Dave Hunter’s column this week is on Curtis Beach as Dave eyes the future of the decathlon. Dave tells us the story of the final event in Ashton Eaton’s World record decathlon and the part Curtis Beach played.
photo by PhotoRun.net
Duke’s Curtis Beach Is One Of A New Breed Of Emerging American Decathletes
August 19, 2012
At the 2008 Olympic Trials, great attention was directed toward the decathlon and the battle for the three Olympic team positions. The event was hotly contested with winner Bryan Clay — who would go on to win Olympic gold in Beijing — setting a new Trials record of 8832 points. In addition, all three Olympic qualifiers — Clay, Trey Hardee, and Tom Pappas — eclipsed Bruce Jenner’s Hayward Field decathlon record of 8459 points, a mark which had stood since 1976. Without question, those two days back in 2008 will long be remembered in the annals of American decathlon lore.
But there was a facet of that spirited competition that largely went unnoticed. Back in fifth place, missing an Olympic team spot, was a gifted, yet unrefined athlete. He was strong, fast, and immensely coordinated. But he was also raw, overly-enthusiastic, undisciplined, and still learning the event. Over the two days of decathlon competition, the attentive observers present in Hayward Field knew they were watching a University of Oregon sophomore who possessed enormous decathlon potential. When the competition concluded, they were left to imagine just how accomplished Ashton Eaton would become. They got their answer — or at least a glimpse of it — this summer.
The marvelous evolution over the past 4 years of Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Ashton Eaton has reshaped the way that track & field fans watch the decathlon. At the 2012 Trials, there was, of course, dominating attention accorded to the Big Three: Eaton, Hardee, and Clay. But, unlike 4 years earlier, growing numbers of track & field aficionados were alertly scanning the field to spot the next emerging stars. They are out there in good number. This is a robust period for American multi-event athletes as the convergence of raw young talent, skillful coaching specialists, and patient, long-view approaches to athletic development is beginning to produce a new breed of promising American decathletes.
One stand-out member of this new breed — along with other impressive young decathletes such as Gray Horn, Mike Morrison, and Miller Moss — is Curtis Beach. Already an accomplished multi-event athlete as he prepares to begin his junior year at Duke University, Beach showed signs early that he had special athletic potential. Beach developed a love of running at an early age. As a six-year old growing up in Albuquerque, he would crawl under barbed-wire fencing just for the opportunity to chase after wild horses…which he did for hours at a time – a sort of High Plains fartlek. Later on, as a young and disinterested soccer player, Beach would purposely misbehave at team practices so, as Beach confides, “my coach would make me run laps.”
It didn’t take long for this raw energy and talent to get noticed. Jim Ciccarello — a long-time high school coach in Albuquerque – first lit the fire for Beach. Spotting the youngster in sixth grade, Ciccarello encouraged Curtis to try different events, to experiment. “He would encourage me by saying, ‘try the hurdles, try the high jump,'” notes Beach, adding “He’d tell me ‘Let me set you up with someone to get you to pole vault, to be a thrower. See what you can do.'” By the time Beach was in 8th grade, he competed in his first decathlon.
The support continued as Beach entered Albuquerque Academy. As a gangly 9th grader with boundless energy and a large reservoir of untapped talent, Curtis was already doing some multis. But he was unsure whether or not he wanted to specialize in the decathlon, play basketball; run the 800; be a hurdler, etc. That’s when Beach met Coach Adam Kedge, an influence that would shape his athletic direction – and his life. Beach holds Kedge in the highest regard, noting “He is not only a great coach, but also a great person, the perfect guy to manage a group of young athletes and develop them into great people. He was certainly that kind of guy for me.” Early on, Kedge let Beach know that he would have his unconditional support no matter where he elected to channel his athletic talent. “He told me that whatever I would choose to pursue, he would support me.” This expression of unconditional support was empowering to Beach who knew that Kedge would be there whatever pathway he ultimately would choose.
With Kedge’s guidance and support, Beach chose it all. While at Albuquerque Academy, he won 17 high school state titles — in just about every event imaginable. Winning state championships in such diverse events as the high jump, the 110 hurdles, the long jump, and the pole vault, Beach undertook with gusto the broad array of events Kedge suggested. “I participated in whatever events would score the most points for the team, events where we didn’t otherwise have guys in them,” says Beach. Smiling, Beach notes, “I never did my best event – the 800 — because we already had a good distance team.”
Beach continues to refine his multi-event skills at Duke University where, Beach is quick to state: “I am around great people.” Balancing his time between the decathlon and his psychology major, he is guided by Shawn Wilbourn, Duke’s assistant head track & field coach and multi-event specialist. Beach has come to appreciate the long view that Wilbourn brings to decathlete development, noting “He is one of the coaches that focuses more on long term development. He is looking on off into the future because he wants me to do well after college — as opposed to just bulking me up to score the most points in college.”
