Commentary

Eaton can put U.S. track back on map

Updated: June 24, 2012, 1:46 AM ET
By Luke Cyphers

EUGENE, Ore. -- Ashton Eaton bounced around all day, clearing every hurdle, soaring over the pole vault bar, riding a wave of affection from his home-state crowd -- genuinely enjoying himself.

Being the best decathlete ever will do that to you.

"There's really very few words," Eaton said after setting a new world record in the decathlon Saturday at the U.S. Olympic trials.

[+] EnlargeAshton Eaton
AP Photo/Matt SlocumAshton Eaton finished the grueling two-day decathlon with 9,039 points in the U.S. Olympic trials to beat Roman Sebrle's 11-year-old mark by 13 points.

He didn't need words. His winning smile said it all.

Eaton's world-record performance electrified a whole sport, introducing America to an incredibly athletic, genuinely charismatic 24-year-old. His combination of ability, youth and personality has had track aficionados whispering that this could be the guy, someone to put U.S. track back on the sports map.

The 9,039 points he put up at his home track at Hayward Field, breaking Czech legend Roman Sebrle's 2001 record by 13 points, now has those same people shouting, almost as loud as the crowd at the fabled stadium.

One of the people likely to hear the shouting is Eaton's agent, Paul Doyle. "Physically what he's doing is so amazing and so impressive, and I think we're going to see the world getting on board with him," he said. "I think the people in the crowd in Eugene are saying, 'Prefontaine who?' This is probably as loud as the crowd has been since Prefontaine's era."

Ever since Eaton entered the University of Oregon after growing up a wrestler, sprinter and jumper in the small city of Bend, Ore., he's inspired dreams about his potential. On Saturday, those dreams came true. Eaton knew he was capable of a big meet; he just wasn't sure when. Before the javelin Saturday, the second-to-last of the decathlon's 10 events, Eaton asked his coach, Harry Mara, what he needed to do to break Dan O'Brien's 1996 American record. "And he was like, 'Ashton -- the world record.'"

It caught Eaton short, probably for the first time all weekend. He has known he would have the chance to set a world record. "I thought it would come together in four years," he said, "when I'm 28, in 2016."

And with the rain and cold temperatures this weekend, people would have forgiven him for waiting. Reigning world champion Trey Hardee, who finished second to Eaton, told the assembled media to put an asterisk, a highlight, anything possible on Eaton's record to call attention to just how miserable the conditions were. The fact he set the record in this weather only adds to his mystique, and to the question: How much better can he get?

"Not to pump my own tires, but I feel like I have not maximized yet," Eaton said. "I feel like I could still jump higher, run faster."

Eaton makes the sport's most difficult event seem easy, maybe because for him it is. "When I was doing the 100 or the long jump [in which he set decathlon world records Friday], I feel like I'm doing the same effort, feeling the same feeling, as I did when I was 6 years old," he said.

That little kid's joy is apparent when Eaton competes. He quiets the crowd before his jumps -- he doesn't like the clapping -- but as soon as he's over a bar or through with a throw, he salutes the spectators, he whoops and hollers, he gives his University of Oregon alma mater's "O" sign with his hands.

He has fun, and the fans respond, so well they helped carry him to Saturday's record mark in the 1,500 meters. Needing to break his personal record by two seconds to set the mark, Eaton did it easily, swept home by the hometown crowd.

"That last 600 meters, I was like not running with my own legs," Eaton said. "It was incredible. I don't care what anyone says, there is magic here. And I felt it for 600 meters."

Eaton is not unlike a certain Jamaican sprinter who goes by the name of Bolt, who knows how to play to an audience. Yet no one will accuse Eaton of being cocky. He shows his event the proper humility and gives his competitors their due respect. He violates no codes of the decathlon's close fraternity.

"It was an honor to compete with Bryan Clay," he said of his veteran rival and role model, who crashed out of contention during Saturday's hurdles portion of the competition.

And Clay gave it right back. "The kid's phenomenal, there's just no other way to describe him," Clay said. "I was happy for him. It's an honor to be a part of it."

Eaton is, fittingly for the event he has chosen, the total package.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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