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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.”

MORE: 17 Olympic sports events to watch in 2017

Nathan Chen, Simone Biles, U.S. women’s soccer team win Team USA Awards

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Simone Biles was named female athlete of the year and Nathan Chen took the corresponding award for men Tuesday at the Team USA Awards in Los Angeles.

Six-time Olympic swimming champion Amy Van Dyken-Rouen, who has taken up wheelchair CrossFit competition since an ATV accident in 2014 left her paralyzed from the waist down, took the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award. She works to help other people with spinal cord injuries through the Amy Van Dyken Foundation and Amy’s Army, which has launched a Wheels for Kids program to help injured children find wheelchairs that may not be covered by insurance.

The show also included a medal ceremony in which the teammates and family of the late Steven Holcomb received silver medals that were reallocated after doping infractions changed the results of the 2014 Olympic bobsled competition.

MORE: Holcomb’s legacy lives on 

Award winners from the ceremony:

Female Olympic athlete of the year: Simone Biles, gymnastics 

Biles took a one-year break after winning four gold medals and a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics, then came back to do even better, unleashing new skills on the balance beam and in the floor exercise. This year, she won five gold medals at the world championships, breaking the record for career medals.

Female Paralympic athlete of the year: Oksana Masters, Para Nordic skiing and Para cycling 

Already an eight-time Paralympic medalist in Nordic skiing, biathlon and rowing, Masters had a breakout year in cycling, taking silver medals in the world championships. In Nordic skiing, Masters took five world championships (three cross-country, two biathlon) and the overall World Cup championship in sitting cross-country along with a second-place overall finish in biathlon.

Male Olympic athlete of the year: Nathan Chen, figure skating 

Chen had a double back-to-back year, winning his second straight world championship and his second straight Grand Prix final. He also started his 2019-20 season by winning both of his Grand Prix events. He and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu are far ahead of any other skaters in posted scores this season.

Male Paralympic athlete of the year: Ben Thompson, Para archery 

Thompson took the world championship and the No. 1 ranking in the men’s compound event and led the U.S. to a world record in the team compound event.

Olympic team of the year: U.S. women’s soccer team 

The team claimed the sport’s biggest prize for the second straight time, working its way through a difficult field that included a quarterfinal matchup with host France to win the World Cup once again, adding to its previous wins in 1991, 1999 and 2015.

Paralympic team of the year: U.S. sled hockey team 

Like the women’s soccer team, the sled hockey team went unbeaten in the world championships and claimed a fourth world title.

MORE: Golden goal clinches championship

Olympic coach of the year: KiSik Lee, archery 

This year, Brady Ellison won a world title and set a world record in the Pan Am Games, and Ellison teamed with Casey Kaufhold to win the world title in the mixed team event, which will be on the Olympic program in 2020.

Paralympic coach of the year: Wesley Johnson, paratriathlon 

The founder and head coach of Balanced Art Multisport in Salt Lake City, Johnson is the personal coach of three top-10 paratriathletes, and he served as an assistant coach in the world championships, where three of the athletes he coached won silver medals.

NBC will have highlights of the show at 2 p.m. ET Dec. 22.

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Hanyu, Zagitova control their Grand Prix Final destiny at NHK Trophy; TV, live stream schedule

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In order to qualify for the Grand Prix Final — after missing the event the past two seasons for varying reasons — two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu needs to finish inside the top four at NHK Trophy, the sixth and last remaining Grand Prix series event. Hanyu competes on home ice in Japan this weekend, and the event is streaming live for NBC Sports Gold subscribers.

A full breakdown of Grand Prix Final-clinching scenarios can be found here.

Hanyu won the Grand Prix Final four straight times (2013-16). The prestigious December event would be the first time this season Hanyu and two-time Grand Prix Final champion Nathan Chen would compete head-to-head, outside the world championships in March.

Hanyu trains in Toronto alongside American Jason Brown, who will also be competing in Japan. Brown clinches a spot in the Grand Prix Final if he earns a silver or better, but is also very likely in if he earns a bronze medal.

Reigning Olympic and world champion Alina Zagitova of Russia is in a similar situation this weekend at NHK Trophy, needing to finish on the podium to clinch a berth in the Final. She faces Moscow-based training partner Alena Kostornaia (who needs to finish fifth or better to make the Final) and Japan’s Rika Kihira (must earn a medal of any color), among others such as 2019 European champion Sofia Samodurova of Russia and 2017 U.S. national champion Karen Chen.

MORE: Alina Zagitova focused on artistry, while other Russians push technical boundaries

Three teams in the pairs’ field at NHK Trophy can earn spots in the Grand Prix Final. Two-time world pair champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China and Russia’s Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov need a medal of any color to clinch, while Canada’s Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro need silver to clinch, but could win with a bronze and a high score. See the breakdown here for details.

In ice dance, four-time world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France are favorites at NHK Trophy. They have appeared in three Grand Prix Finals and own a medal of each color, including a win at their most recent appearance in 2017. (The duo withdrew from a regular-series Grand Prix event last season and were unable to qualify for the Final.)

The most likely NHK Trophy scenario is that Papadakis and Cizeron win NHK Trophy, and Russia’s Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin finish second – and if that happens, Papadakis and Cizeron, Stepanova and Bukin and Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates (currently on the cusp of an entry) all make the Final.

MORE: Gabriella Papadakis, Guillaume Cizeron on ‘Fame,’ chasing history

NHK Trophy Broadcast Schedule

Day Time (ET) Event Network
Thursday 10:30 p.m. Rhythm Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Friday 12 a.m. Pairs’ Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Short NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
10 p.m. Free Dance NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Saturday 12:30 a.m. Pairs’ Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
2:30 a.m. Women’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
5 a.m. Men’s Free NBC Sports Gold STREAM LINK
Sunday 4 p.m. Highlights NBC | STREAM LINK

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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