Ashton Eaton, Brianne Theisen-Eaton
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Eatons discuss longer runs, retirement, drug testing in Q&A

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Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen-Eaton never competed in races longer than 1500m in competition before retiring this year. Their farthest workout in training for pentathlons, heptathlons and decathlons was 400m.

But last Saturday, the Eatons ran 6k (3.75 miles) together for a worthwhile cause, World Vision’s Global 6k for Water to raise awareness and money for clean water for children and to encourage physical activity.

The 6k is the average roundtrip distance a person has to walk in Africa to get water, such as Phil, a Kenyan boy whom the Eatons sponsored last year.

Last week, the Eatons discussed the Global 6k for Water and more in an interview with OlympicTalk.

OlympicTalk: When was the last time you ran 6k?

Brianne: A few days ago. We’ve been running quite a bit. We never used to run like that. But since we’ve been retired, we’ve been going out and doing our own runs.

Ashton: Last week, probably. I think Brianne’s run a little bit further than I have. I haven’t really run 6k.

OlympicTalkAnybody really interesting reach out to you after you retired?

Ashton: Caitlyn Jenner ended up calling us, saying good decision, you guys did well.

Brianne: There may have been some other famous people saying something, but I think for the both of us, it was the overwhelming amount of people who were being very supportive of it. Like people we didn’t necessarily know. That was the most important to me.

Ashton: Brianne got a letter from [Canadian prime minister] Justin Trudeau saying congrats.

Brianne: The Trudeau letter actually wasn’t for retirement. It was for the Olympic medal. But he took the time. At the top it was addressed to Mrs. Theisen-Eaton, and he took the time to cross that out and write Brianne. And there was a hand-written note within the typed letter, and he signed it. I received it in October.

OlympicTalk: Five months into retirement, which of the decathlon/heptathlon events would you be able to get closest to your best times/marks?

Brianne: Probably the 800m. I’ve been running a lot, doing more distance stuff, so I feel like my speed (for shorter events) is totally gone.

Ashton: Holy crap, maybe the discus. Honestly, I think the speed aspect is the thing that diminishes the quickest. It’s the hardest thing to maintain because it was the hardest thing to develop. The discus is the least physically intensive. It’s all kind of based on technique, and I think I might remember the technique to throw.

OlympicTalk: What are your thoughts on the European Athletics proposal to wipe world records before 2005?

Editor’s Note: The Eatons said they were unaware of the proposal, so they answered after a brief summary was explained to them.

Ashton: I don’t like it. You can’t assume that everybody was dirty. Unless you know for a fact that those people did something before 2005, you can’t just like, retroactively, arbitrarily, wipe out everything. That’s like going back and wiping out all the history books that didn’t have some form of peer review beforehand.

Brianne: I agree with Ashton. It’s not fair, because what if there’s even just one person in those however many performances that was clean, and he or she gets that taken away from them? I don’t think that’s fair, but at the same time I’m pretty confident that a large majority of those [records] are probably dirty.

Ashton: It’s going to be really hard to break the women’s 800m [laughs].

Brianne: Or the women’s 400m is pretty insane, too.

OlympicTalk: Ashton, the proposal states that drug-testing samples from world records must be stored for 10 years. Which brings up questions about testing at non-championship meets. When you set the decathlon world record for the first time at the 2012 Olympic Trials, were your samples stored?

[Editor’s Note: Eaton rebroke the world record at the 2015 World Championships. The IAAF does store samples from global meets since 2005.]

Ashton: This brings up the point of the transparency of the whole process. I don’t understand why they don’t just tell people how the [drug-testing] system works. Maybe because people would exploit the system in some way, but it’s clearly already happening. It would kind of give a little bit of information about how it’s done and maybe people can strengthen [the system].

Brianne:  There were even things when we were athletes that we didn’t understand about it. I remember Ashton and I having conversations [saying] they should have three samples, an A, a B and a C, because the athletes should get to keep one [there are currently two samples, an A and a B, that officials keep]. You know when all that Russian stuff was going on, when they were switching samples at the lab, if you really wanted to make it legit, if an athlete got to keep a C sample, so they tested the A and the B, and they both came back positive, they then got to test your C. When you knew it was in my possession the whole time, there’s no way the samples could have gotten switched.

