ALLENDALE, Mich. -- Justin Balczak stood on the podium and raised a small wooden trophy over his head while a small contingent of family and friends cheered him on from the stands.
A year ago, the Azusa Pacific senior was sitting in those same stands. This year, he was on the field being honored as a national champion.Balczak won the decathlon during Day 2 of the 2015 NCAA Division II Outdoor Track & Field National Championships on the campus of Grand Valley State in West Michigan.
It’s a campus he’s familiar with since Balczak grew up in nearby Cedar Springs, Michigan, which is only 32 miles from the GVSU campus.
“It’s nice having my family out here,” he said. “There’s about 20 people that I know here. My theater teacher and my high school track coach came out, too.”
Balczak, who entered the meet as the No. 1 seed, finished with 7,425 points. He also won the indoor national championship this season.
Tiffin’s Theo Mancheron finished second with 7,347 points. He was followed by Emporia State's Payson Maydew in third (7,222), Chico State's Phill Bradley in fourth (7,192) and Tomek Czerwinski in fifth (7,113).
“You have to look at the guy in front of you and the guy in back of you. Scores don’t matter at the national meet,” Balczak said. “That’s all my mindset was today.”
The lone victory for him was in the high jump. Balczak had a leap of 6-7 1/2 feet (2.02 meters) to beat out teammate Czerwinski, who finished second with a jump of 6-5 (1.96).
Balczak had a few trials on his way to the podium.
In the pole vault, he finished second with a leap of 14-11 (4.55 meters), but a slip caused him to hit his head.
“The pole vault was just a train wreck,” he said. “There’s a lip at the front of the box that came off its track. I planted a little early so my pole caught the lip and I flung forward and hit my head. I blacked out for a sec. That kind of messed with my head a little bit.”
It carried over to his next event, the javelin, where he fell to the ground in pain after his third throw.
“I threw out my back,” said Balczak, who finished fourth in the javelin with a throw of 175-10 (53.59 meters). “I hadn’t thrown well this year, but I threw well today. I almost set a PR on the first throw from like two years ago.”
One of the benefits of competing at Azusa Pacific is having one of the greatest American decathletes on the coaching staff.
Brian Clay, who won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 2008 Olympics, is an assistant coach who focuses on the jumps.
“It is really cool. It’s even cooler when we talk to him, he’s just a normal guy,” Balczak said. “He coaches the high jumpers. Kevin [Reid] deals with the multis. But [Clay] is there to offer tips and stuff. It’s nice. It’s more of a reassurance that he’s there.”
Clay was impressed with Balczak’s performance.
“I think he did a great job,” Clay said. “We kind of pride ourselves on our decathletes. I think, for a small school, do a pretty darn good job producing some good athletes, especially in the multi-events.”
Clay and 2002 Olympic decathlete Dave Johnson also competed at Azusa Pacific.
“It’s an attitude. The decathlon is about how bad you wanna hurt,” Clay said. “How much time you put into it. He wants to see how hard he can take it. When you aren’t afraid to push the limits in training, it makes for a good recipe for success. He’s done really, really well. He’s a talented kid. He’s a quick learner. As long as he keeps doing that, he’ll keep getting better.”
The decathlon wasn’t something Balczak considered when he graduated from Cedar Springs High School.
“I was just a hurdler,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t know what the multi was until after I graduated from high school. When I got up to Lake State, [coach] Matt Sparks was like, ‘We’re gonna make you a multi.’ And I was like, ‘What’s that?' "
Balczak spent two seasons at Lake Superior State University, which is in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His freshman season, he finished second at Division II nationals and he was third as a sophomore. But he decided to transfer when he realized he wanted to major in cinematography, a field LSSU didn’t have.
The move to Aszua Pacific, which is in its first season at Division II since moving up from the NAIA, has been good for Balczak. He’s even become great friends with his teammate, Czerwinski.
“Emotional and amazing” is how he described his friendship with Czerwinski, a senior from Oxnard, California. “Tom is an amazing guy. It’s been a lot of fun competing with him. He helps keep my nerves down.”
Balczak has one year of eligibility for the outdoor season and plans to return.
He finished second in the hurdles (14.47), second in the pole vault (14-11, 4.55 meters), third in the long jump (23-2 feet/7.06m), fourth in the javelin (175-10/53.59m), fifth in the shot put (42-8 feet/13.00m), sixth in the 400 (50.36), seventh in the discus (116-3 feet/35.45m), seventh in the 1,500 (4:43.99) and eighth in the 100 meters (11.37).