June 23, 2012
Maybe the weather should have been an omen Saturday. After two days of rain at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, the sun emerged just before the start of the concluding 1,500 meters in the decathlon. In retrospect, it was like the decathlon gods were smiling because they knew the wonderful series of events about to unfold.
In the year of the 100th birthday of the decathlon – the 10-event, two-day competition that determines the proverbial greatest athlete in the world – Ashton Eaton, born, raised and trained in Oregon, treated a record crowd of 21,795 at Hayward Field to a world record. Thus Eugene, which bills itself as Track Town USA, had its fourth world record in the decathlon, one more than Los Angeles; Helskinki, Finland; and Gotzis, Austria.
But this was unlike any other world record in the event and not because Eaton lives within walking distance of the track. After Eaton’s dramatic 1,500 that beat his previous best time by two seconds, he and his fellow competitors took a victory lap that included a receiving line of America’s other living Olympic gold medalists and world recordholders: Milt Campbell (1956 Olympics), Rafer Johnson (1960), Bill Toomey (1968), Bruce Jenner (1976), Dan O’Brien (1996) and Bryan Clay (2008), who also competed Saturday but failed to make the team for the London Olympics in August. Also on the track were the two living sons of Jim Thorpe, who won the first Olympic decathlon in 2012 in Helsinki.
“That was a really big deal,” said Eaton, 24, a 2010 University of Oregon grad. “Those guys represent the entire lifespan of the sport. They’ve kind of been there and done that.”
Eaton will enter London as the favorite to be the next U.S. champ. His score of 9,039 points broke by 13 points the mark set by the Czech Republic’s Roman Seberle in 2001 in Gotzis. Eaton is the greatest sprinter in the history of the event.
Photo by PhotoRun.net
He began the competition Friday with two decathlon world records, a 10.21 in the 100 meters and a 27-0 in the long jump, both done in the rain. He finished the day with a shot put of 46-71/4, a 6-83/4 high jump and a 46.70 in the 400. On Saturday he went 13.70 in the 110 hurdles, 140-5 in the discus, 17-41/2 in the pole vault, 193-2 in the javelin and 4:14.48 in the 1,500.
The results were all the more impressive because of the rain. Frank Zarnowski, the world’s foremost authority on the decathlon, estimates that Eaton conservatively would have added 100 more points in decent weather.
“That was definitely the wettest decathlon I’ve ever done in my life,” said two-time world champion Trey Hardee, who finished second (8,383). “I hope that when they put Ashton’s record in the books that there are parentheses and asterisks — everything you can put behind it – to say how crummy the conditions were and how impressive the mark is.”
As Eaton, articulate and thoughtful in a post-race press conference, put it, “It’s not about the numbers. It’s all about the little stuff you don’t see.”
Like when Harry Marra, Eaton’s coach and an Oregon volunteer assistant, met with Eaton under the stadium stands after the pole vault. The coach was pumped about the clearance that came on his third and final attempt at the mark: “There was a smoking headwind. Most people would have aborted the jump. He took it up and smoked it. That speaks highly of the kind of person he is.”
With the javelin and 1,500 left, the coach gave Eaton a couple of reminders on javelin technique. Eaton decided to cut to the chase: “What do I have to throw and run to get the American record?”
Marra: “Ashton, the world record.”
“At that moment,” Eaton said, “I saw his belief in me and I was like, ‘Let’s go do it then.'”
Before the 1,500, Eaton knew he needed to run 4:16.47 to get the world record and what splits were necessary to get the time, equivalent to a 4:37 mile. Curtis Beach, a Duke sophomore and the best 1,500 runner in the field, approached Eaton to offer his pacing assistance: “Dude, I can help if you want it.” Eaton told him to run his own race.
Eaton positioned himself behind Beach and Joe Detmer, both of whom began to pull away. With 400 meters to go, Eaton was two seconds behind the goal pace as the crowd clapped rhythmically with his progress around the track.
“With 600 meters to go I became a firm believer – not that there was much doubt before – that the Hayward magic does exist because I felt it for 600 meters big time,” Eaton said. “Especially with 400 to go when I knew I was two seconds off, I knew there was no way I was not going to get the world record.”
He rallied for an impressive and unofficial 63 seconds for the last lap. Beach could have won the race comfortably but, viewing the jumbo video screens, realized Eaton and Detmer were closing fast. He deliberately slowed and veered right as did Detmer so Eaton could win. “I was running hard; I was surprised at how much ground they made up the last lap,” Beach said. “I just thought it was right for him to win the race where he breaks the world record.”
Eaton told Beach and Detmer their efforts helped pull him. He also credited the other competitors for helping him calm the jitters and the dread that came before the 1,500. “I had the help of the decathletes kind of distract me,” he said. “They were all supportive. There were a lot of high fives. A lot of ‘Cmon, man, you can do this.’ Of course, I was nervous, but I wasn’t shaking. I kind of felt in the moment for once, which was nice. I didn’t necessarily doubt myself. I knew that there may not be another opportunity so I was going to make this one count.”
impressed O’Brien, who had several record opportunities negated by poor 1,500s. “It’s real easy when you’re way ahead to have that letdown,” O’Brien said. “That’s what separates him even from myself. I don’t know if would have run my guts out in the 1500.
“He’s in position but he went for it and there were no letdowns. The most impressive thing was he kept up his intensity in this weather. I certainly didn’t think he could break the world record when you see rain coming down like this. With that mindset and athletic ability, nobody will be able to touch him.”
Barring the unforeseen, Eaton will be a heavy favorite in London. Marra doesn’t think the pressure will be a factor. “He’s really a grounded kid,” the coach said.
Eaton’s fiancÃ©e, Brianne Theisen, an Oregon product and two-time NCAA heptathlon champion, also thinks Eaton will be able to handle the expectations. Eaton, Theisen and Marra soon will be off to the Canadian trials, where Theisen is a heavy favorite to make the Olympic team.
“A lot of people say Ashton is a ‘complete package’ and he is,” Marra said. “On the track, off the track, humanistically, he’s just a great all-around person. He deals with the chaos of the decathlon very well. He’s obviously athletically gifted. He thrives on competition.”
Once the competition starts in London, Eaton should feel right at home even though he won’t be in Eugene. He’ll be with his decathlon buddies doing what he loves the most.
“The reason the decathlon is so appealing is because it’s like living an entire lifetime in two days,” Eaton said. “You have the ups and the downs, the good and the bads, the comebacks. All that. And it all happens in two days. Everybody loves life and that’s why we love the decathlon. It seems it’s just like it.”
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