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:
- Continue in earnest, through the 2017 World Championships, and then retire.
- 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.)
- Compete in the 2017 season in individual events, but not the heptathlon or decathlon. Eaton did this in 2014, focusing on the 400m hurdles.
- 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.”Follow @nzaccardi