The 2012 Olympic decathlon –– Ashton Eaton’s first, if all goes according to plan —– will not begin until August. But Eaton is experiencing the Olympics far from London with help from his coach, Harry Marra.
Eaton, 24, has no major decathlon title to his name, but he won the silver at the world championships last summer, behind his US team-mate Trey Hardee, and is among the favorites for the London Games.
At each meet this season, Marra has taken Eaton to the pole-vault pit and set the bar at a challenging height.
“Big meet, average meet, whatever,” Marra said. “I say: ‘OK, Ashton, this is the Olympic Games. This is your opening bar; let’s go get over it’,”
The most recent simulation was last month at Stanford. “We went there on purpose because Stanford can have crosswinds and be a tough place to pole vault,” Marra said.
“But anybody who thinks an Olympic stadium won’t be a tough place to pole-vault doesn’t realize the winds in the circular nature of a stadium aren’t consistently at your back,” he added. “So I said, ‘Ashton, you’re in London; you’ve got a great meet going’ –– I painted some sort of scenario –– and then, ‘Here it is, first attempt.’
Boom, he went right over it. And I said, ‘Ashton, whatever you do the rest of this meet today, you’ve accomplished what we wanted to accomplish here’,”
Although Eaton has only recently acquired a taste for decathlon history, Marra, 64, has been coaching the sport since the 1970s and has an indelible memory of what happened to Dan O’Brien in 1992. Despite holding the world record in the decathlon and despite a “Dan and Dave” advertising campaign built around his rivalry with his compatriot Dave Johnson, O’Brien did not qualify for the Olympic team after failing to clear a height in the pole vault at the national trials.
Disaster is never to be excluded in a draining event that presents its competitors with two days and 10 distinct opportunities to crack. But Eaton is the decathlon’s fastest-rising star, a smooth-talking, big-leaping prodigy who broke the 8,000-point barrier in only his sixth competition and is preparing to take aim at 9,000 points as one of the favorites for the London Games.
The other leading men –– reigning world champion, Hardee, and the reigning Olympic champion, Bryan Clay –– are also Americans, which means that a US sweep of the decathlon medals is hardly out of the question, although they must first safely negotiate the trials next month. “We can collectively do it; we just have to stay healthy and just all be there,” Eaton said of a possible sweep. “The specialness will happen if we’re all there prepared to accept it.”
Eaton, a former NCAA champion at Oregon, is the youngest and least decorated of the three but is considered by many to have the biggest upside and the potential to break Roman Sebrle’s world record of 9,026 points, set in 2001. Eaton’s best remains 8,729 points, his total at last year’s US championships on his home track in Eugene, Ore.
O’Brien, whose US record of 8,891 dates to 1992, said Eaton was ‘the next great American decathlete’. But O’Brien also urged restraint. “When a guy has scored 8,700 as a personal best and people start talking about 9,000, I kind of roll my eyes a little bit,” O’Brien said. “It’s just like he’s got a long way to go. You’re talking about another 300-point improvement. I think he can definitely do it. I certainly think he can break my American record in time. But at the same time, putting him in championship meets and expecting 9,000 points is a little bit unrealistic at this particular time.”
Clay, married and a father of three, is trying to rebound from injuries and make his third Olympic team at 32. Hardee, 28, had his own pole-vault nightmare become reality at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where he failed to clear a height. But Hardee, a commanding presence at 6 feet 5 inches and 210 pounds, has recovered in style. He won the last two world outdoor titles and defeated Eaton last summer in Daegu, South Korea, where they finished first and second, but hardly on acrimonious terms.
Marra coaches Eaton and his fiancee, Brianne Theisen, a Canadian heptathlete who is still competing for Oregon as a fifth-year senior. Their wedding is set for July 2013.
“The Olympic Games is like the biggest event in our life right now,” Eaton said. “And then once that is completed, then our wedding will be the biggest event, so that will be cool.”
International Herald Tribune