Ashton Eaton‘s longtime coach wasn’t looking when the Olympic decathlon champion jumped into and over the top of a padded crash wall after the Millrose Games 60m hurdles on Valentine’s Day.
“I’m glad I didn’t see it,” said Harry Marra, who had turned following the indoor race in New York, where Eaton finished third, and wondered, “Where the hell’s Ashton?”
To Marra’s relief, Eaton landed safely from an obscured drop of at least 10 feet. The episode reminded Marra of a meet in Estonia in 2011, when Eaton performed a similar feat following a 60m sprint.
At Millrose, Eaton popped out from behind the wall a few seconds following the leap and later delivered roses to his wife, Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton, and finished third in the long jump.
It’s about as busy of a meet for Eaton in 11 months. He last completed a decathlon Aug. 11, 2013, at the World Championships.
He returns to the event with a spring in his step this coming outdoor season, with an eye on repeating as World champion and, in 2016, becoming the third man to win multiple Olympic decathlons.
In training for the 2013 Worlds, athlete and coach decided that Eaton would take the following year off from the decathlon. Eaton was exhausted from 10-event training — as was Marra, “I was shot to hell,” — and 2014 was a fallow year in track and field. No Olympics. No World Outdoor Championships.
Nobody was within 130 points of Eaton in the decathlon at the 2012 Olympics or 2013 Worlds. But the decision to break had nothing to do with competition, or lack thereof. It was all about fatigue, mental more than physical.
“A three-year buildup of Daegu [2011 World Championships], London and Moscow was enough,” Marra said. “So had we made the decision [to continue decathlon training in 2014], even if somebody might have been breathing down his neck, it would’ve been a mistake. You would have paid the price this year or next year.”
One of Eaton’s favorite leisure activities is playing combat video games, but he would not spend the entire 2014 outdoor season exercising only a joystick.
He considered entering international meets in one of his stronger decathlon disciplines, such as the 100m, 110m hurdles and long jump. But one day at practice in Oregon last spring, Eaton lined up at a 400m start line and signaled to Marra. Watch this.
In flat shoes, he sprinted out of a three-point stance and cleared five straight hurdles with the same number of steps (13) between each hurdle. Eureka.
“That’s the event,” Marra said.
Eaton excelled in the 400m hurdles. He became the first decathlete to win a Diamond League event on June 11 in Oslo (the decathlon is not part of the program for the Diamond League, the sport’s regular season of meets contested in Asia, North America and Europe from May to September).
One month later, Eaton clocked a personal best in Glasgow, Scotland, in his final 400m hurdles race. He thanked his competitors in the call room before the event and then finished second, beating the 2012 Olympic gold and silver medalists.
“I thank you for treating me like an athlete, not a decathlete, because I’ve gotten a lot of respect,” Eaton said then.
Eaton’s time — 48.69 seconds — ranked ninth in the world for the year and second among Americans. That time would have qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, by a comfy two tenths of a second, and placed sixth in the 2012 Olympic final.
Eaton’s favorite memories of traveling Europe last summer were of cool-down areas. He saw American hurdler Johnny Dutch writhing back and forth on the ground and two-time Olympic champion Felix Sanchez pouring water on him.
“Here Dutch, you need some hydration,” Eaton remembered Sanchez saying.
Eaton could relate when he would give an on-track interview immediately after a race.
“Every time I was fighting back the feeling of throwing up, wanting to lay on the ground,” he said.
But he is the better for it.
“That was the first step towards repeating [at the Olympics],” Marra said.
The 400m hurdles is about maintaining rhythm, keeping a planned step count between hurdles. Even the world’s greatest fail and chop steps in the final hurdle or two.
“As pretty of a runner he is, he’s even more efficient now,” Marra said, adding that Eaton looks smooth like “a hot knife going through butter” in track workouts this year.
The difference won’t be known in competition until the Hypo Meeting in Gotzis, Austria, from May 30-31. Eaton’s return to decathlon will come against countryman Trey Hardee, who beat Eaton at the 2011 World Championships and was second at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials — where Eaton broke the world record — and the 2012 Olympics.
Marra couldn’t remember any medal-level decathlete taking a year off from multi-event training to focus on a non-decathlon discipline.
