In April of 2010, author Tim Forbes embarked on a one-year “sports walkabout” that took him across the country to 100 sporting events involving 50 completely different sports. Why? Well, it’s complicated. His journey and ultimate discoveries about the true value of sports were published in the book “It’s Game Time Somewhere” (Bascom Hill Publishing, 2013).
I know you’ve read them. We all have—first person accounts written by those that happened to have been on hand to witness history. In the sports realm, they’ve often been penned (never merely “written”) by people whose byline includes a middle name, a hyphen, or both. The prose is spare, but eloquent, typically including evocative phrases like “the crowd rose as one.”
And then, of course, there’s me.
I first saw Ashton Eaton perform his brand of athletic magic at the Pac-10 Decathlon Championship in the Spring of 2010. Covering the event as part of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour, I was taken by how effortlessly this University of Oregon senior dispatched with his competition. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I had seen the future World’s Greatest Athlete—the title informally bestowed upon the reigning Olympic decathlon champion.
Consequently, by the time I arrived in Eugene, Oregon (aka Tracktown, USA) to cover the 2012 Olympic Track & Field Trials, I had long been familiar with the young man’s work. And I was not alone—Ashton Eaton had been discovered. His face had begun popping up on television commercials, and interviews of this extremely centered, self-effacing athlete were appearing left and right. Runner’s World magazine put him on its cover, highlighting a feature story entitled Can A Runner Be The World’s Greatest Athlete?
I saw no reason why not. Then again, what do I know?
Brutally exhausting almost by definition, the decathlon competition is split across two consecutive days and ten different events. Three are of the throwing variety (discus, javelin, shot put); another three involve clearing vertical or horizontal distances (pole vault, high jump, long jump); and four require running as fast as your lactic acid-laden legs can carry you.
Scoring is done via a set of tables which converts times, heights and distances into points. The faster, higher and further you go, the more points you get. Accumulate more points than anyone else, and you get a gold medal draped around your neck. Assuming you’re still able to stand upright during the ceremony in which that occurs.
Contested for literally hundreds of years, the decathlon this summer in London will mark the 100th anniversary of its inclusion in the Olympics. And in all that time, only one man has ever posted a score higher than 9,000. Roman Sebrle—even his name sounds mythological—of the Czech Republic put up 9,026 points in 2001. The barrier hasn’t been seriously challenged since then.
Which brings me to yesterday afternoon.
The second full day of the Trials couldn’t have been scripted any better. At least that’s what the assembled media told me. Formerly homeless and famously virginal hurdler Lolo Jones was going to get redemption for her crushed Beijing dream. Or…she wasn’t. Either way, the result of four years of single-minded preparation would reveal itself in roughly 13 blistering seconds. Before we got to that race, though, there was just one small thing to settle.
During a stellar first day of competition in which he’d set world decathlon bests in the 100 meter dash and the long jump, Ashton Eaton’s place on the U.S. Olympic team had been all but secured when he gutted out a superb 400 meter in a pouring rainstorm. And now in Day Two, with just one event remaining, his lead over 2011 world champion Trey Hardee was such that first place was a veritable lock. So much for drama, right?
It is in keeping with the mind-and-body-numbing nature of the decathlon that the final event is the longest of the running contests—the 1,500 meter. As its 5:45 PM start time approached, those of us not privy to the tables used to convert times to points idly wondered to each other in the stands how close Eaton might be able to come to Dan O’Brien’s 20-year old American record of 8,891 points.
So imagine our reaction when the track announcer’s voice came booming over the PA system to tell us it was not inconceivable that Ashton Eaton could break Roman Sebrle’s world record. “All” he would have to do is run 1,500 meters in 4 minutes and 15 seconds—a time nearly three seconds faster than he had ever run it before. In an event measured in hundredths of seconds.
Good luck with that, was my first thought. But that was followed with, A world record? Right here? Right now?
In nearly every record-breaking distance-running performance, a “rabbit” has been used—a fellow runner who, by prearranged agreement, sets a demanding pace for as long as they can last before fading. And as luck would have it, this field of 16 decathletes included two men who excel at the 1,500. Curtis Beach and Joe Detmer would thus be the rabbits, pulling Eaton along at a pace that gave him a fighting chance at 4 minutes and 15 seconds. Out of nowhere, stars began aligning.
Exactly as it’s been described in many a famous sports chronicle, the crowd did indeed “rise as one” when the runners toed the line. And wouldn’t you know…after two miserable days of mostly rain and mist, the sun chose that moment to shine brightly through the clouds. And then they were off.
Eaton passed just 20 feet in front of me three times during the race, each time raising goose bumps (on me, that is—I can’t really speak for him). On the final time, he was roughly half a lap from the finish. And slightly behind the necessary pace. I became acutely aware that I’d never found myself in a place and time in which 21,000 people wanted so badly for one man to succeed.
Coming down the final 100 meters, Eaton noticeably picked up his stride, thereby making all of us aware that a world record had indeed become a possibility. And if noise itself could break the record, it was a done deal. Beach, the Duke University sophomore who’d been the ideal rabbit, moved aside and subtly pulled back, allowing him to pass.
The finish line was across the infield from my seat, so all I could do was turn my glance to the huge video screen that bore the close-up of a grimacing Eaton coming down the stretch. I could no longer hear the PA announcer clearly amid the din, but as Eaton crossed the line I made out the words two seconds.
Was it missed by two seconds or broke it by two seconds? During that tortured moment of bedlam and uncertainty, the image beamed to us on TrackVision was that of Eaton’s face contorted in an expression that straddled the line between agony and ecstasy. It was impossible to tell.
And then they were on him. Beach and the other decathletes as they crossed the finish line behind him. Eaton’s mom, Roslyn. His fiancée, Brianne Theisen—herself an NCAA champion heptathlete.
Every hair on my arms and the back of my neck rose to attention, remaining there throughout the victory lap and the awards ceremony.
Ashton Eaton broke the world record in the decathlon with 9,039 points. He did it on the one of the grandest stages imaginable. He did it in front of every living U.S. Olympic decathlon champion, all of whom had gathered at this Olympic Trials to celebrate the event’s centennial anniversary. And of particular interest to yours truly…he did it in front of me.
That night, still buzzing with excitement, I tried to put the whole thing into perspective. I’m pretty sure that I’ve never witnessed anyone do something nobody’s ever done before—in over a century worth of trying, no less. And I’d certainly never seen it done right in front of my eyes. All things considered, I’d highly recommend the experience.
Postscript: In fact, a host of others did indeed get to experience the thrill. On August 29, 2015, at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, Ashton Eaton broke his own decathlon world record with 9,045 points. Said he, “I think the point of life is just trying to improve. Do something. Get inspired to do something and then try to do better.” It seems to be working for him.
The 2012 U.S. Olympic Decathlon Trials in pictures…
Click on image to view slide show