back up we move to the high hurdles. Two of Tennessee's undergrad hurdlers line up with him, and Pappas smokes them. For a big guy he's got a surprising amount of fast-twitch muscle, so for him the hurdles are largely about the technique of whipping around that trailing leg. Six reps of 60 meters does it, and then he's off to the real temple of worship for all champion decathletes: the weight room.
It's already midafternoon and Pappas hasn't taken a break or had a snack yet – a fact I'm painfully aware of because, even though I'm a pretty fit marathoner and haven't taken a single high jump today, I'm ready to gnaw on my own arm and nap in the parking lot. And that's when it hits me: These workouts are essentially mini-decathlons. Six days a week, Pappas cruises from event to event, passing up lunch, spending more time in midair, at a sprint, or under 400 pounds of steel than most of us spend at our jobs. It's a brutal routine, one that necessitates flexibility, endurance – and power.
That power comes from a simple weight program that consists mostly of Olympic lifts – power cleans and dead lifts – with a mix of barbell flies, incline bench, and dips thrown in. Squats follow, then step-ups – climbing a step with 350 pounds on his shoulders.
For a final blast Pappas lines up for a series of box jumps. Standing flat-footed as he faces a three-foot-high platform, Pappas swings his arms into a deep knee bend, then leaps, landing softly on both feet. Four sets of five jumps each will finish him for the day. "So whatcha think?" he asks, showing a little mortal weariness for the first time as he pulls off his battered baseball cap and sluices sweat off his brow. "Want to do the whole thing with me next time?"
Want to? Sure. Able to? No way. But if Tom Pappas ever needs a skipping partner, I'll be ready.