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Ashton Eaton, Brianne Theisen-Eaton retiring at the right time, coach says

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Back in November, Brianne Theisen-Eaton got a hold of her coach, Harry Marra, to arrange their first get-together since the Rio Olympics at their Oregon home.

“She said, why don’t you come over in a few days, and we’ll meet,” Marra recalled Wednesday. “She didn’t even say we’ve come to a decision. She just said, we’ll meet.”

Turns out, Theisen-Eaton and husband Ashton Eaton had come to a decision — to retire in the primes of their track and field careers, both at 28 years old.

In August, Theisen-Eaton earned her first Olympic medal in Rio (bronze in the heptathlon). Eaton became the third man to repeat as Olympic decathlon champion.

The Eatons have been guided by the venerable multi-events coach Marra since they were University of Oregon students in 2009.

Marra and the Eatons traditionally take September and October off to recuperate and then gather later in the fall for a “pre-planning meeting” to map out the early workouts for the upcoming season.

Marra knew this November’s meeting would be different, as Eaton had said in Rio that he was contemplating retirement.

Marra arrived at the Eatons’ home. They small talked. Then the coach cut to it.

What are your plans?

“They both stopped for a second, looked at me and said, coach, we’re done with track and field [competition],” Marra said. “I immediately interrupted them and said, that’s a fantastic decision.”

Before the meeting, Marra thought the Eatons would take one of four routes:

  1. Continue in earnest, through the 2017 World Championships, and then retire.
  2. Compete in the prestigious Hypo Meeting for multi-events in Götzis, Austria, in May, and then retire. (Eaton has never competed in Götzis, which he has said is a regret.)
  3. Compete in the 2017 season in individual events, but not the heptathlon or decathlon. Eaton did this in 2014, focusing on the 400m hurdles.
  4. Never compete again.

“They chose the one, I think, to be honest, is the best,” Marra said. “It’s a phenomenal decision, leaving on top, having accomplished everything they wanted to do.”

There is arguably no more grueling of a test in track and field — or the Olympics — than the heptathlon and decathlon. Two full days of competition in running, jumping and throwing to determine the world’s greatest athletes.

The Eatons will each turn 32 years old in 2020. The oldest Olympic decathlon and heptathlon medalists were 30 years old.

“Training for the decathlon and heptathlon is a bear,” Marra said. “You must give it all the respect in the world, more than 100 percent each day to be successful. And if you’re not in the mode to give it that, you’re not going to do very well.”

Marra said his most memorable times with the Eatons, separately, were the turning points in their careers.

In 2011, Eaton led the Daegu World Championships decathlon through six of 10 events. But he struggled in the pole vault and javelin and ended up barely hanging onto silver via a personal-best 1500m.

Marra remembered a talk with Eaton at the airport before they flew home from South Korea.

“Ashton said, coach, that will never happen again,” Marra said of the defeat. “Saying that, in that moment in time, I knew him enough that he was going to live up to that word.”

Eaton hasn’t lost a decathlon he has finished since, winning his last seven, including two world records.

In 2012, Theisen-Eaton made her Olympic debut and finished 10th in London while her then-fiance Eaton took gold. That fall, she found Marra in his office, walked in, closed the door and said something the coach will never forget.

“I’m not doing this stuff to get 10th anymore,” Marra recalled the Saskatchewan native saying. “We’ve got to make changes. I want to be on the podium.”

Theisen-Eaton hasn’t missed the podium in a heptathlon or pentathlon since, including two world outdoor championships silver medals, world indoor championships and Commonwealth Games gold medals and that bronze medal in Rio.

Theisen-Eaton ends her career without an Olympic title. When this was brought up, Marra reflected on watching her in the Olympic Stadium after the Rio heptathlon ended, hugging Eaton.

“I could just see it that she was satisfied,” Marra said. “Yes, the gold was the goal, but getting the Olympic medal, knowing she wanted to give 110 percent the last four years, I could sense that she was happy with it.”

Back to the November meeting. Marra, not knowing about the retirement decision, arrived at the Eatons’ place with a hand-written outline for the coming year.

“Save that coach,” said the Eatons, who are ones to document their journeys, having made a social media hashtag for their wedding (search #TheisenEatonWedding on Instagram). “We want that in our files.”

As for their futures, Marra will continue working with young athletes and coaches, but not on a day-to-day basis. He turns 70 in August.

Marra sees Eaton’s interests in electronics and education and Theisen-Eaton’s in nutrition, health and fitness. The Eatons enjoy traveling. They visited Kenya with World Vision and Mozambique with Right to Play in 2015.

“They both pretty much say we want to do something to help mankind,” Marra said. “We want to do some sort of work that we’re bettering the world.”

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A century later, Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori can bring Japan Olympic tennis to forefront

Naomi Osaka, Kei Nishikori
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When Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori take the courts at the Tokyo Olympics, perhaps together, they will be doing so 100 years after tennis players won Japan’s first Olympic medals in any sport.

Tennis is not usually one of the handful of marquee competitions at the Games, in part because it is one of the sports whose biggest event is not the Games themselves.

“We have been playing for these Grand Slams, and I think that’s why we train for,” Nishikori said at the U.S. Open in August, when asked to compare the meaning of winning one of tennis’ four annual majors to earning a medal at a home Olympics. “That’s going to be the biggest goal to winning Grand Slams.”

