After taking the crown as a team for the Big Ten 2013 Indoor Track Championship and an individual first-place finish in the Heptathlon, junior Japheth Cato is set to make his return to Nationals March 8 in Fayetteville, Ark. After finishing second in the event in the same competition last year, Cato said he still hopes for improvement this year.
Cato took some time out of his preparation to talk to The Badger Herald about his consistent success throughout his career at Wisconsin and how he hopes the indoor season will play out.
The Badger Herald: You have had control of the competition within the conference over the last few years. How do you stay motivated? Who would you say your greatest competition is as an individual?
Japheth Cato: I guess I stay motivated by trying to be myself, mostly, and knowing that I can always do better than a previous mark, previous time, previous length. Who or what? For me, it’s definitely a thing. I guess times and distances are what drives me, motivates me, knowing that I can run faster, knowing that I can jump farther than a previous length.
BH: You posted the No. 4 mark in the world this year. What does that mean to you?
JC: Just knowing that I actually have a place in the world is kinda cool to know. I don’t let it go to my head. I try to keep a level head and just go out there and compete.
BH: Was the mark something you were aware of as you got close to it?
JC: After one of our meets in Nebraska – the meet we had this year in Nebraska – I was excited for that spot, knowing I had that spot, but it didn’t do anything for me personally.
BH: For three years in a row, you’ve been the heptathlon champion. Do you ever take the time to think about that? How hard is it to repeat?
JC: I try not to because it makes me think of how much I don’t want to do it. After a decathlon, it hurts. It’s a physically painful thing trying to walk in the morning after doing one of those. So I don’t really think about that.
BH: What were your thoughts when you saw Illinois slip up in the four-by-four at the Indoor Championships and how long did it take for you to realize what had just happened, that you guys had won the team title? Were you able to witness it firsthand?
JC: When U of I fell, it was an unbelievable feeling. For me, at least personally, it was shock. I didn’t know that he fell. We’re just watching this orange dot run around and all of a sudden it stopped. And I turned to someone and I said, “Wait a minute, did he just fall?” As soon as it clicked in my head that he fell, everyone just started going crazy. At that point we knew it was kind of a wrap and as long as we finished we’d be good.
BH: How did everyone react as a team?
JC: Everyone was excited. I know that everyone beforehand wanted to run the four-by-four. Everyone wanted to have a spot because we were just that excited. I remember talking to [junior distance runner] Tim Hucke beforehand. He’s not even a 400-meter runner; he’s an 800-meter runner. He said, ‘Put me in some spikes. I want to run the 400.’ Everyone was really excited.
BH: Thinking about the individual honors you’ve had, what do you do with all of these awards? Anything special?
JC: Yeah, I give them to my dad. I don’t know what he does with them. I think he puts them in his office, maybe? But all of my awards I give to my dad, little watches, trinkets … I’ve kept two medals to kind of use as my personal reference; this is what you can get back to, this is what you want, wake up every morning and look at it, this is what you want. Just to know, where you’ve been, where you want to go. Just to know.
BH: Looking at your fellow heptathlete, sophomore Zach Ziemek, do you feel like he had a big moment at the Big Tens?
JC: That was a really big PR [personal record] for Zach. It really did come out of nowhere. The first event, [the 60 meter dash] we were running, and usually I’m a little faster than he is, but this race he was right next to me. I thought, ‘Where did he come from?’ then, ‘Whoa, I need to speed up.’ He had a huge meet, and I commend him for that meet because it was huge for him. Now he gets to go to nationals for it.
BH: What has he done for you personally? Does he help to motivate you in any particular role?
JC: Definitely. For me last year when he came in, it’s kind of funny, I didn’t want him to beat me. You know, the new freshman coming in, so I felt as though I kind of had to step my game up because I knew he was that good coming in. He definitely does motivate me in different ways, especially in different events like the pole vault, the 1000. I know guys like him rely on me for little things. He pushes me as much as I push him. It’s a give and take thing.
BH: Do you think he has any particular events that he relies on you for motivation?
