Garrett Scantling competes at the Spec Towns Invitational meet in April 2021 in Athens, Ga.
In track and field, there may not be a more agonizing feeling than finishing fourth at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. After all, the top three move on to the Olympic Games, while everyone else goes home. And when you come as close as fourth place, the disappointment is especially stinging.
Garrett Scantling knows that pain, having finished one spot out of a trip to the Rio Games in the decathlon five years ago. Just 23 at the time and a recent graduate of the University of Georgia, he quit the sport and decided to pursue a different dream.
But now, after years away from track and field — with stints as both an aspiring NFL player and a financial advisor — Scantling is on the verge of a second chance at his Olympic dream. He has returned to the decathlon without missing a beat, recently cracking the all-time U.S. top 10 list in the event (which combines 10 events, including the 100-meter dash, high jump, pole vault and javelin, over two grueling days of competition), solidifying his status as a strong contender to qualify for the Olympic team and potentially landing on the podium in Tokyo this summer.
It's been anything but a direct path. After the 2016 Olympic trials, Scantling traded his track spikes for football cleats.
"I have always loved football," he says. "Always. In high school, football was my first sport. I wanted to go to college for football. My dad, has always pushed me to play football as well. And he knew how much I loved the game. And so after trials you could say I was defeated. There was a lot emotion and a lot of work that goes into that. Just knowing that I came up short — not because of anyone else's doing, but because of my own — made me want to step away. I wanted to follow a dream that I've always had."
Though he hadn't played football since high school, Scantling's athleticism scored him a chance to try his hand as a wide receiver in the NFL. He was invited to the Atlanta Falcons rookie camp in the spring of 2017. He was eventually waived, but got a second chance with his hometown team, the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"I enjoyed every second of it," he says.
But having missed the experiences that come with four years of college football, adjusting to the highest level of the sport was a challenge.
"I was thrown into the fire. It was one of the hardest things I've had to do," he says. "Athletically there were no issues. Conditioning, speed, endurance, I was there with the best of them. But it was the classroom and the adjustment to game-time speed. You don't have to think about that in track. You have to adjust everything on the fly in football, and it's just a lot different than people think."
Unfortunately, he was cut by the Jaguars during preseason training.
"It hurt when I was done, because I put so much into it," Scantling says. "You put so much faith in yourself and when it doesn't work out you beat yourself up. But looking back on it, it has changed my perspective immensely. If you don't put in the work that you know that you have to, someone else is going to take your dream."
From there, Scantling got a job as financial advisor in Jacksonville, where he enjoyed the collegial atmosphere in the office. But it was a tough transition for someone used to spending his days running, jumping and throwing.
"I can focus, but if I'm sitting there it's very hard for me to stay still, to sit in an office and type on a computer, so that was definitely eating at me," he says. "Every day around 12 o'clock I would go work out at the and I could feel that I had strength. I could feel stronger than I was when I was competition."
He'd kept in touch with Georgia coach Petros Kyprianou and let him know he was thinking about making a comeback. Kyprianou offered Scantling a position as a coaching intern on the Bulldogs staff in the summer of 2019 and when he returned to campus in Athens he began working out by himself, though he would occasionally train with the other world class decathletes Kyprianou coaches, including 2019 world championships silver medalist Maicel Uibo of Estonia and 2019 U.S. champion Devon Williams.
By the fall of 2019 Scantling was officially training with the group. He was encouraged by his workouts and started 2020 with his first multi-event in nearly four years, a promising 6110-point performance in the indoor heptathlon. A month later he won the U.S. indoor title in the event, his 6209 score making him the eighth best American of all-time.
The pandemic halted any further competition, but Scantling used the time to continue building back his base. After all, the 10 events of the decathlon require a wide mix of skills, including sprinting, hurdling, jumping, throwing and the dreaded, concluding 1500-meter-run.
"You beat your body up that first year just learning everything again, but that second year, once you have that base and that strength, you start to thrive," he says. "The 2020 fall training was the best I've ever. I was in the best shape of my life because I had that base."
He proved it in early April when he scored 8476 points at the Spec Towns Invitational in Athens, finishing second behind one of the Georgia athletes he helps coach, Estonian Karel Tilga. That was a major improvement over his previous personal best, an 8232 score from 2015, and put him 10th on the U.S. all-time list in an event that Americans have excelled at in Olympic competition. Previous gold medalists include Jim Thorpe, Rafer Johnson, Bruce (now Caitlyn) Jenner, Dan O'Brien and, most recently, 2012 and 2016 champ Ashton Eaton.
"If I'm keeping it honest with you I was expecting to do that well, if not better," Scantling admits of the Spec Towns meet. "There's a lot of emotion and lot of pressure that leads up to a decathlon. You train so long and so hard for just one competition that you kind of have al your eggs in one basket. It was different dealing with those sorts of pressures, but once the competition started it was like old times, I got into my grove."
He set lifetime bests in three of the 10 events, running the 400 in 48.61 seconds, long jumping 7.56 meters and throwing the shot put 16.20 meters. On the flip side, he was well down from his best marks in the discus and javelin.
"There's definitely a lot of room to improve," he says. "That was the goal for that meet, to find the areas that I'm still rusty in and can work on."
Perhaps most important, Scantling, now 28, enjoyed being back out with his teammates and friends.
"I love the camaraderie between the athletes," he says. "You're out there for 10 events with the same people. It's a mental battle and the people you connect with that's what carry through the competitions."
Away from the track he likes to decompress by playing video games.
"I get made fun of a lot by my training partners for playing video games," Scantling says with a laugh. "But it's something I enjoy, it takes my mind off the pressures of competing and training."
He streams a few times a week on Twitch (his username is gscant).
"It helps to get that pressure of people watching you at your craft," he says. "I also like to think that playing video games helps me with my reaction time and my reflexes for decathlon."
Track fans will be watching when the decathlon is contested June 19-20 at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon. Scantling knows he's grown so much since his devastating just-out-of-the-money showing five years ago.
"Last time I was a Trials I forgot to eat the first day everything was so crazy. There's so much stuff that's going on around you. I was such a little kid," he recalls. "But this time around it's all about remember why I came back and knowing that I've got such a great support system behind me. They're all wanting me to do well. I've put in the work. I know what I can do."