Ashton Eaton, Brianne Theisen Eaton

World’s most athletic couple takes the next leap

Leave a comment

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.”

Bernard Lagat cancels farewell tour | Matthew Centrowitz chases Kenyan great
Sanya Richards-Ross eyes revenge | Lolo Jones inspired by Gail Devers

At U.S. Open swim meet, teens make a splash with Olympic trials on horizon

Getty Images
Leave a comment

While Olympic and world champions Katie LedeckySimone Manuel and Chase Kalisz notched expected victories at the U.S. Open on Thursday, a trio of teenagers lowered personal bests to further establish their Tokyo Olympic hopes.

At the top domestic meet of the winter, Alex WalshCarson Foster and Kieran Smith each earned runner-up finishes, but their performances stood out in the big picture: looking at June’s Olympic trials, where the top two per individual event make the team.

Walsh, a rising Nashville high school senior, took 2.23 seconds off her 200m individual medley best. She clocked 2:09.01, overtaken by .17 by Melanie Margalis, the Rio Olympic and 2019 World Championships fourth-place finisher.

Full meet results are here.

Walsh moved from fifth-fastest in the U.S. this year to No. 2 behind Margalis, passing Olympic and world championships veterans Ella EastinKathleen Baker and Madisyn Cox. Of those swimmers, only Eastin was also in Thursday’s final.

Walsh joined her younger sister, Gretchen, in Olympic qualifying position based on 2019 times. Gretchen, 16, ranks fourth in the U.S. in the 100m free this year. The top six in that event at trials are in line to make the Olympic 4x100m free relay pool.

The Walshes could become the third set of sisters to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team, and the second to do it in pool swimming after Dana and Tara Kirk in 2004.

Foster, 18, continued his ascent Thursday in taking second to Kalisz in the men’s 200m IM. The world junior champion lowered his personal best in the prelims and the final, getting down to 1:57.59. Foster passed Ryan Lochte, who is nearly twice his age, in Thursday’s final and in the 2019 U.S. rankings. Only Kalisz and Michael Andrew have been faster among Americans this year.

Foster is trying to become the youngest U.S. Olympic male swimmer since 2000, when a 15-year-old Michael Phelps made his Olympic debut. Foster, who has been breaking Phelps national age-group records since he was 10, committed to the University of Texas in March 2018, two years before he graduates high school in Ohio.

Then there’s Kieran Smith, now a prime candidate to fill a huge void in the 400m freestyle. Zane Grothe is the only American ranked in the top 20 in the world this year.

Smith, a 19-year-old from the University of Florida, took 2.29 seconds off his lifetime best on Thursday to jump from outside the top 10 to No. 2 in the U.S. on the year. Smith was already ranked No. 2 in the country in the 200m free.

Two more runners-up in the 50m freestyles — Erika Brown to Manuel and Zach Apple to Brazilian Bruno Fratus — lowered personal bests to move to No. 3 in each U.S. ranking list this year.

The U.S. Open continues Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. ET with live coverage on NBCSN and streaming on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Dressel recalls summer tears in Golden Goggles speech

Nathan Chen distances Yuzuru Hanyu in Grand Prix Final short program

Leave a comment

A brilliant Nathan Chen outscored a flawed Yuzuru Hanyu for a fourth straight head-to-head program, taking a 12.95-point lead at the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy, on Thursday.

Chen, the two-time reigning world champion, tallied 110.38 points going into Saturday’s free skate. He landed a quadruple Lutz, triple Axel and quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination.

It’s the highest short program score in the world this season, leading the American to say “wow” in the kiss-and-cry area. His coach, the often-gruff Rafael Arutyunyan, banged his knee against his pupil’s.

Hanyu, the two-time reigning Olympic champion, hit a quadruple Salchow and triple Axel but then stepped out of a quad toe landing. He therefore failed to include a required jumping combination and ended up in second place.

“I wanted to do a great performance and do a good competition against [Chen], but that didn’t happen this time,” Hanyu, who was without longtime coach Brian Orser, or any other coach, said through a translator. Hanyu said Orser was busy last week, so he chose to use his lone accreditation on another coach who had travel delays.

Hanyu is not out of title contention. His world-leading free skate score this season is 16.61 points better than Chen’s best free skate from the fall Grand Prix Series.

Chen is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics, but this is just his second head-to-head with Hanyu in that span. Chen defeated Hanyu at March’s world championships, where the Japanese megastar was likely affected by an ankle injury.

After Thursday’s program, Chen repeated what he said before the competition: he still feels like he’s chasing Hanyu.

“Yuzu is like the goat, he’s the greatest of all time, really,” Chen said. “So, to have this opportunity to be able to share the ice with a guy like that, someone that I’ve looked up to for a long time, someone that I’ve watched grow up through the junior ranks when I was like a baby, it’s really cool to be able see him now. It’s really cool to even just be able to see him person.”

The Grand Prix Final, the biggest annual event outside the world championships, continues Friday with the rhythm dance, women’s short and pairs’ free skate. A full TV and live stream schedule is here.

Earlier in pairs, Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong took their first step toward a first Grand Prix Final title. The Olympic silver medalists tallied 77.50, leading Russians Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitriy Kozlovskiy by .85 going into Friday’s free skate.

Sui and Han were imperfect, with Sui putting her hand down on a throw triple flip landing. They are undefeated in this Beijing Olympic cycle and own the world’s top total score this season.

The U.S. failed to qualify a pair for the six-team Final for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Grand Prix Final
Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen (USA) — 110.38
2. Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) — 97.43
3. Kevin Aymoz (FRA) — 96.71
4. Dmitriy Aliyev (RUS) — 88.78
5. Alexander Samarin (RUS) — 81.32
6. Jin Boyang (CHN) — 80.67

Pairs’ Short Program
1. Sui Wenjing/Han Cong (CHN) — 77.50
2. Aleksandra Boikova / Dmitriy Kozlovskiy (RUS) — 76.65
3. Daria Pavliuchenko/Denis Khodykin (RUS) — 75.16
4. Anastasia Mishina/Aleksandr Galliamov (RUS) — 71.48
5. Peng Cheng/Jin Yang (CHN) — 69.67
6. Kirsten Moore-Towers/Michael Marinaro (CAN) — 67.08

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Alysa Liu, with help from Olympic medalist, challenges top Russians