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.”

MORE: 17 Olympic sports events to watch in 2017

Chicago Marathon features Emily Sisson’s return, Conner Mantz’s debut, live on Peacock

Emily Sisson
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At Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, Emily Sisson makes her return, nearly three years after Olympic Trials disappointment. Conner Mantz makes one of the most anticipated U.S. men’s debuts in 26.2-mile racing.

It is not the norm, but an American will be one of the spotlight runners in both the men’s and women’s elite races at a major marathon. Peacock airs live coverage at 8 a.m. ET.

Sisson, 30, starts her first mass marathon since dropping out of the Olympic Trials on Feb. 29, 2020, her legs “destroyed” on the hilly Atlanta course where she started as arguably the favorite. She ran the virtual New York City Marathon later in 2020, but that was solo (and not in New York City). Her 2:38:00 isn’t recorded in her official results on her World Athletics bio.

Since, Sisson won the Olympic Trials 10,000m on the track and was the top American in Tokyo in 10th place. She moved back to the roads, winning national titles at 15km and the half marathon and breaking the American record in the latter.

Sisson vaulted into the elite group of U.S. female marathoners in 2019, when she clocked the second-fastest debut marathon in American history, a 2:23:08 on a windy day in London, where the early pace was slow.

At the time, it was the 12th-best U.S. performance all-time. In the last two years, Keira D’Amato, 37, and Sara Hall, 39, combined to run seven faster marathons. At Chicago, a flat course that produced a world record three years ago, Sisson can answer them and perhaps get close to D’Amato’s American record 2:19:12.

“I’m hoping sub-2:20,” coach Ray Treacy said, according to LetsRun.com. “With the [super] shoes and the training behind her, I would think that’s [worth] at least three minutes.”

It is less likely that Sisson can challenge for the win on Sunday given the presence of Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich, the 2019 World champion and defending champion in the Windy City. The 28-year-old mom is the fifth-fastest woman in history with a personal best of 2:17:08. And Ethiopian Ruti Aga, a podium finisher in Berlin, New York City and Tokyo with a best time of 2:18:34, though she has one marathon finish since the pandemic (a seventh place).

Like Sisson, Mantz has shown strong recent road racing form. The American men’s debut marathon record of 2:07:56 (Leonard Korir) is in play. If he can break that, Mantz will be among the five fastest U.S. marathoners in history.

Rarely has a U.S. male distance runner as accomplished as Mantz moved up to the marathon at such a young age (25). At BYU, he won NCAA cross-country titles in 2020 and 2021 and placed fifth in the Olympic Trials 10,000m, then turned pro and won the U.S. Half Marathon Championships last December.

“If everything goes as planned, I think sub-2:08 is realistic,” Mantz said in a Citius Mag video interview last month. “If everything goes perfect on the day, I think a sub-2:07, that’s a big stretch goal.”

The men’s field doesn’t have the singular star power of Chepngetich, but a large group of East Africans with personal bests around 2:05. The most notable: defending champion Seifu Tura of Ethiopia and 2021 Boston Marathon winner Benson Kipruto of Kenya.

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Alpine skiing to test new format for combined race

Alpine Skiing Combined
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Alpine skiing officials will test a new format for the combined event, a race that is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

French newspaper L’Equipe reported that the International Ski Federation (FIS) will test a new team format for the combined, which has been an individual event on the Olympic program since 1988. L’Equipe reported that a nation can use a different skier for the downhill and slalom in the new setup, quoting FIS secretary general Michel Vion.

For example, the U.S. could use Breezy Johnson in the downhill run and sub her out for Mikaela Shiffrin in the slalom run, should the format be adopted into senior competition.

The format will be tested at the world junior championships in January in St. Anton, Austria, according to the report.

In response to the report, a FIS spokesperson said, “Regarding the new format of the combined is correct, and our directors are working on the rules so for the moment the only thing we can confirm is that there will be this new format for the Alpine combined that has been proposed by the athletes’ commission.”

Some version of the combined event has been provisionally included on the 2026 Olympic program, with a final IOC decision on its place coming by April.

This will be the third consecutive World Cup season with no combined events. Instead, FIS has included more parallel races in recent years. The individual combined remains on the biennial world championships program.

L’Equipe also reported that the mixed team parallel event, which is being dropped from the Olympics, will also be dropped from the biennial world championships after this season.

“There is nothing definitive about that yet, but it is a project in the making,” a FIS spokesperson said in commenting on the report.

Vion said the mixed team event, which debuted at the Olympics in 2018, was not a hit at the Beijing Games and did not draw a strong audience, according to L’Equipe.

The World Cup season starts in two weeks with the traditional opening giant slaloms in Soelden, Austria.

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