EUGENE, Ore. – Despite taking divergent paths to the 2015 IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Beijing this week, Team Eaton has never looked better.
At least that’s the view from longtime coach Harry Marra.
Ashton Eaton, the reigning Olympic gold medalist, World Champion and world record-holder in the decathlon with a score of 9,039 points, will be a full two years removed from his last decathlon when he steps to the starting line of the 100 meters on Aug. 28.
After winning the decathlon at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow, the 28-year-old University of Oregon alum, and current Oregon Track Club Elite athlete, took a break from the multi-events in 2014.
Instead, he focused on the 400-meter hurdles, earning a No. 6 world ranking with a personal best of 48.69 seconds, and in the words of Marra, becoming a “more rhythmic runner.”
“The 400 hurdles did a great thing for Ashton,” he said. “He’s a much more rhythmic runner now. That makes him more efficient and has less chance for injury.”
This year, Eaton was forced to skip the Hypo Meeting in Götzis, Austria – an annual gathering in late May of the world’s best combined event athletes – due to a lower back problem sustained while warming up in the shot put a few days before the meet began.
Any concerns about his star pupil being away from the 10-event grind of a decathlon for so long?
“None whatsoever,” Marra said.
Eaton’s wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, meanwhile, arrives at the World Championships in Beijing as the world leader in the heptathlon this season with a PR of 6,808 points. The 27-year-old native of Canada, who is also a UO alum and OTC Elite athlete, achieved that score in claiming her second heptathlon title at the Hypo Meeting as her husband cheered from the sidelines.
Theisen-Eaton, the Canadian national record-holder and 2013 World Championship silver medalist, opens competition in the heptathlon on Saturday.
“They’re both on top of their game,” said Marra, who has directed the fortunes of Team Eaton ever since arriving at the University of Oregon in the fall of 2009.
“Physically and technically, they are both way more mature and way more experienced than ever. Instead of going into a competition with a little bit of trepidation, they’re saying, ‘Bring it,’ and that’s healthy. We don’t train all year just to go into a meet and be placid. I want to go in and fight and be competitive, and they do, too. That’s the mantra we’ve developed.”
For the first time in their athletic lives, Team Eaton arrives at a world stage on somewhat equal ground.
The experts at Track & Field News magazine predict gold medals for both of them at the 2015 IAAF World Championships, and should that come to pass, they will become the first married couple to win multi-event competitions at the same global championships.
“I think there is a good chance for this husband-and-wife team,” decathlon guru Frank Zarnowski told Gene Cherry of Reuters last week. “Ashton is a pretty safe bet to win. I think Brianne can win but it’ll be closer.”
There is no doubt that both athletes are ready to go.
After setting a PR and winning in Götzis, Theisen-Eaton took a week off to enjoy the victory and then resumed training, but after three lackluster weeks, she showed up for practice with a warning for Marra.
“She came to me and said, ‘You know what? I’m just going through the motions,’” he said. “She told me, ‘I have to get fired up again. I have to start throwing and kicking stuff in practice. Just be aware I’m going to start doing that.’”
Marra could only smile in response.
As for Eaton, he tuned up for the World Championships be setting personal bests in both the pole vault (17 feet, 8 ½ inches/5.40m) and 400 meters (45.55 seconds) at different meets in early August.
So, how’s his level of readiness?
“Better than I’ve ever seen him,” Marra said. “Ever, ever, ever.”
Eaton has been a model of consistency throughout his decathlon career, which began on March 23, 2007 when he won the Jim Click Combined Events meet in Tucson, Arizona as a 19-year-old with a modest score of 6,977 points. Since that time, he has started and completed 21 decathlons, with 15 wins to his credit. He has surpassed 8,000 points in each of his past 16 efforts.
Although Eaton placed 18th in his first major global competition at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, it was his fifth decathlon in just over four months that season, and he was obviously fatigued.
He has only lost one decathlon since that meet.
At the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, American Trey Hardee was the gold medalist with 8,607 points. Eaton took silver, but needed to run a two-second PR in the 1,500 meters to edge Cuba’s Leonel Suarez by four points, 8,505 to 8,501.
Today, at the age of 31, Hardee remains Eaton’s top competition in China after winning the U.S. decathlon title at Hayward Field in June with a world-leading mark of 8,725, the second-best score of his career.
(Eaton had a wild-card entry into the 2015 IAAF World Championships as the reigning world champion and didn’t have to compete in a full decathlon at the U.S. meet.)
The decathlon will be contested on Aug. 28-29.
In the heptathlon (Aug. 22-23), Theisen-Eaton will have to contend with a much deeper field of medal contenders, led by Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson.
The 29-year-old Ennis-Hill is the reigning Olympic gold medalist and No. 5 all-time performer with 6,955 points. At the age 22, Johnson-Thompson is a talented up-and-comer with a PR of 6,682 points.
After spending the past week together at the Canadian training camp on Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea, Team Eaton is scheduled fly to Beijing on Wednesday.
And then, it will be getting down to business as usual, with both Theisen-Eaton and Eaton primed for back-to-back 16-hour days of grueling competition on the world’s biggest stage.
“We have all been there and done that, so experience will carry us through,” Marra said. “We won’t do anything different … My job is to make sure they’re both physically at their peak, which I usually don’t fail at. They are both very much looking forward to the World Championships.”
Source: Dr. Frank zarnowski, deca newsletter