Yet the term “Grand Slam” had not been conceived — for golf or tennis — at the time of the 1920 Antwerp Games. There, Ichiya Kumagae earned silvers in singles and doubles with Seiichiro Kashio to become the first Japanese Olympic medalists.

Kumagae was Japan’s first notable international tennis player, reaching the 1918 U.S. Open semifinals (then called the U.S. National Championships) and beating Bill Tilden in the final of the 1919 Great Lakes Championships.

Kumagae, born in 1890, had not seen a tennis racket or ball until his 20s, according to Roger W. Ohnsorg‘s “The First Forty Years of American Tennis.”

“He came here to America in 1916, the possessor of a wonderful forehand drive and nothing else,” Tilden wrote in “The Art of Lawn Tennis.” Kumagae was listed by Ohnsorg as 5 feet, 3 inches, 134 pounds and requiring glasses at all times. Later in 1922, Kumagae’s engagement to the daughter of a wealthy politician was published as a news brief in The New York Times.

Nearly a century later, Nishikori and Osaka brought more Japanese tennis breakthroughs. Nishikori became the first Asian man to reach a Grand Slam singles final at the 2014 U.S. Open. Last year, Osaka became the first Japanese singles player to win a Grand Slam, also at the U.S. Open.

This past June, Japan’s annual Central Research sports survey (1,227 people, age 20+) put Nishikori and Osaka as its respondents’ fourth- and sixth-favorite athletes, past or present. Baseball players Ichiro (retired), Shohei Ohtani and Shigeo Nagashima (long retired) and figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu rounded out the top five.

Osaka’s U.S. Open title was voted the top sports moment of Emperor Akihito’s reign from 1989 to April 30, beating Ichiro’s retirement and Hanyu’s repeat Olympic crown in PyeongChang. Perhaps there was some recency bias.

Akatsuki Uchida, a tennis journalist from Japan, said that Nishikori’s U.S. Open final was a bigger moment for Japanese tennis than Osaka’s win over Serena Williams, though.

“Tennis at that time [in 2014] was not broadcast in Japan,” she said at the U.S. Open. “Media coverage of tennis was decreasing before Kei made that final. For most of Japanese, not tennis fans, but ordinary people, it came from out of nowhere. … He became like an overnight sensation. Since then, the situation of tennis in Japan changed dramatically.

“If [Osaka] wins the title before Kei won the title here, it could have been way bigger, but since Kei made the final before Naomi, it made Naomi’s achievement, still a big deal, less surprising.”

Another key difference: Nishikori spent the majority of his childhood in Japan, while Osaka’s family, with a Haitian father and Japanese mother, moved to the U.S. when she was 3 years old.

Osaka has dual citizenship, but Japanese law requires one to be chosen over the other by the 22nd birthday. Osaka turned 22 last month, before which she confirmed what most had assumed, that she picked Japan.

Uchida was unsure whether Osaka and Nishikori could propel tennis at the Tokyo Games into a greater spotlight among 33 total sports.

“But if Kei and Naomi played mixed doubles, that would be a big thing,” she said.

Nishikori has already reportedly said he plans to enter singles and doubles in Tokyo, the latter with Ben McLachlan, Japan’s top doubles player. McLachlan was born in New Zealand and in 2017 switched representation to Japan, his mother’s birth nation.

But Nishikori did not rule out adding mixed doubles.

“Very hot, very humid, playing singles and two doubles, I don’t know if I can,” he said before the U.S. Open. “I haven’t think too much yet, honestly. I don’t know. I will talk to Naomi later.”

Nishikori smiled as he brought up Osaka’s name at the end of his answer to a question that didn’t mention her. Later in the tournament, Osaka was told Nishikori’s thoughts.

“I would definitely play with him,” said Osaka, who in 2016 was the highest-ranked eligible player not to make the Rio Olympic field. “I just — I would actually need to practice doubles for the first time in my life. Because you cannot play mixed doubles with Kei Nishikori and lose in the first round of the Olympics in Tokyo. That would be the biggest — like, I would cry. I would actually cry for losing a doubles match. Yeah, definitely I think that that would be so, like, historic in a way. And I would love to do it, but I need to practice my doubles.”

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Another Jesse Owens Olympic gold medal being sold

Jesse Owens
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One of Jesse Owens‘ four 1936 Olympic gold medals will be put up for sale next week by Goldin Auctions.

Owens triumphed in the face of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany at the Berlin Games, taking the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump.

This could be the second Owens gold to be sold in recent years, after one was auctioned in 2013 for $1,466,574, the highest price ever for a piece of Olympic memorabilia.

Two more were said to be put up for auction in 2017, but there are no widespread reports of sales actually happening.

This gold medal was gifted by Owens to John Terpak, a U.S. Olympic weightlifter in 1936 and 1948, after Terpak helped Owens garner speaking engagements, according to Goldin. The previous gold that sold for $1.4 million was gifted by Owens to a different friend.

Terpak died in 1993 and passed the medal on to his son and daughter, who consigned it to Goldin.

The medal is part of Goldin Auctions’ Holiday Auction from Monday through Dec. 7 on GoldinAuctions.com. The listings also include Tommy Lasorda‘s autographed lineup card from the 2000 Olympic baseball gold-medal game.

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