As his decathlon skills continue to blossom, it is clear that Beach’s primary strength is his running. Seeing this as a distinct advantage, the young athlete notes that “most of the decathlon events including the field events have to do with running. I am fortunate to have a great range – I can run pretty well in the 100 and can transfer that all the way up to the 1500” – an observation that is a clear understatement when it is appreciated that Beach has run a decathlon 100 in 10.7 and closed out a 10-event competition with a sub-4:00 1500.
But Beach has unharvested potential in other areas as well. “I feel I can score more points in the jumps and the throws,” states the 6 foot, 170 pound athlete. “I feel if I can add to my strength, I can get more points in the high jump and in the pole vault.”
Under Wilbourn’s guidance, Beach has further developed his skills and translated that into good performances when it counts. As a freshman, he captured the runner-up position in the 2011 NCAA Div I decathlon. This year, with his sights on the Olympic Trials, he purposely skipped the NCAA 10-event competition and competed instead in the long jump and the 800. How’d he do? He long jumped 24′ 11Â¼” [7.60m] and lowered his 800 P.R. to 1:47.7. Who else can match that double?
At the Olympic Trials, Beach was there to compete and see how he could perform on the larger stage. Like the other decathletes, Beach had to find a way to compete in the reflective glare of the Big Three. “It was nice to know that we were surrounded by a group that would perform very well,” states Beach. “I just focused on what I needed to do.” Entering the competition with a lifetime best of 8084, Beach knew the Trials would be a perfect setting to compete and improve. But he also knew that he would have to assemble a truly magical string of performances to make himself a bona fide contender for an Olympic team spot. As the competition unfolded, the annoying Oregon showers hindered all athletes, but proved to be especially tough on Beach whose sub-par marks in the h
igh jump and pole vault sullied his 10-event scorecard. With two events remaining – the javelin and the 1500 – Beach knew that nothing magical would be happening for him that day. But he was wrong.
Like the other competitors, Beach had been working diligently to maintain his focus on his own performance. But — let’s be honest — the decathletes had more than an inkling of the other-worldly marks Eaton was posting. “I knew he had a shot at the world record when, after the pole vault, Eaton came up to me,” says Beach. “Ashton looked at me and said, ‘I need over 60 meters and I need under 4:20 and I’ll get the record.’ He didn’t need to say another word. We both knew exactly what he meant by ‘the record.'”
Even after Eaton failed to throw 60 meters in the Javelin – he threw 58.87m — “the record” was still in play. Announcer Frank Zarnnowski – this galaxy’s decathlon wizard — advised the Hayward Field throng that a 1500 finale by Eaton in 4:17 would set a new world record. Before the start of the 1500, Beach, willing to help in the final event, approached Eaton who politely declined assistance and encouraged Beach to run his own race. And as the decathletes gathered at the top of the back straightaway for the start of the 10th event, the sense of anticipation was building in Hayward Field. Beach recalls how the stars and planets seemed to be perfectly aligned: “Going into the 1500, we all knew that something really special was about to happen. It was almost as if everything was set up perfectly for him to break the record. He had me and Joe Detmer to set the pace out there. On top of that, you had all of the previous Olympic gold medalists in the decathlon from the USA in attendance – so that made it special. And you had the crowd giving a standing ovation for the entire 1500. And, after it had been raining for the first 9 events, the sun opened up. It was a surreal moment.”
As the starting gun fired, and as Eaton encouraged, Beach did run his own race. Beach quickly went to the front with Eaton, paced by Detmer, in pursuit. “I just took it out and ran the pace I wanted,” recalls Beach. “After two, laps I was watching the Jumbotron to see where he [Eaton] was. I was listening to Zarnowski reporting the splits. At the bell lap, Zarnowski announced that Eaton was behind pace by a few seconds. I didn’t think he was going to be able to make it. I began to run a little faster starting the last lap, hoping it would encourage Ashton to pick it up. With 200 to go, I looked behind me, and Ashton was making up a lot of ground. With a 100 meters to go, I looked back and he had made up even more ground. He was just killing it on the last lap.”
But then the young athlete made an unexpected and spontaneous move for which he will long be remembered. “With 50-60 meters to go, I just stepped out to the side and cheered him on. I’m yelling, ‘Go Ashton, you can do this!’,” explains Beach. His gesture of respect permitted Eaton to take the lead on the final straightaway. But even then Beach was unsure that Eaton’s last lap surge would be enough. “It was close. I had no idea if he was going to run the time. When we crossed the line, I knew he would be right on the borderline to break the record. And I think I realized before he did that he had run 4:14 and had broken the record. It was such an amazing moment.”
Curtis Beach downplays his intentional surrender in the final straightaway – even though his selfless act has been widely praised as a wonderful and unplanned gesture of class and respect. He doesn’t seek special recognition for that. But many, perhaps more accurately, suspect what he really wants is the opportunity in his career to participate in yet another record-setting decathlon — one where he might have a leading role.