When Brianne Theisen-Eaton steps onto the start line in Gotzis for the 100 meter hurdles tomorrow afternoon, it will be arguably the first time ever that the multi-event star has gone into a competition of this magnitude as the clear favourite.
While she has been a contender in every major championships in the last three years, there has always seemingly been another athlete whom the media have favoured. Yet this weekend in the absence of reigning champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson, with whom she would have shared the tag of top athlete, no-one can argue that the 2013 champion isn’t now the one to beat.
Speaking last week alongside her husband, Olympic champion and world record holder Ashton Eaton, before they headed to Europe, Theisen-Eaton, said she was looking forward to returning to Austria for a third year in a row: “I’m excited about it, it’s my favourite multi-event, the atmosphere is just great and so are all the competitors. It’s not as stressful as a world championships or an Olympics so that makes it a lot more fun. I’m excited to go back, I feel fit and ready to compete.”
Although being favourite would usually mean heaping lots of extra pressure on the 26 year old’s shoulders, whilst placing her under the intense spotlight, it is not something she will have to worry about on this occasion. While Theisen-Eaton will be plugging away at the top of the leaderboard, the world’s attention will be focused on the plight of another former winner of the competition, Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill.
Returning to the seven event spectacle for the first time since winning gold at London 2012 almost three years ago, the Brit now has different targets in mind to what we would have imagined back then. Rather than discuss her chances of victory she has spoken in depth about targeting the Rio Olympics and world championship qualifying standards in Austria.
A stance that makes the chance of beating her for the very first time even more possible for the likes of Theisen-Eaton. Nevertheless as we discuss the subject of Ennis-Hill’s return, the Canadian says that win or lose against her rival, her respect for her will not change: “You know I’ve thought about that [Ennis-Hill’s return] I know I’m still going to be star struck by her and still like looking at her like wow she is so great” she says “Even if I beat her it’s still going to be that respect for her and what’s she’s trying to do.”
“Having the performance she did in London and coming back after having a baby and knowing okay I’m not going to be where I was before and being okay with that I think takes a really strong person mentally and I don’t think just anybody can do that. I think it takes a special person. I have nothing but respect for her in trying to do that.”
“I’m excited to see how she does and I really do hope just the best for her in whatever she decides to do. If it is the heptathlon then good. Track and field is all about competition, so to me the more people up there competing the better the performances and that excites me!”
The poignance of Ennis-Hill in the milestones of Theison-Eaton’s career so far, even if inadvertent should not go unnoticed. After all it was at the world championships in Berlin in 2009 that a then 20 year-old College sophomore made her major championship debut in the midst of the Brit becoming world champion. Then again at London 2012 as her rival became the face of the games, back in 11th place Theison-Eaton was also soaking up the Olympic atmosphere.
However it is arguably the developments that have come since the Olympic champion’s absence that provide the clearest indication of her development; with two world silvers and Commonwealth gold in the space of two years taking her from an Olympic also ran to a serious Rio 2016 contender.
Speaking about his wife’s improvements since 2009, Eaton struggles to put her developments into words: “There’s not a chart big enough, when you were talking about Jess, I remember having a picture, we [Ashton and Brianne] both went to the 2009 Berlin World Champs and I have a picture of all the heptathletes doing their victory laps and Brianne is holding Jessica’s hand and I just think of that Brianne, two years into college and now, and it’s just mad.” He said “You can’t really chart it and therefore you can’t really explain it, very simply she’s grown a lot. Physically, mentally, experienced wise it’s all good.”
In her growth as an athlete Theisen-Eaton has become arguably the most consistent heptathlete of this decade, scoring close to 1,000 points in five of her seven disciplines on almost every occasion. Leaving her only weakness to be her throwing. However, after combatting the injuries that had prevented her from training for the javelin she is confident that we will see improvements in her performance in that event and the shot put: “The last two or three years I haven’t been able to throw the javelin very much because I’ve got issues with my back. But we’ve addressed those issues, I’ve been able to throw javelin twice a week for the last two months so I finally got that work in.
“All of last year I competed off of maybe three javelin sessions in the whole year, so I’m excited for 2015, I think I’ll definitely have a better feel for it and understanding. I know that I’ll throw further than I did all of last year, I think they’re could be a PB in there if everything comes together, but I would just be happy with getting out there. It’s more of a mental block for me, I just want to do it correctly and sometimes that’s the hardest barrier to break.”
“In the shot put I’ve been throwing really well in practice, so again it’s another mental thing. I need to be able to do that in a competition, so I’ve been working mentally on those two quite a bit. So they are definitely coming along and I’m seeing a lot of improvement and most importantly I’m really understanding that I know that when I do something wrong” she adds.
Should a personal best come in either event, then Theisen-Eaton could be set to produce something special that would not only justify her tag of favourite in Gotzis but also going into the world championships in Beijing. Meaning that it could soon be Ennis-Hill that is holding her hand on the victory lap by the end of this summer.