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Ashton Eaton: past, present and future
OREGON-BRED DECATHLON GREAT TALKS ABOUT HIS LIFE, WIFE, SCHEDULE AND REMAINING GOALS
Ashton Eaton is not just the greatest decathlete ever. He is the best male track and field athlete alive -- and maybe the best athlete in any sport, period.
The Bend-area native and University of Oregon grad recently was honored as both the International Association of Athletics Federations male athlete of the year and the Jesse Owens Award recipient as the USA Track and Field male athlete of the year.
That was after the reigning Olympic decathlon champion bettered his own world record with 9,045 points in earning gold at the 2015 world championships in Beijing.
It has been a whirlwind last few years for Eaton, who turns 28 on Jan. 21, lives in Eugene and competes for Oregon Track Club Elite along with his wife of two years, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, another former Duck standout who won silver at Beijing in the women's heptathlon.
The Eatons' most recent adventure was a two-week trip to Africa to promote education and sport among youths in the country. It was, in the words of Ashton, a "life-changing experience" for both.
There may be no more unassuming and modest superstar in sports than Eaton, who sat down for a lengthy interview with the Portland Tribune after a workout with his wife at Eugene's Downtown Athletic Club.
Tribune: Your trophy case is bulging after your recent IAAF and USATF awards. Congratulations.
Eaton: Thank you. I'm very appreciative. There is some stiff competition. There were other guys who had an awesome year. I'd won the Jesse Owens Award before -- he's a great symbol of what our sport has been about. And it was cool to be the first decathlete to win the IAAF award (which was inaugurated in 1988).
Tribune: Enlighten us about your two-week trip to Africa in October. What was the genesis of it?
Eaton: Brianne and I had never been there. We had previously had invitations from a pair of organizations, "Right to Play" (a U.S. organization that helps kids in underdeveloped countries build life skills) and "World Vision" (an international humanitarian aid organization). This year, we asked representatives of both groups if they could put something together for us.
We went to Mozambique with "Right to Play" for the first week. It was awesome. The second week was with "World Vision" in Kenya. Your paradigm in life gets completed shifted. We had the opportunity to sponsor a child. He is a 10-year-old boy named Philemon who lives in a really small community. His family lives in a mud hut. They walk to get water. Brianne and I don't have kids yet, but we understand in some ways we are responsible now. We have the ability to make this person's life better.
We met Philemon and his whole family. They spoke little English, but they understood that we were there to help them. Our hope is that one day, when Philemon has grown up and maybe is able to speak some English, he will tell us how we helped him change his life.
Tribune: Your older half-brother, Verice Bennett, 37, is a first sergeant in the Marines who received a silver star in 2011 for service in Afghanistan. Has he been an influence on your life?
Eaton: We have different moms, and I didn't grow up with him. We met when I was 8 and Verice was 18. I remember going to his high school graduation in Seattle and thinking, This is so cool. I didn't see him again until I was 20, but once we got back in contact, we had a lot to talk about, a lot in common. We saw each off and on, and it was great.
We've gotten pretty close. He was the best man in my wedding. He has been a big influence in the sense that it's cool to talk to somebody who thinks the same as you. He says something first, and I'll think, "That's exactly what I was thinking." He has a lot of experience in life. He has had to take people's lives. He has had people's lives taken in his own arms. He has his own kids. He has a lot of energy and passion for life. He is positive in spite of all the things he has experienced.
Tribune: What about your parents? Have they been influences?
Eaton: My father hasn't been involved in my life since I can remember. My mom (Roslyn), we're very close. She has always said it takes a village to raise a kid. In Africa, I found that to definitely be true. I had grandparents in my life, and Mom found male influences who were very important in my development -- coaches and mentors. I look back at my childhood in Bend and think, "That was pretty awesome."
Tribune: How much time do you actually spend in Eugene each year?
Eaton: (Laughs). Not much. The past two years, Brianne and I have been away from home 200-plus days a year. We spend some time here in the fall. We come back for meets. We do most of our training in Santa Barbara because of the weather, and Eugene doesn't have the best facilities. When we're not competing, we try to spend a week each year with family (in Brianne's native Humboldt, Saskatchewan, and Bend).
Tribune: Do you look forward to your time after you retire from the sport?
Eaton: Oh, my gosh, yeah. It's hard for us, but so exciting, too. Brianne always reminds me, "Enjoy it while you can." We have it good as athletes. We travel -- other people pretty much pay for it -- we see awesome places in the world, we have a purpose. We're there because it means something. We've been doing it for a lot of years, but change is always good. I'm a "what's next?" guy. I don't know what that is, but I'm excited to find out, and put the same kind of energy into it as I put into track.
Tribune: Were you a walk-on when you started at Oregon, or did you have scholarship money?
Eaton: I wouldn't have gone to a Division I school if I didn't have scholarship help. We couldn't afford it. I was looking at Division II or III schools. I wasn't a standout athlete in track (at Mountain View High), but luckily my high school coach (Tate Metcalf) was smart and put me in front of Division I schools and kept hounding them and saying, "This kid has ability."
