The best athlete in America is a giant German

Leo Neugebauer is the reigning decathlon champion at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships. ILLUSTRATION: CAM POLLACK/WSJ, GETTY IMAGES (2), REUTERS, ISTOCK
Leo Neugebauer is the reigning decathlon champion at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships. ILLUSTRATION: CAM POLLACK/WSJ, GETTY IMAGES (2), REUTERS, ISTOCK

Summary

Leo Neugebauer, an NCAA-champion decathlete at Texas, is aiming for a repeat—and Olympic gold in Paris.

Like most star athletes at the University of Texas, Leo Neugebauer has a pile of trophies, a swelling social-media following, and the chiseled physique of a five-star recruit.

But Neugebauer isn’t a power forward or tight end. He’s a decathlete—a master of 10 vastly different track and field events. And unlike the highly touted football and basketball players on campus, he’s actually won a national championship.

Not only is Neugebauer favored to repeat as winner of the decathlon at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships that start Wednesday, he also holds the NCAA record for an event that’s regarded as the toughest in track and field. Which means that even though he’s German by nationality, Neugebauer is arguably the best college athlete in America.

At this summer’s Paris Olympics, he’ll aim to claim the title of best athlete in the world. He finished fifth in the decathlon at last August’s world championships—ahead of all U.S. contenders—and now ranks third in the world. If he wins an Olympic decathlon medal, Neugebauer, who measures in at 6-foot-7½ and 240 pounds, would also be the tallest person to ever do it.

“When I first saw him, I was deeply impressed," said Germany’s last Olympic decathlon medalist, Frank Busemann, who won silver in 1996. Busemann said he has joked to colleagues, “If you asked an AI: ‘Show me a decathlete,’ then Leo would be shown!"

Neugebauer was born to a German mother and Cameroonian father and grew up outside Stuttgart. Like every other kid in Germany, he played soccer as a child, but also competed early on in track and field.

“I was always kind of good at everything," he said.

He got curious about going overseas for college and thought U.S. universities were all the same—until he stepped out of the airport in Texas.

“First thing, I got a heat wave in my face," he recalled. “I was like, ‘Hoooo-leee…how do people even live here?’"

Neugebauer soon got used to the climate and figured out how to thrive in his new environment.

He rises at 6 a.m. and follows a dawn-to-dusk routine of stretching, foam-rolling, lifting weights, training on the track, winding down and refueling. He used to eat six meals a day, but now eats seven because he was waking up hungry in the middle of the night.

“There’s a lot of maintenance to being a big guy," he said.

Although height is an advantage in football and basketball, it doesn’t always predict greatness in decathlon, which demands a range of skills from pole vault to long jump to middle-distance running. Neugebauer sometimes struggles in the 110-meter high hurdles.

“For the 1,500, I can feel my weight a little bit, after the first 1½ laps," Neugebauer said.

Ashton Eaton, an American who won Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016, is half a foot shorter than Neugebauer and was a whopping 65 pounds lighter when in his top form. But Eaton said Neugebauer’s long limbs can be an advantage.

“To me, it’s clear that Leo’s super-strong for being that big," Eaton said. “And he has long levers. So if you have enough power to move those things, you generate a lot of force."

Neugebauer is so organized that a recent list of his daily tasks includes 10 minutes twice a week to “write lists." He just graduated with a degree in economics and a minor in entrepreneurship, and hopes to start a business someday.

Right now, he markets himself. Neugebauer grins easily. He dances in the discus ring. In a recent Instagram video, he joked that the “real reason" he competed in track wasn’t winning medals but achieving a well-formed backside—using a peach emoji to underline his point.

“It is fun coaching him," said Jim Garnham, a Texas assistant track coach. “He has a good time but he gets the work done."

When opposing schools’ athletic officials saw Neugebauer sprint 100 meters in 10.6 seconds and throw the javelin the length of two basketball courts, they would hand Texas track coaches business cards and said they’d love to see Neugebauer on their football team when he’s done at Texas. A spokesman for Longhorns football acknowledged they would have loved a chance to use Neugebauer on the gridiron.

“I know if he grew up in the United States, he would’ve never seen track and field," Garnham said. “He would’ve been a first-round draft pick in the NFL."

Neugebauer didn’t rule out trying America’s favorite sport at a future date, but it won’t be soon. Reaching the Olympics has been his top goal since childhood. Germany doesn’t have track and field trials like in the U.S., but Neugebauer is “on a good way" to meet the criteria for team selection, a spokesman for the German Olympic Sports Federation said.

If he reaches Paris, Neugebauer will likely have to contend with Canadian decathletes Pierce LePage and Damian Warner, Nos. 1 and 2 at last year’s world championships, and 2021 Olympic silver medalist and world record holder Kevin Meyer of France. If Neugebauer succeeds, he would join a proud tradition of German decathletes to win Olympic medals.

In fact, the closest decathlete medalist to Neugebauer’s size is Jürgen Hingsen, a 1984 silver medalist from the former West Germany, Olympic historian Bill Mallon said. Hingsen is half an inch shorter than Neugebauer.

Neugebauer’s fame is just starting to spread beyond his sport, and an Olympic medal would make him “come into a completely different focus because he is also an exciting, open guy," said Busemann, the 1996 silver medalist. “So far, almost only athletics fans know him because he lives in the USA and plays sports there. A medal will be a game changer for him."

Write to Rachel Bachman at Rachel.Bachman@wsj.com

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