UCSB decathlon champ Derek Masterson faces new challenges with County Fire
Derek Masterson wasn’t as hot on becoming a fireman as the other boys in Placerville.
Sometimes he’d picture himself as an architect, and other times as a mechanical engineer.
“Or maybe as a championship motorcycle rider,” said Masterson, whose appetite for all things physical led him to a record-setting career in the decathlon for the UCSB track and field team.
But firefighter? The one he knew from his old neighborhood breathed fire every time he saw young Derek.
“I really didn’t get along with him when I was growing up,” Masterson said. “He’d seen a lot in his life and he didn’t like me riding my dirt bike around his property. We had a couple of stern talking-to’s.
“I guess you could say he educated me.”
So did UCSB … and then so did the Fire Academy at Hancock College.
“I wound up falling into firefighting,” he said with a laugh, “just like I kind of fell into the decathlon.”
And now Masterson, who led the Gauchos to their only Big West Conference track and field championship in 2012, is on the frontlines battling the blitzkrieg of wildfires that have ravaged the West Coast this summer.
“It’s been my busiest season, by far,” said Masterson, who is in his third summer with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. “We were in Lompoc a few days ago, and up at the Mineral Fire before that.
“We’ve been on the Carmel Fire and we put another crew on the Creek Fire. When we get a resource order, we go where we’re needed.”
He tried three majors at UCSB — physics, biology, and mechanical engineering — before graduating in 2013 with a degree in environmental science. He also scoped out several career paths. He was a decathlete in all phases of life.
“I run a chainsaw crew now,” Masterson said. “My job is to go cut stuff down and build fuel breaks. Technically, my job title is fire control worker-slash-extra help.
“You’re kind of a jack of all trades and master of none.”
He is the decathlete of the fire department.
Cody Fleming, UCSB’s head coach for track and field, wasn’t as surprised by his career choice as a young Masterson might have been.
“He was pulled in by the challenge of the decathlon — it was the perfect way for him to test himself as an athlete — and that’s what he’s doing now as a wildland firefighter,” Fleming said. “This is probably far more grueling, but that’s also what draws him in.
“I thought it was a perfect fit for Derek.”
Masterson’s grit while pole vaulting on one leg at the 2012 Big West Championships is the stuff of legends around UCSB’s Pauley Track.
“He’d won the decathlon the previous week, but we also really needed him to place in the long jump, the javelin and the pole vault to finish ahead of Long Beach State — and he did in all three,” Fleming recalled. “He was pushing full steam ahead in one of his last vaults but his hamstring didn’t agree and he went down.”
Masterson persevered to clear 15 feet, 5 inches and earn critical points for the Gauchos.
“It was enough to help us win,” Fleming said. “His teammates recognized him as their captain and he carried it home for everyone.”
Masterson overcame even more aches and pains to repeat as the Big West decathlon champion in 2013.
“The decathlon is an injury waiting to happen, but he pieced it together and had a very good javelin throw,” Fleming said. “He won the conference title by having to battle through every event.
“It’s funny, but when I look back at Derek’s career, his most impressive moments came when his body was hanging by a thread.”
Those injuries did hinder him from making the 2013 NCAA Championships. He missed qualifying by just 30 points. His UCSB’s coaches felt so badly that they gave him one last fling as a Gaucho when his body finally healed, entering him in that summer’s Texas Greatest Athlete Meet.
“Derek bled and sweat for this program for five years and put his personal score aside to help his team,” Fleming said at the time. “Pete (Dolan, UCSB’s former head coach) and I both agreed that now that he was healthy and ready to roll, we would give him another go at it.”
Masterson wound up scoring 7,613 points in Dallas to set the modern-day Gaucho record for the decathlon. (UCSB also recognizes the mark of 7,660 that Tom Harris set in 1980 with scoring tables that were changed in 1985).
“It got a little dicey when Derek fouled on his first two long jumps, but then he came through and cut loose with a real nice 22-footer,” Fleming recalled.
Masterson continued training with the Santa Barbara Track Club and former Gaucho coach Josh Priester. His ninth-place finish at the 2014 USA Track & Field Championships in Sacramento punched his ticket to Canada in 2015 to compete with the U.S. National Team.
“That was the pinnacle, competing at the Pan Am Games in Toronto,” Masterson said. “That was amazing, strapping up to represent the U.S.”
He came back down from that sporting high in 2016.
“I missed going to the Olympic Trials by two spots,” Masterson recalled. “That hurt. That sucked. But things just have to all line up for you.
“You’re going against the cream of the crop and everything has to be right … your genetics, your health, your diet. And you have to be good in 10 different events, you can’t just go and perform at one thing.”
Masterson, who had been a pole vaulter and soccer player in high school, was talked into trying the decathlon by former UCSB multi-events coach Keith Baker.
“I said, ‘What’s that?’” he recalled. “I’d never done that before. I’d never even heard of it before.
“He said it was 10 different events involving seven different disciplines that test your athleticism. I was young and eager, and it sounded fun.”
Fleming, Baker’s former teammate at Oregon’s Lane Community College, took over Masterson’s training when he arrived at UCSB during the fall of 2011.
“He made my career,” Masterson said. “I don’t think I could’ve done it without him.
“I called him the mad scientist because I wouldn’t know what in the heck he was talking about, and then it would all turn out great.”
The sport prepared him for his chosen career, although wildland firefighting does present other challenges.
“Track and field is an explosive sport, but you have to pace yourself in firefighting,” Masterson said. “Even the mile is just five minutes long. You might have to climb up a steep mountainside carrying a 40- to 60-pound pack as well as a chainsaw, trying to stay hydrated when it’s super-hot and dry.
“You have to physically prepare, so having been an athlete does play a role. A lot of people don’t know how to hydrate. Both are grueling in their own respects, but the continued onslaught you face as a firefighter tends to be more mentally taxing.”
His mother does “get a little worried” about the danger of his profession, Masterson conceded.
“The ‘overhead’ at Santa Barbara County Fire is well-educated and top-tier, and they really do keep us in safe places,” he said. “I trust them. We’ve had no close calls.
“But I’m sure I give Mom even more gray hairs now than when I was growing up. My dad understands it, though, and kind of likes what I’m doing.”
His parents were both track and field stars at Stanford. Brian Masterson’s hammer throw of 229 feet, 6 inches still ranks fourth in the Cardinal record books. Karen Nickerson Masterson, a two-time All-American, is sixth all-time at Stanford with a discus mark of 180-5.
“They were two amazing role models for Derek,” Fleming said. “They were both complete, no-body-fat athletes, and I think Derek got his energy system from them.”
Masterson’s younger brother, Colin, is now a top hammer thrower at Cal Poly.
Derek still feels like part of a team when the bell rings.
“There’s that camaraderie of working on a crew of 20 people,” he said. “It helps you handle the hard work part of it.
“You don’t look at yourself as a victim. You’re just getting stuff done.”
Like launching yourself over a crossbar at 15-feet-5 on a bum leg.