The Oregon coach (Dan Steele) came to a high school meet in which I was competing in Gresham. I long-jumped, he liked what he saw, and the next thing I knew, I was on a visit to Oregon. My options were Oregon, Washington State and Occidental College in Los Angeles. It couldn't have worked out better. Oregon was a sweet place to go to school and compete in track.
Tribune: Brianne came to Oregon a year after you. How did the two of you get together?
Eaton: We were in the same training group. We spent a lot of time together. Once I got to know her, I thought, "This girl is smart, she is driven, she is kind of like me in all she wants to do." We had the same mindset. I finally asked her out on Valentine's Day. We were a couple right then. I remember the big thing was Facebook. It didn't count unless it was on Facebook. So we put it out on Facebook, and then it was, "Ah, here we go."
Tribune: What's your relationship been like?
Eaton: She keeps me super grounded. I have a natural tendency to be pretty aloof -- not necessarily unfocused, but very much out in space. She brings me back down to earth, which really helps. It has been nice to have somebody who understands what you're going through and your commitment to something, and to bring you on track when you're getting off track.
Tribune: What do you think about her chances for gold at the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro?
Eaton: I think she can do it. I know for a fact, all of her efforts are spent toward doing whatever is required. You need to talk to a sports psychologist to get you through things? She does it. The nutritionist says cut out sugar for four months? OK. She has determination to be very disciplined. The long term is what you're looking at. It's all going to come together at the right time. Our coach (Harry Marra) is very smart, and she is dedicated to doing it the right way.
Tribune: What do the two of you do for relaxation to get away from training or your sport?
Eaton: For years, it was sitting around the house doing nothing. I would play video games; she would watch reality shows. We'd go to movies. Pretty much do nothing. But recently, we started a website (weareeaton.com) and brand movement we're building. We enjoy doing that, but it's like a second job. It was spawned by Brianne's ambition. Let's develop our platform but also have an impact and tell our story. We realize we have the power to do that these days. It takes a little elbow grease, but I think we've done a pretty good job.
Tribune: What has been the key to your staying healthy through your career?
Eaton: Less is more. That's our big philosophy. As athletes, we love to say, '"Just one more; I'm going to figure it out on this next one." It's tough to pull back the reins and do what is smart physically, listening to your body and always ending a workout or session feeling like I could have done more. It's about not going to the well all the time. The body has limits. The mind has limits, too.
Tribune: Once you returned from Africa, you started in earnest training for the 2016 Olympic Games in early November. What have you been doing?
Eaton: Track is 90 percent of everything. Everybody understands that most things get on the back burner when it's an important year like this.
Tribune: There was a time when the Olympic decathlete champion -- Bill Toomey, Rafer Johnson, Bruce Jenner, Daley Thompson -- was considered the world's greatest athlete. Do you regard yourself that way today?
Eaton: Somebody once said to me, "The decathlon is the only standardized test to measure overall athleticism." In any other sport, a person could be athletic, but it's not super measurable. Tennis, for instance, is pretty athletic, but not measurable like track. I do think the decathlon is the standardized test for determining who has the most overall athleticism.
I remember when I was little reading an article on the front page of the Bend Bulletin. It said, "If there was a galactic Olympics, who would Earth send?" They suggested Roman Sebrle, the decathlon world record-holder at the time. I had no idea who that was. Today, I consider myself a good athlete, but not the best in the world. There are people in other sports who could do the decathlon who would do really well.
Tribune: Will you defend your heptathlon title at the world indoor championships in Portland in March?
Eaton: We're going to definitely do that. It's a great lead-in to the outdoor season. Portland is where I was born. I've never done (a multi-event competition) there. I'm excited we don't have to travel very far, and the fans there can get exposed to some big-time track and field.
Tribune: Is bettering your world decathlon record again a goal?
Eaton: Absolutely. I don't like doing the same thing twice -- or not as well.
Tribune: Is there an event you will focus on trying to improve before Rio?
Eaton: The high jump. There are a lot of points to be gained there. I'm athletic enough to jump high; I just need to get the technique down. I've been struggling to figure it out pretty much my whole career, and I'm pretty close. I'm getting to the sunset of my career. If I can get two or three bars higher -- in the 7-1 range -- it will help me move closer to my potential.
Tribune: How close are you to your potential?
Eaton: I'm getting older, but I feel pretty good. Every year, my times are faster and my marks better. I keep surprising myself.
Tribune: You've said you're going to compete in the 2017 world championships at London. Will that be your final competition?
Eaton: I'd like to compete there. I get a "bye" to the competition. But I don't want to make any promises. It's a hard decision to make. It would be cool to go to London and close the books. I love this sport, but I have to wait until after the 2016 Games. It's hard to describe. I need to check my mindset after that kind of stressful and magnificent experience.
Tribune: Do you ever allow yourself to step back and smell the roses in appreciation of what you have accomplished through the years?
Eaton: Not really. I don't get too hung up on my accomplishments. I don't know why. It's really hard for me to sit there and think, "That was pretty damn cool." It's more like, "I did that, but what's the next thing?" Maybe some day, I'll look back and think, "Those were the days."