Eaton is a student of track and field and knows of the two men to win multiple Olympic decathlons — American Bob Mathias in 1948 and 1952 and Great Britain’s Daley Thompson in 1980 and 1984.
Mathias was 22 years old when he repeated. Thompson was 26. Eaton turns 28 next Jan. 21. Marra said he’s not having Eaton go as hard in training as in the past, but his skills are better.
“There’s no question about it, it’s tougher the second time,” Marra said. “There are more expectations on you.”
Dan O’Brien won his Olympic decathlon in 1996 at age 30. He tore a plantar fascia in his left foot shortly before the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials, after recovering from knee surgery, and could not attempt to repeat.
O’Brien considers Eaton young, but noted the lack of rivals as a hindrance.
“If there was somebody else in the game pushing him … there’s you’re motivation,” O’Brien said. “But he’s self-motivated. It’s working for him now. There’s going to come a time where that gets very difficult.”
The case is different for wife Theisen-Eaton, who rose from 15th in the heptathlon at the 2009 World Championships to 11th at the 2012 Olympics to a silver medal at the 2013 World Championships.
The 26-year-old native of Saskatchewan must deal with the return this year of Olympic heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis-Hill, back after giving birth to son Reggie on July 17. Plus, another Brit, the rising 22-year-old Katarina Johnson-Thompson. They are all scheduled for Gotzis.
Theisen-Eaton won’t be facing Russian 2011 Russian World champion Tatyana Chernova in Gotzis. In January, Chernova was banned two years after a 2009 positive drug test for an anabolic steroid that was retested in 2013. The backdated ban ends in July, which would make Chernova eligible for the World Championships in August.
“My first memory of Tatyana, I competed against her at World Juniors and World Youth in high school [2006 and 2005, both won by Chernova], and being a really naive young athlete, just shrugged my shoulders, thought man, she’s really good,” Theisen-Eaton said. “Looking back on things, she was so strong for her age, it just seemed like now that I’m older, it seemed kind of unbelievable. I don’t fully understand the whole process, how things get decided and determined and when the ban period is from. I’m still kind of unsure how they picked July 2013 to start her two-year ban. At the same time, you could sit there and dwell on who you’re competing against is cheating and what they’re doing and it’s not fair and this or that, but in the end you can’t change anything. … If she’s at the World Championships, and I’m competing against her, that’s going to be the last thing I’m thinking about. Is she on drugs? She’s a cheater. This and that. That’s not going to help me.”
Theisen-Eaton, whose maiden name is pronounced like the last name of boxer Mike Tyson, said in 2013 that her situation can sometimes be difficult.
“Because Ashton is so good,” she told the Canadian Press. “Sometimes I feel like what I do can get overlooked or just overseen. I’ll [set a personal record] in a meet, and then the next day he breaks the world record.
“It’s not that I’m mad at him or anything, I get so excited for him. But sometimes that part of it can get a little bit frustrating.”
Theisen-Eaton said two weeks ago she’s learned to push those feelings aside.
“It was a frustration with myself,” she said while standing next to Eaton. “There was kind of a turning point after the Olympics where I said, OK, enough. I need to change my whole mindset, the way I’m training and living my life if I want to achieve the things he’s achieving. … Either I’m going to fully commit to this, like a professional athlete, or just quit. If you’re not winning medals, what’s the point of doing it? At least for me. I didn’t want to be just a competitor. I wanted to be a contender for medals. When I changed my mindset, all of the things with Ashton and my annoyance with that went away.”
Theisen-Eaton added 201 points to her personal best in the heptathlon since the London Games. She was second to Johnson-Thompson in Gotzis last year (with a point total that would have taken 2012 Olympic bronze) and won the Commonwealth Games.
The world’s most athletic husband and wife make for a salivating sponsor pitch going toward Rio. Perhaps something in the line of the Dan vs. Dave decathlon campaign for Barcelona 1992. Theisen-Eaton said a challenge meet was talked about but hasn’t materialized, pitting Eaton and an American heptathlete against Theisen-Eaton and a Canadian decathlete.
She said they’ll be really selective in the opportunities presented over the next 17 months.
“We understand that with every sponsorship, there are obligations and appearances,” said Theisen-Eaton, a Nike athlete like her husband. “We do want to send a message off the track for kids, for people in general, to show what we believe in and what we value.”