Commentary

Ashton Eaton chases glory, not fame

U.S. interest in the decathlon seems to have faded, and that's just fine with him

Updated: August 7, 2012, 8:21 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers

Ashton EatonAP Photo/Charlie RiedelThe finish of the 1,500 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials was a moment of triumph for Ashton Eaton and all those in Oregon who have nurtured his career.
Where are you going, Great-Heart,
With your eager face and your fiery grace?
Where are you going, Great-Heart?
"To fight a fight with all my might"

-- John Oxenham

Ashton Eaton is a small-town kid whose image will soon burnish billboards around the world. He is a product of state-of-the-art training who fires himself up reading an early 20th century poet. He uses Twitter not to brag on himself, but mostly to talk up his fiancée, Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen. He takes his sport completely seriously and himself considerably less so. On the BehindTheStands blog, a goofy site run by some Oregon track club teammates, Eaton gives an MTV "Cribs"-style tour of the home he shares with Theisen, including the guest bathroom, which has never been used -- "except for that one time," he says, with a slightly haunted look.

There is also the fact that he can run 100 meters in 10.21 seconds and a metric mile in 4:14, long jump 27 feet and clear a bar nearly 17½ feet off the ground with a vaulting pole.

Ashton Eaton is, in a prefix, multi.

You want fresh? New? Exciting? Just 24, Eaton is all that. He is the new world-record holder in the decathlon, upending an 11-year-old mark last month at the U.S. Olympic Trials. The way he did it -- in the rain, under pressure, early in the season, and just five years after taking up the event -- inspired awe among the dwindling number of people in America who understand his event. And his recent clothing-optional javelin pose in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue created the stir that such things are intended to create.

You want old school? Values? Loyalty? Eaton is also all that, a man out of a time when pride still mattered, and so did the decathlon. Eaton, who will make his Olympic debut Wednesday in the 100-meter heats, grew up in Bend, Ore., a city of 80,000 in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, not far physically or spiritually from Klamath Falls, hometown of Dan O'Brien, the last American to hold the decathlon world record. "Just like football's a tradition in the state of Texas," O'Brien says, "there's a track and field tradition in the state of Oregon."

By upholding this tradition, Eaton has put himself on a collision course with fame. The decathlon gold-medal winner was for decades acknowledged as the world's greatest athlete, and U.S. champions in the event from Jim Thorpe to O'Brien have become well-known. This scares Eaton a little. "I don't know much about that realm," he says. "I'm from a small town, and I like to have my comfort and privacy as much as I can. So that part makes me nervous."

This is where you notice one of the several refreshing things about Eaton. He's not just giving a canned answer from a corporate media consultant; he's giving his best effort to explain it. "The whole fame thing is an interesting deal," he says. "Somebody becomes famous because they're just doing something they like doing. But it's the fans and everybody else who raise them up, and the person who is famous doesn't control any of that. The people control everything. So they lift the person up, and when the person falls or does something they don't like, the people are like, 'Ohhh, what's this?' It's a catch-22."

Ashton Eaton
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesIn the past, the decathlon gold medal winner was acknowledged as the world's greatest athlete, and U.S. champions in the event became famous.

Of course, maybe this whole fame thing shouldn't bother Eaton too much. Few in America outside Oregon know what the decathlon is anymore. "Nike Pays Ashton Eaton Huge Sum For Setting Triathlon World Record," one sports website crowed, shortchanging Eaton by seven events. And on a certain television program we're all quite fond of, Eaton's featin' didn't merit a mention on Top Plays.

Somewhere along the line, we became a country that values Bruce Jenner far more as a Kardashian sidekick than as an Olympic decathlete, a place that would rather talk about what Kobe said about what MJ said about what Kobe said than about what Eaton actually did.

Still, if he performs as expected in London -- and everyone expects gold now -- people will know Eaton, if not in the United States, then overseas. Eaton can hit the globalization jackpot the way Usain Bolt did after 2008, making his money in Europe and Asia and becoming a star who doesn't really need America.

But maybe America needs him.

