Ashton Eaton: Good as Gold
Tomorrow in London atop the awards podium, Ashton Eaton will bow his head, a presenter will place the ribbon bearing the gold medal around his neck, and the national anthem of the United States of America will ring out for the 80,000 fans who witnessed Olympic history.
And as the “Star Spangled Banner” plays, tears will flow, most certainly for his mother Roslyn and his fiancÃ© Brianne Theisen, perhaps even for his wily coach Harry Marra. And, try as he might to fight them, they will come in this moment for Eaton, TrackTown USA’s newest star.
Let the record show that Ashton Eaton, the 2010 University Oregon alum and Bend native, won the decathlon gold medal Thursday by scoring 8,869 points. Fellow American Trey Hardee took the silver with 8,675 points. And for the first time since 1956, Americans will occupy the top two spots on the decathlon medal stand.
“You don’t choose the decathlon, the decathlon chooses you.”
Those were Eaton’s words shortly after breaking the world record at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June at Historic Hayward Field. Some five years before that, on a windy March weekend in Tucson, Ariz., Eaton, then a freshman at Oregon, competed in his first-ever decathlon. And the choice was made.
The sprints have never been much of a problem for Eaton. He opened that first-ever decathlon by running the 100 meters in 10.66 seconds, good for 938 points. Wednesday in London, Eaton set an Olympic record by running 10.35 and scoring 1,011 points.
That gave him a 17-point lead over Hardee that he would never relinquish.
You know his story. Born in Portland. As a young child, he and his mother Roslyn relocated first to La Pine and later to Bend. A terrific all-around athlete, he ran track, played football and wrestled at Mountain View High School. Would have made an outstanding shortstop – heck let’s be honest, he still would. But track took hold stronger than anything else.
It’s probably no coincidence that two of Eaton’s best events, the 100 meters and the long jump, have lead to successful starts in most of his career decathlon competitions. In that first decathlon in 2007, Eaton leapt 23-11/7.19m for 859 points. Wednesday, he went 26-4.25/8.03m and scored 1,068 points.
That boosted his overall lead to 143 points over Hardee.
Lightly recruited out of high school, Oregon assistant head coach Dan Steele, now the head coach at Northern Iowa, saw a world of potential in the lanky young man who was mainly a jumper and sprinter. Though he had hardly thrown a javelin, shot or discus – let alone attempted the pole vault – when he signed his National Letter of Intent to compete at Oregon, Steele proved to be more intuitive than he could ever imagine.
The throws are admittedly Eaton’s weaker events, and the shot put may yet rank at the bottom. Still, he’s come a long way from that meet in Tucson, where he put the shot 39-3.25/11.97m for 605 points. At the Olympics, he threw a decathlon personal-best 48-1.25/14.66m to score 769 points.
Hardee answered at 50-1.75/15.28m to cut Eaton’s lead to 105 points.
Steele left for Northern Iowa after Eaton’s junior season and Director of Track and Field Vin Lananna brought in Harry Marra, a well-respected veteran in track circles, but otherwise unknown to the general populace, as Oregon’s new combined events coach. That would mark the beginning of a partnership that has produced mind-boggling results.
One event where Eaton has improved dramatically, but hasn’t received as much attention as other areas, is the high jump. That first decathlon produced a best clearance at 6-3.25/1.92m (731 points). Wednesday, Eaton opened with the bar at 6-4/1.93m and sailed through first attempt clearances at 6-5/1.96m, 6-6.25/1.99m, 6-7.5/2.02m and 6-8.75/2.05m before bowing out at 6-9.75/2.08m.
That clearance was worth 850 points and moved his overall lead over Hardee to 161 points.
Ashton won his fourth and fifth NCAA titles his senior season in 2010, the last of which came in the decathlon at a sold out Hayward Field. Hayward Field is also where he met Brianne Theisen, a Duck track student-athlete and now, herself an Olympian representing Canada in the heptathlon. Theisen has the most NCAA titles among the two of them at seven, a number surpassed by only three women in NCAA history. The two plan to marry next summer.
In another event that has always been a strength for Eaton, he timed 48.55 in the 400 meters for 883 points five years ago. In London yesterday, Eaton won the event in 46.90, scoring 963 points.
Following the first five events of day one in London, Eaton scored 4,661 points, 220 clear of Hardee.
At the end of day one in that first competition five years ago, he tallied 4,016 points.
“When you’re in the moment of competition, you are so deeply inside of it that you can’t admire it,” Eaton said in June. “It’s like you’re behind the wheel, driving the car. To appreciate the car, you have to be standing outside of it, watching it move past.”
110 Meter Hurdles
The second day opens with arguably his best event. Eaton got off to a good start five years ago in Tucson by running 14.92 for 859 points. Eaton opened day two in London with a crisp 13.56 in the 110 meter hurdles to score 1,032 points.