When we started talking to people about this, is this a possibility, would this be a good idea, we found out that at least in North America, they won’t open your B sample until you’re physically there in person. And if it looks like there is any tampering with the bottle, the whole sample is completely thrown out. That is something we didn’t even know was a procedure.

OlympicTalk: Pick one athlete in an individual event you would have liked to compete against.

Ashton: I would have loved to run against [Usain] Bolt. I think that just would have been fun, to see how much he would have dusted me by. I was supposed to in Ostrava [Czech Republic last year], but I pulled my quad. I knew I would never get another chance. I was pretty disappointed.

Brianne: I’ve always wanted to do pole vault, and no one would ever let me. The track events are always a little bit cooler when you’re actually competing against somebody because you’re doing it at the same time. The field events are a little bit different. Have I said anyone [to you, Ashton]? I’m not sure. I’d have to think about it.

OlympicTalk: We know that retirement isn’t official until you pull out of the drug-testing system. Have you done that, and if so when?

Brianne: About a month after we announced our retirement. We announced it, and then there was media and a lot of other stuff to do with our federations, the process of sending us the letters we have to sign to say that we’re retired. It took a little while.

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MORE: Olympian takes in buzz after viral 40-yard dash

10 takeaways from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Here, the NBC Sports figure skating contributors reflect on the standout moments of the 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Nathan Chen and Alysa Liu of course come to mind, though there were plenty of other moments to remark upon along the way. 

Women

1. Alysa Liu proved that she could do it again. She validated her insistence that there was no more pressure in successfully defending a title compared to winning her first title. 

Plus, the amusement of seeing the 4-foot-10 14-year-old needing help ascending the top step of the awards podium doesn’t get old either. Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell helped hoist her for the second year in a row. Liu next competes at world juniors, where she will take on a formidable pair of Russian “K’s”: Kamila Valieva and Ksenia Sinitsyna, both of whom outscored her on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. To win the crown, Liu may need a fully rotated quadruple Lutz, something that eluded her in Greensboro.

2. Speaking of Bell, she comes out of the championships with her already-improving confidence another notch higher after the free skate of her life and her best nationals finish ever, a silver medal. In tears before she even hit her final pose, she deservedly got an overwhelming standing ovation.

When asked how she felt about being the No. 1 senior U.S. woman, she said, “It’s a very special feeling. I haven’t had that before in my career, so that was awesome. The coolest thing about it was how into it the crowd was.” 

Now, let the calculations begin: can Bell and Tennell gain three U.S. women’s spots for next season’s world championships? To do so, the sum of their placements at the 2020 World Figure Skating Championships cannot be greater than 13 (for example, sixth and seventh).

3. Rounding out the memorable moments of the women’s event were the returns of Olympians Karen Chen and Gracie Gold. Chen, the 2017 national champion, missed the entirety of last season with a right foot stress fracture, and now is a freshman at Cornell. She finished fourth, and gained an assignment at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships early next month. With her competitive juices flowing again, Chen told reporters she was considering taking a gap year from college.

Two-time U.S. champion Gold, of course, triumphed simply by qualifying for her first national championships since 2017 after time away from the sport for treatment for depression, anxiety and an eating disorder. After a mediocre short program, Gold did a respectable free skate, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation, an emotional reward that left her with grateful tears. It moved Gold, who finished 12th, to vow she would continue her comeback for at least another season.

Men

4. Nathan Chen’s fourth straight U.S. title puts him in the company of five men since World War II, all of whom won Olympic gold medals, with Brian Boitano (85-88) the most recent. Chen, a Yale sophomore, was the first to do it in the IJS and quadruple jump eras (he went six-for-six in quads in the two programs), and the fourth came after a case of the flu bad enough he could practice only intermittently the first two weeks of January. “I don’t know anybody who could recover and do what he did after that sickness,” coach Rafael Arutunian said of Chen.

5. Tomoki Hiwatashi’s continued improvement: two clean programs with three clean quads for the bronze medal. His showmanship, including Russian split jumps, are to die for. Last season, Hiwatashi finished a surprise fourth at nationals but had disappointing 10th and fifth places in his debut competitions on the senior Grand Prix debut. The 2019 world junior champion has put himself into the mix for a 2022 Olympic team spot — if he can improve his consistency. 