JC: Yeah, things that we’re both good at, like pole vault. We rely on each other so much to give each other little cues. What are we doing right? What are we not doing right?
BH: Do you have a mentor/pupil relationship? He said after the Heptathlon last week that he knew he couldn’t come in first because he was competing against you.
JC: I don’t know. I really wouldn’t put a name on it per se. It’s a friendship, a true friendship. It’s weird to say. I never thought of it as a mentorship though.
BH: You think of it more as being on the same level?
JC: Yeah. I do. I definitely feel more on the same level.
BH: Going back to last year, coming in runner-up in the NCAAs. How did you feel afterwards?
JC: It was really upsetting. I was extremely emotional after coming in second because there’s a point where you really give it your all. And knowing that your all wasn’t good enough? I broke down. I remember specifically telling myself that I will never feel like that again. I will do whatever it takes athletically to get to the point where I feel like I gave it my all, and it wasn’t good enough. I guess that’s why I’m here again.
BH: How long do you think it took for you after you experienced it to pick up and move forward?
JC: It was immediate. I knew I had to go to outdoors, so using that, I guess you could say anger, that feeling, I just took it to outdoors. I did pretty well, but now is when it really is starting to come back. It’s starting to hit me that I don’t want to feel like that. I want to be able to give my all and know that it was good enough, to see that it was good enough to win.
BH: Is it something that you think about every day?
JC: I try not to. Think about something too much and you go crazy. I don’t feel like going crazy. Still got a lot of school left. So no, I don’t think about it as much. I just think about what I have to do individually and event-wise, just think about what I can do and what I’m capable of.
BH: Head coach Ed Nuttycombe was once again named conference coach of the year. What are some of the things he has done to help you grow as an athlete over your three years here?
JC: He’s taught me so much. It’s almost hard to put a finger on specifically. Little things like thinking about one event at a time. Because if you think about say, shot put and you’re long jumping, it could potentially mess up your long jumping. Just keeping in the mind frame that there’s always one event to go. Even if you just started, there’s only this one event and that’s the one you’re in, until it’s the next event and then that’s the one event.
BH: Taking one event at a time, was that something you struggled with before?
JC: Yes, coming in here, freshman and sophomore year I was always [thinking], ‘man, I wish that would’ve went better’ and I remember him telling me to think about what’s going on now. Not what happened in the past or what’s going to happen in the future. Just think about now.
BH: What makes him such a great coach?
JC: Just the fact that he’s a really laid-back guy. If it were someone coaching me who was really strict, it would be a little harder. I like to have fun when I compete. I don’t think you can do well without having fun. He makes it easy to have fun at meets. I really like that.
BH: Is he one of the biggest reasons Wisconsin has been so successful all these years?
JC: I definitely think so. There’s a point in time where you have to coach and where you don’t have to coach, or you shouldn’t coach and I feel like he’s really good at that. During the week you coach, you give cues, you let the athletes know what they should be doing, but when it comes time [for] the actual game or the meet you let it go because they should already know what to do. You just need to give those little things, little things to make them better.
BH: Was he a big reason why you choose Wisconsin?
JC: Yes. Knowing his past of winning and the track teams past, knowing the school was so academically inclined, why wouldn’t I want to come here?
BH: Wisconsin won its 17th Big Ten title in track and field (indoor and outdoor) since 2000. The rest of the league has combined for nine titles in that span. The championship was the 26th for UW under Nuttycombe. What does that say to you?
JC: I mean it just goes to show that he’s doing something right. The numbers speak for themselves. They really do.
BH: How do you feel as a whole team moving forward, winding up these last few meets?
JC: There’s a transition period, indoor to outdoor. Everyone needs to kind of shake off this ‘Big Ten champs’ [mentality] because people get lazy when they start to think, ‘Oh yeah, I’m great.’ When they have their nose in the air, they start forgetting about real hard work. So, I think in this transition period we need to almost forget about indoors and focus on the outdoor championships and what we need to be doing outdoors.