Hardee was just a hair faster, 13.54, as Eaton’s lead dipped three points to 217.
After college, things really started to move fast. He won the Bowerman Award as the nation’s top collegiate athlete. He qualified for the world championships and a year later in 2011, won his first U.S. title. He also broke the world record in the heptathlon, something he’s now done three times since his senior year at Oregon. He also joined OTC Elite, meaning he would stay in TrackTown as a post-collegian.
Initially, day two was a challenge for Eaton with a pair of throws and the pole vault. The first throw, discus, went a mere 124-5/37.93m in his initial decathlon (859 points). Thursday, Eaton took care of business with a best effort of 139-6/42.53m, scoring 716 points.
Hardee made his final run at Eaton in this event, topping out with a best throw of 154-8/48.26m. He earned 834 points for that throw, slicing Eaton’s lead to 99 points, the lowest margin since the first event of the competition.
The 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials proved to be the culmination of all Eaton’s hard work over the past five years. Before an overjoyed Hayward Field crowd, Eaton, at 24 years of age, scored a world-record 9,039 points. More than anyone ever in the history of organized sports. The two best American decathletes in the 1,500 meters, Curtis Beach and Joe Detmer, paced him to that world record and then pulled up at the end of the race to allow Eaton to finish first, demonstrating the deep respect and admiration for Eaton among his peers.
In his first decathlon pole vault, Eaton slipped the bonds of gravity for a second or two and then tumbled awkwardly and ingloriously over the bar at 12-3.5/3.75m for 623 points. His pole vault form was akin to Charles Barkely’s golf swing.
In the most dramatic of improvements, Eaton soared over the bar at 17-0.75/5.20m Thursday at the Olympics before calling it good and attempting no additional heights. He was awarded 972 points for that clearance.
Meanwhile, Hardee maxed out at 15-9/4.80m. Eaton’s lead grew to the largest of the competition at 222 points.
On the eve of the Olympic decathlon, coach Marra emailed the following message. “Preparations completed. Health 100 percent. Weather report favorable. Spirits high. All is good. Now, execution. Looking forward to this challenge. We'll make it fun. Thanks for all your support.”
Far and away, Eaton’s biggest improvement has come in the technically challenging javelin. On that day in March of 2007, Eaton managed a toss of 110-4/33.65m for a paltry 351 points.
He nearly doubled that on Thursday, setting a personal best with a mighty throw of 203-3/61.96m and 767 points. Hardee had an excellent effort of 218-8/66.65m, which left him in total control of the silver medal and 153 points behind Eaton.
Essentially, Eaton had the gold medal wrapped up after his first legal throw in the javelin. But as he entered the final event, the 1,500 meters, he now carried the weight of not only a university and a state, but also an entire nation eager for decathlon gold and now a stadium some 80,000 strong cheering him on. Yet it was those same hopes and dreams that seemed to lift him as he effortlessly floated around the track those final laps, soaking in every stride. Just for a moment, all of us felt like we were a part of something special.
Rarely has Eaton had to push himself in the 1,500 to eke out a win in the combined events. His first decathlon produced a time of 4:56.62 and 579 points. Thursday’s 1,500 meters in London might as well have been a jog on Pre’s Trail back in Eugene. He finished in a comfortable 4:33.59 for his final 721 points. And the gold medal was bound for TrackTown.
He’s a five time NCAA Champion, two-time U.S. Champion, World record-holder and now Ashton Eaton is an Olympic gold medalist. No one has ever performed better in the decathlon; perhaps no one ever will. He will bear that burden with humility, dignity, grace and poise.
We know this not just because he’s a Duck, but because always and forever Ashton Eaton is one of us.
One final note about that first decathlon in Tucson, he won scoring 6,977 points. Five years and almost two thousand points later, he won Olympic gold.
Eaton joined an exceptionally exclusive list of Ducks to win an Olympic gold medal: Otis Davis in the 400 meters and 4x400 meter relay, Rome, 1960; Mac Wilkins in the discus, Montreal, 1976; and Joaquim Cruz, in the 800 meters for Brazil, Los Angeles, 1984.
“It’s hard to put into words, but the feeling is the same as when I was a 9-year-old kid, only now I’m just doing it faster and higher and farther,” said Eaton back in June at the Olympic Trials. “It’s like you’re living your entire lifetime in two days, with all the highs and lows, moments of joy and moments of heartbreak. Everybody loves life, which is why everybody can respond to the decathlon.”
All across the State of Oregon, we respond with cheers and tears from Astoria to Burns, Brookings to Ontario, Portland to Medford, Hood River to Klamath Falls and most definitely from La Pine to Eugene.
We’ll stand with our hands over our hearts and sing the anthem along with him. It will be impossible to contain the pride and joy welling up within.
Because Ashton Eaton is indeed good as gold.
University of Oregon