They sat in the shade of the grandstand and watched the events of their past lives unfold like a familiar old play on a sunlit stage. They were following the decathlon competition at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. They still had a fervor for the sport that they practiced assiduously in the 1970s and ’80s at UCSB under the guidance of coach Sam Adams. That shared passion brought more than a dozen of them together at Oregon’s Hayward Field last weekend.
“It was real,” Tony Allen-Cooksey said of the old days. After graduating from college in Indiana, he came to Santa Barbara and finished fifth in the 1980 U.S. decathlon championships. Allen-Cooksey, director of a youth sports center in San Diego, chartered a bus to take a contingent of his fellow athletes to Oregon. In Santa Barbara, the bus picked up decathletes Ron Wopat and Ed Brown, heptathlete Joan Russell Price, and Sarah Sweeney.
None of them ever competed in the Games. “In my mind, I thought I could make it to the Olympics,” said Tom Harris, who holds the UCSB decathlon record and placed sixth in the 1984 Olympic Trials. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think so. But now I look back, and the work ethic we had, being first on the track and last to leave — that applies to the rest of your life.”
They became professionals in different fields. Harris was a sound editor for such television shows as ER and The West Wing and collected five Emmys. But during their athletic careers, they had to scrape to support themselves. Multi-event athletes are consigned to labor in a wasteland as far as lucrative sponsorships go. Brown told the story of John Sayre, the 1985 U.S. decathlon champion: “He drove from Illinois to the nationals [in Indianapolis] and slept in his truck in the parking lot the night before the meet. That’s low-key.”
Brown asked his fellow decathletes the question, “If you had to do it all over again…?” Wopat said, “I would play baseball. A Santa Barbara High pitcher [Kevin Gowdy] just signed for three and a half million.” But then Wopat, a teacher, would not be enjoying an 18-hour bus ride to watch a track meet.
With the nationwide decline of interest in track-and-field — you wouldn’t know it in Eugene, which has assumed the name “Tracktown” — even Ashton Eaton, the defending Olympic champion and producer of the two highest decathlon scores in history, does not get the attention of forebears such as Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson, much less the attention that the former Bruce Jenner is getting.
The decathlon made a rare appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated last week. The magazine featured Caitlyn Jenner, the transgendered person who as Bruce won the Olympic championship 40 years ago. Although she’s hailed by many as a spokesperson for her community, Jenner’s notoriety is not universally applauded.
“After he became famous [at the Montreal Olympics], he always went for the limelight,” Allen-Cooksey said. “It’s a little bit of a bummer because Jenner was my hero,” Harris said. “But he’s not an evil person. I’ve seen what happens in Hollywood. He was a good-looking guy, but for years he was changing his appearance. You realize something was going on in [his/her] life.”
Jenner never did another decathlon after Montreal. Meanwhile, Eaton will try to win his second gold medal at Rio de Janeiro after winning the Olympic Trials on Monday with a score of 8,750 points — impressive considering the 28-year-old proceeded cautiously after having incurred a quadriceps injury six weeks ago. Trey Hardee, a three-time national champion, vowed to be back next year after a dislocated foot and hamstring injury did him in. Hardee said, “The awesome part of the decathlon is that every single athlete who knew me or not patted me on the back.”
Jeremy Taiwo, boosted by a 7’3” clearance in the high jump, finished second to Eaton in the trials. Taiwo, 26, summed up his experience as a competitor in 10 events over two days: “This is the hardest journey of your life. You’re broke; you want to quit; you want to work at Whole Foods or something. It hurts to be a decathlete.”
By Paul Wellman