Decathlete Extraordinaire, Ashton Eaton

I know you’ve read them. We all have—first person accounts written by those that happened to be on hand to witness history. In the sports realm, they’ve often been penned (never merely “written”) by people whose byline includes a middle name, a hyphen, or both. The prose is spare, but eloquent, typically including evocative phrases like “the crowd rose as one.”

Well, now I’ve seen history made, and I have another phrase to add to the lexicon: It was pretty damn cool.

I speak of course, of Ashton Eaton, whose athletic magic I first witnessed at the Pac-10 Decathlon Championship in May, 2010. Covering the event as part of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere Tour”, I couldn’t help but notice how effortlessly he destroyed the competition, and I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I had seen the future World’s Greatest Athlete—the title bestowed upon the reigning Olympic decathlon champion. I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up: Here’s the link.

Consequently, when I arrived at the 2012 Olympic Track & Field Trials, I was familiar with the young man’s work. And in the interim, Ashton Eaton had been discovered. His face has appeared on television commercials and posters, and interviews of this extremely centered, self-effacing Oregonian pop up left and right. Runners World magazine put him on the cover of its May issue, accompanied by the headline, Can a Runner Be The World’s Greatest Athlete?

Well, yes—he can.

My latest project had brought me to Tracktown, USA, which Rand McNally insists on calling Eugene, Oregon. And while I was here to take in the whole of the 10-day athletic extravaganza, I had one eye focused closely on the decathlon at all times.

This brutally exhausting event is actually ten different events, split into two consecutive days. Three are of the throwing variety (discus, javelin, shot put); another three involve clearing vertical or horizontal distances (pole vault, high jump, long jump); and four require running as fast as your lactic acid-laden legs can carry you.

Decathlon scoring is done by using a set of tables to convert times, heights and distances into points. The faster, higher and further you go, the more points you get for that event. Accumulate more points than anyone else, and you get a medal. Assuming you’re still able to stand upright during the ceremony in which it is draped around your neck, that is.

Contested for literally hundreds of years, the decathlon this summer in London will mark its 100th appearance in the Olympics. And in all that time, only one man has ever scored more than 9,000 points in the event. Even his name sounds mythological—Roman Sebrle, of the Czech Republic put up 9,026 points in a non-Olympic competition in 2001.

Former U.S. decathlon record-holder takes part in the parade of decathletes at the U.S. Track & Field TrialsThe closest that any American had come was when Dan O’Brien traveled to a meet in Talance, France in September, 1992, and came home with what was then the world record of 8,891. Sebrle surpassed him nine years later, and since that time he’s had to “settle” with being merely the best American decathlete of all time.

Which brings me to yesterday afternoon.

Following a stellar first day of competition in which he’d set world decathlon record performances in the 100 meter dash and the long jump, Eaton’s place on the U.S. Olympic team had been all but secured. Moreover, his lead over the 2011 world champion, Trey Hardee, was such that first place was a veritable lock with just one event remaining. So much for drama, right?

Not exactly.

It is in keeping with the mind-and-body-numbing nature of the decathlon that the final event is the longest of the running contests—the 1,500 meter. As the 5:45 start time approached, those of us not privy to the tables used to convert times to points idly wondered to each other in the stands how close Eaton might be able to come to O’Brien’s 20-year old American record.

So imagine our reaction when the track announcer’s voice came booming over the PA system to inform us that it was not inconceivable that Ashton Eaton could break Sebrle’s world record. “All” he would have to do is run the 1,500 in a time nearly three seconds faster than he had ever run it before. In an event measured in hundredths of seconds.


Well, we collectively thought, at least I’ll see a new American record. And maybe even the second-ever 9,000 score.

In nearly every record-breaking distance-running performance, a “rabbit” is used—a fellow runner who, by prearranged agreement, sets a demanding pace for as long as they can last before fading. And as luck would have it, this field of 16 decathletes included two men who excel at the 1,500. Curtis Beach and Joe Detmer would thus be the rabbits, pulling Eaton along at a pace that gave him a fighting chance at 4 minutes and 15 seconds.

There’s no other way to say it: the crowd did indeed rise as one at the moment that the runners toed the line. And then they were off.

Ashton Eaton, on the second lap of the 1500 meter run, as he heads toward a world record in the decathlonEaton passed just 20 feet in front of me three times during the race, each time raising goose bumps (on me, that is—I can’t really speak for him). On the final time, he was roughly half a lap from the finish. And slightly behind pace.

I probably yelled out to him—almost everything at this point was an involuntary reaction. My own voice was undoubtedly lost in the din, anyway. Never have I been in a place in which 17,000 people wanted so badly for one man to do well. Eaton picked up his stride coming down the final 100 meters, and we all knew that a world record had become a possibility. Beach, the Duke University sophomore who’d been the ideal rabbit, moved aside and subtly pulled back, allowing Eaton to pass.

The finish line was across the field from my seat, so all I could do was turn my glance to the huge video screen that bore the close-up of a grimacing Eaton coming down the stretch. I could no longer hear the PA announcer clearly, but as Eaton crossed the line I made out the words two seconds.

Was it missed by two seconds or broke it by two seconds? During that tortured moment of uncertainty, the image beamed to us on TrackVision was that of Eaton’s face contorted in an expression that straddled the line between agony and ecstasy. It was impossible to tell.

And then they were on him. Beach and the other decathletes as they crossed the finish line behind him. Eaton’s mom, Roslyn. His fiancée, Brianne Theisen—herself an NCAA champion heptathlete.

Ashton Eaton waves the American flag during his victory lap after setting the world record in the decathlon.

A victory lap for the ages

Every hair on my arms and the back of my neck rose to attention, remaining there throughout the victory lap and the awards ceremony.

Ashton Eaton broke the world record in the decathlon with 9,039 points. He did it on one of the grandest stages imaginable. He did it in front of every living U.S. Olympic decathlon champion, all of whom had gathered to celebrate the event’s centennial anniversary. And of particular interest to yours truly…he did it in front of me.

I’ll say it again—it was pretty damn cool. I’d highly recommend the experience to anybody.


  • He opened his pursuit Friday by setting world-best marks for the decathlon in his first two events, the 100 (10.21 seconds) and long jump (27 feet). He had a mark of 46 feet, 7 1/4 inches in shot put, cleared 6-8 3/4 in the high jump and ran the 400 in a driving rainstorm in 46.70 seconds to finish the first day in the mix for the world record.

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