6. Except for that pesky quad, Jason Brown put it all together at nationals for the first time since 2014. If he can execute all the elements as brilliantly as he did in Greensboro, a clean quad might put him in bronze medal contention at the 2020 World Championships, given the consistent inconsistency of all the top men after Chen and Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu.

7. In the past month, Vincent Zhou turned his life inside out, taking a leave from Brown University to focus on skating after completing the first semester of his freshman year and switching coaches to Lee Barkell and Lori Nichol in Toronto. Despite that upheaval and little intense training, the reigning world bronze medalist and 2019 U.S. silver medalist had two solid performances to finish fourth, strategically limiting his quads to one in each program. Although Zhou had skipped the Grand Prix season, his choice as a world team member over Hiwatashi was totally justified under the selection criteria in use.

Ice dance

8. Madison Chock and Evan Bates made ice dance — and figure skating — history when they became the first U.S. skater, couple or pair team to go five years between national titles since the 1920s. They topped two duos they train with, Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, to win their first title since 2015, also won in Greensboro. Their widely acclaimed slithering “Snake Charmer” free dance likely sets them up to glide to the world championship podium, but another showdown with Hubbell and Donohue awaits at Four Continents.

Pairs

9. Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson had a breakthrough moment in the pairs’ event with one of the most memorable free skates in the last 20 years. Calalang’s joyous disbelief was palpable when she and Johnson got their score (146.01, the highest ever at nationals) for a program that had the crowd out of its seats before it even ended

“In my head, I’m like, ‘We got 119 at Skate Canada. We got 120-something at Warsaw.’ So, I was like, ‘Okay, we did both jumps… maybe 130,” she said, recalling her mental play-by-play. “Then it’s 140. Ohmigod, I’ve never dreamed of getting this score. I didn’t think it was possible.” 

Added Johnson: “No one can take that moment away from us.” 

Especially poignant words as Calalang and Johnson were passed over in favor of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc for the world championships teams. Calalang and Johnson are slated to participate at Four Continents, where they can continue to build a body of work that will impress U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Committee next time around.

10. Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim won their third U.S. pair title in Greensboro, joining such company as John Zimmerman and Kyoko Ina, Jenni Meno and Todd Sand, and Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard. The couple skated a clean and memorable short program to “At Last,” including side-by-side triple toe loops. In the free skate, though, Knierim fell on his triple toe and the skaters doubled their planned triple Salchows. Despite their superior triple twist and lifts, in order to crack the top five in the world, Scimeca Knierim and Knierim need to get consistent on their jumps, and the California-based skaters are working with Arutunian to do so.

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U.S. FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS: Full Results | Women’s | Ice dance | Pairs | Men’s | Worlds roster

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.

China’s first Winter X Games postponed due to coronavirus

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A Winter X Games competition due to be held in Chongli, China, next month has been postponed due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in China.

“Due to the ongoing coronavirus concerns, the X Games Chongli 2020 event will be postponed until a later date,” organizers announced via Twitter. “The safety of our athletes, staff and spectators is our top priority, and we will continue to closely monitor the situation.”

The competition would have been the first Winter X Games held in China. Shanghai has hosted many X Games in the summer, including a event last June.

As with an Alpine skiing World Cup event that was canceled Wednesday, the X Games were due to take place at a 2022 Olympic venue, Chongli’s Secret Garden ski report. The venue hosted a World Cup snowboard event in December.

READ: First Alpine World Cup in China canceled

Several of the most decorated X Games and Olympic athletes, including two-time Olympic snowboard slopestyle champion Jamie Anderson, were scheduled to compete in China.

The coronavirus outbreak has also affected qualifiers for the 2020 Olympics, with boxing and women’s soccer tournaments moved from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Asia-Oceania boxing qualifiers will be held March 3-11 in Amman, Jordan, with coverage on the Olympic Channel. The women’s soccer qualifiers, including traditional power China and a strong Australian team, were originally moved to Nanjing but then moved to Sydney, Australia.

China’s team has arrived in Australia but is under quarantine, putting the start of the qualifiers in doubt.

Aspen hosted the biggest X Games competition of the winter last week. Another X Games is scheduled for March 7-8 in Norway.

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