Just look at what Eaton has done, and how he's done it. Eaton was born in Portland, and by the age of 2, his father and mother split up. Roslyn Eaton moved her only child to rural central Oregon, to La Pine, a town of 5,000, and Eaton didn't see much of his father, Terrance Wilson. Five-year-old Ashton wanted to be a Ninja Turtle -- who didn't in those heady days of the early '90s? -- and took up tae kwon do. The would-be Donatello learned Roslyn's first rule of sports: If you start it, finish it. Roslyn's other rule: Do whatever you're doing 100 percent. Eaton went on to become a black belt.

They moved again, 30 miles north to Bend, when Ashton was in fifth grade, and it was there -- in a bigger athletic pond -- that his talent emerged at a gradual pace. Eaton always had natural tools. His grandfather on his mother's side, James Eaton, played running back at Michigan State in 1960 before injuries suffered in a car accident ended his playing days, and a group of coaches at Bend quickly noted the fluid stride of the new kid in town.

Eaton tried every sport, even ones his lanky body wasn't particularly suited for, like wrestling, which he did for two years in high school but gave up after tearing a meniscus in his knee as a sophomore. He excelled as a shortstop and center fielder on travel baseball teams before high school, and as a football player at Mountain View High, he was great covering ground at safety, and outstanding getting to the edge as a running back -- even when the play called for him to go up the middle.

Such variety of experience is growing hard to find in youth sports these days, which increasingly insist and subsist on one-sport specialization. Bend resists that. Mountain View athletic director Dave Hood makes it a point to honor three-sport athletes every year, because he and his coaching staffs see each sport helping the others. Besides that, Hood says, "We want kids to be kids. We want them to have fun." Though Oregon high schools don't hold the decathlon, Bend turned out to be an ideal incubator for a multievent athlete.

In track, Eaton didn't look like a world-beater at first. Teachers at his middle school in Bend say Eaton doesn't hold a single record. But at Mountain View, a well-maintained '70s-era campus where deer occasionally graze on the practice fields, Eaton's name dominates the school's record board: long jump, 100, 200, 400.

What happened? He bloomed late and grew into his "man-body," says Tate Metcalf, an assistant at Mountain View High who has coached and mentored Eaton since the fifth grade. Bend was a good place for that; Mountain View's track team has a dozen coaches, most of them volunteers, all of them knowledgeable.

Kids in Eaton's situation -- a single-parent family, moving to a new town -- can "go sideways," as Metcalf says. But Eaton's mom never let that happen. She set up a support system of coaches and other father figures to keep her son out of trouble, and she was always on him to keep up his grades, stay in school, get to practices. So he did, religiously. At the same time, sports never overtook his childhood. "He lived his life, goofed around with his friends," Roslyn says. "It has taken a village to raise a decathlete."

Eaton's talent and coachability made it easier. Show him something once, and he has it. What didn't suit him was cutthroat competition. Coaches had to sit him down and tell him it was OK to max out during workouts, that beating his teammates badly didn't mean he was humiliating them. But Eaton didn't start soaring until he started racing against time, distance and himself rather than the person beside him. "He got really motivated by the idea of being on the record board," Metcalf says.

That made him perfectly suited for the decathlon, with its arcane scoring tables, well-documented history and camaraderie among competitors. By Eaton's senior year in high school, Metcalf started marketing him to colleges as a potential decathlete -- and something more than that. He'd tell recruiters, "You're not going to get a midnight phone call from jail. He's going to represent your team the way you want it represented." Eaton's explosiveness made him attractive enough for then-Oregon assistant Dan Steele, now the head coach at Northern Iowa, to take a look at a meet in Eaton's final season. He was sold.

Eaton took off from there, winning not only three NCAA decathlon titles, but several Pac-10 titles in individual events, including the 110-meter hurdles. He survived the departure of Steele, entrusting his career to a new coach, Harry Marra, in his junior year.

[+] EnlargeAshton Eaton
Kim Jae-Hwan/Getty ImagesHis silver medal in the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, was a rare stumble for Ashton Eaton. He struggled early and lost his poise, he says now.

The only stumble along the way was Eaton's silver medal at last year's world championships. It was a competition many predicted he'd win after he took the U.S. title in 2011. But in Daegu, South Korea, he started slowly the first day, underperforming in the 100 and long jump, and acknowledges losing his poise. "The biggest lesson I took I think is just I don't have to have outstanding performances in every single event to have an outstanding performance," Eaton says. "I can just hit my averages in everything and still have good marks. I don't have to put pressure on myself."

