Curtis Pugsley was just a small-town kid who grew up working on a ranch in Park Valley (pop. 150), a small town tucked away in the northwest corner of Utah.
When the 6-2, 165 sophomore was younger, he ran in a few grade school track meets, but it wasn't exactly his favorite thing. His older brother Jake tried to get him excited about the sport by fashioning a homemade venue in a field nearby the house. He dug a long jump pit and filled it with sand, placing a board at the end of the dirt runway leading up to it to mark the takeoff point. He painted a shot put ring on the concrete pad that was intended to serve as a basketball court. He even made a high jump pit out of a parachute stuffed with foam. But looking back on those early years, Pugsley says he failed to cultivate much of a fondness for track and field right away.
"I hated it," Pugsley said of the rigorous workouts his brother would put him through in hopes of sparking an interest. "Track was probably my least favorite sport."
Not exactly the kind of beginning that would suggest future greatness in a sport that he didn't even like. But not far removed from those early days of dislike, Pugsley would begin to develop an appreciation for a sport would soon become almost a simple game for him.
Pugsley was very athletic as a kid, and developed an affinity for sports at a young age. In fact, the Utah Summer Games were an annual event in which his whole family participated. Yet while the environment was in place around him, like most young athletes, it took Curtis a while to decide that he really wanted to focus on just one sport.
During his four years at Bear River High School, Pugsley played on the football and basketball teams. He had two older siblings who had run track, so he decided to give that a shot as well. After all, his father had run track in high school, and his grandfather was a hurdler at BYU. Pugsley had success in the other sports; he was named All-State as a receiver in football. However, once he began to compete in the decathlon in high school, it didn't take long to realize that this was something he might want to pursue.
"In the decathlon I really felt like I had found my niche," Pugsley says. "I finally knew what I wanted to do."
While the decathlon is not typically run at every high school meet, Pugsley had several opportunities to compete in the event. One of his first experiences was at the BYU Invitational his sophomore year. He did well enough in that meet that he decided he wanted to come back the next year and win it. And he did just that, taking the title in both his junior and senior years.
But the competition didn't stop there. Each year in Washington, the best decathletes from around the country are flown in for a prestigious meet that bears the name of U.S. Olympic decathlete Dan O'Brien. Pugsley received an invitation to the meet twice, and took home the championship in 1997. That same year, he also won the Great Southwest meet and a Utah State Championship. By the time he was finished at Bear River High, Pugsley had left his mark with six school records on the books in track and field. Pugsley set the national high school decathlon record as an All-American in 1997. Still, his tremendous success at the high school level was just the beginning.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pugsley's post-high school plans included a two-year service mission for the church. While some athletes choose to compete at the university level for a year before embarking on missionary service, Pugsley decided that he would leave in December, before the track season began. The only potential problem he could foresee would be the timing of his return. He talked with BYU assistant coach Mark Robison about his options.
"My suggestion to him was to extend his mission into January, and then enroll in classes the next fall," Robison said. "That way he would have plenty of time after he got home to get back into shape and get ready for the season, without losing any eligibility."
The only problem was that Curtis didn't like that idea. He thought about it for a while, but then he told his coach he would be back and that he would compete.
Pugsley spent two years in the Australia Perth Mission. During that time, his "workouts" to try to stay in shape consisted mostly of occasional sessions of push-ups and sit-ups. When he returned home, Curtis found that he had lost 25 pounds, so his immediate training focus turned to the weight room.
It would be hard enough for an athlete to begin training again, after a two-year layoff, and get back in shape for one or two running or throwing events. But as a decathlete, Pugsley faced a formidable challenge in preparing himself to compete in 10 different events. The decision to redshirt the indoor season was an easy one. But Curtis still had intentions of getting back to competition in the outdoor season. Head coach Willard Hirschi, who had been involved with the BYU track program for over 35 years, had seen plenty of return missionaries try to come back too soon. His response to Pugsley's eagerness to get back on the field was summed up in two words: "We'll see."
However, just three days before the first outdoor meet, Pugsley got the word he had been waiting to hear from his coach.
"We're going to run you," Hirschi told him.
The coach knew he was probably taking a chance, but it paid off. Pugsley set a personal record in the high jump-an event he had hardly practiced since his return. The advice from his coach now was simple.
"Don't get injured," Hirschi warned.
Fortunately, Curtis was able to follow that advice, and with each successive competition, his performance became more and more impressive.
Pugsley got his first shot at the decathlon at the BYU Robison Invitational in April. In his first collegiate decathlon, and just four months removed from his time abroad, Curtis took second place in the meet. Even more impressive, however, was the fact that his score of 7,174 points was enough to provisionally qualify him for the NCAA Championships.
Proving that the Robison meet was no fluke, Pugsley came back less than a month later and won the decathlon at the Mountain West Conference Championships. He set a PR in each of the first nine events on his way to scoring 7,525 points. In addition, he took second in the high jump and third in the pole vault to win the award for the most points scored by a single athlete. And if that wasn't enough, he also took home the trophy for conference Freshman of the Year.
By any standards, at that point Pugsley's season would have been considered an enormous success. But Curtis wasn't through yet. Going into the NCAA Championship meet, his score in the decathlon ranked him among the top 10 collegiate athletes in the country. And while there was every indication that he had a legitimate shot at earning All-America honors as a freshman, Pugsley was humbled by the opportunity at hand.
"At the NCAA meet, I just felt privileged to be there," Pugsley said. "I didn't expect it in the beginning, and I was just excited to be running with all these big-time athletes."
Whether he realized it or not, Pugsley was quickly becoming one of those "big-time athletes" himself.
After two days of competition against the best collegiate athletes in the country, Curtis topped his MWC performance by scoring 7,531 points, good enough for a sixth-place finish. He had made a goal to become an All-American, and he had accomplished it. And while Pugsley now sets his sights on next year's championship meet, his coach reflects, in awe, on what he has accomplished already.
"To have him do what he did," Robison says, "I would have never thought it possible. But Curtis is just an incredible kid. He is a great competitor and he works extremely hard."
While there is plenty of hard work in store for Pugsley to continue his winning ways, coach Robison assures that his future looks very bright.
"Curtis has a lot of goals," Robison says. "He wants to score around 8,000 points at nationals next year, and if he does that, he should have a real good shot at winning the thing."
Pugsley has also given some thought to the Olympics in 2004, and it's another goal that is not far beyond his reach.
"If he continues to improve as he has been doing, then I think that (the Olympics) is a legitimate, realistic goal for him," Robison says. "He's only about a year or two away from being a serious competitor at the national and maybe even the international level."
Not bad for a kid who didn't even like track and field that much to begin with.