No matter how many times Marra told him that, Eaton didn't listen until after Daegu. "The big word that we always throw around is trust," Eaton says. "You have to trust whatever it is you're doing, and I didn't. Until I think you've lived through it, it's hard to get that trust."

That trust was abundant at the U.S. trials, and it flowed out of Eaton the entire weekend. At a family gathering late in 2011, Eaton's grandmother, Carolyn Wallace, pulled out an old book of poems, and pointed to one of them. "Ash Man," she said, "this reminds me of you, from the time you were born. This is how you are."

Where are you going, Great-Heart,

With your eager face and your fiery grace?

He was hooked from the first two lines, written in World War I by an Englishman whose pen name was John Oxenham. A week ahead of the competition, he had his grandmother send him a copy. "I read it again, and it absolutely clicked with me," Eaton says. "That is how I live my life, how I approach decathlon."

On the first day of the trials, Marra and Eaton met for their customary precompetition warm-up. "Coach," Eaton said. "Listen to this."

He read the whole poem. Marra recalls thinking, "He doesn't need a warm-up. He's so fired up right now, it's just touch his toes and ready to go. It was really great."

So was Eaton. His decathlon was a revelation in the rain. He set two decathlon world record marks in the first two events -- the 100 meters and the long jump -- before the meet was an hour old. Had he competed in those individual events, his time of 10.21 would have placed him seventh in the final of the 100, and his 27-foot long jump would have been good for third at the trials and a trip to London in that event.

The weather cost him points in the 400, the fifth and final event of the first day. But on Day 2, he opened with another personal record, a scary 13.34 mark in the hurdles, and the clouds parted for him during the pole vault on Day 2, when he set a PR of 17-4½ that gave him a shot at the world mark.

As he came into the final lap of the 1,500, the din of the crowd became a different kind of storm, escalating in intensity with Eaton's every stride. With 500 meters to go, Metcalf thought he saw Eaton's form faltering. But as he hit the 400 mark, Metcalf thought, "He's starting to roll." The thought became a scream. "He's starting to roll!" And at 200, "It is go time! He can do that!" And with 100 meters left and the record now inevitable, Metcalf says, "I was just a bawling, bloody mess."

Metcalf and his wife, Aimee, were emotionally spent, in tears. So was Theisen, whom he'd trained with and fallen in love with at Oregon, and so was what seemed like half the population of Bend. "It was just so incredible to see someone we knew," Metcalf says, "someone so close to us, do something like this."

As she thought about it, Roslyn Eaton knew her son had been preparing for this since he was 5 years old. Ashton Eaton broke down, too, and later talked of the Hayward Field magic that carried him through the race and across the line. He spoke of all the people who carried him this far, the whole community started by Roslyn, many of whom were on hand to see that last lap: from his first grade and PE teachers in La Pine to his grandparents to the Bend coaches to Steel to Marra. "So many things had to fall into place," Roslyn marvels. "If one decision is made differently, it doesn't happen."

That last 40 meters was a story in itself. Curtis Beach, a Duke student who was the best miler in the field, looked back, saw Eaton, and slowed down to let the world-record holder cross first.

In an instant, the world saw the sportsmanship of the event, where athletes don't race each other, but compete against themselves, and the point table, and history. You step aside for history. "A Hollywood story," Metcalf says.

But don't expect Eaton to go Hollywood. For one thing, he's still fairly obscure to the general sports fan, let alone the general public. For another, it's hard for him to cut the ties to Oregon that formed him, the ones that keep him sending boxes of gear to the kids at Mountain View.

And he's not going to generate controversy for its own sake, to lift his own profile. Asked who the world's greatest athlete is, Eaton starts talking philosophically, about whether it's somebody who's been given great ability, or some average person who exceeds all expectations and maximizes his or her talent. It's a long way of saying, "I'm not telling."

He's not going to get caught up in any debates about him versus Bolt or LeBron or Megatron. That's for other people to deal with, the people who dwell on the famous and the soon-to-be famous. For now, Ashton Eaton will try, for as long as he can, to remain simply an athlete, a great one, perhaps the world's greatest, entering Wednesday's competition with the support of a village at his back, and a poem on his mind.

Where are you going, Great-Heart?

"To lift today above the past,
To make tomorrow sure and fast,
To nail God's colors to the mast."
Then God go with you, Great-Heart!

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