Baseball has its “five-tool” players — those who excel at running, throwing, fielding, hitting for average, and hitting for power. In Olympic athletics, the ultimate performer is the “10-tool” man, the champion of the decathlon. He is the athlete who produces the best overall results in 10 events — the 100-meter sprint, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1,500 meters — over two days.
Americans have claimed 11 gold medals in the decathlon. Among them are such legendary figures as Jim Thorpe (1912), Bob Mathias (1948 and 1952), and Rafer Johnson (1960). A trio of U.S. athletes are chasing the gold in 2012: Bryan Clay, the defending Olympic champion; Trey Hardee, the 2011 world champion; and Ashton Eaton, who was runner-up to Hardee in Daegu, South Korea, last summer.
Eaton, 24, is the youngest of the group and the hottest contender right now. Last month at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, Turkey, he won the heptathlon (a seven-event competition) and set a world record.
Eaton got his first taste of outdoor competition in this Olympic year at last week’s Sam Adams Multi-Events Invitational at the Westmont College track. He will not tackle a full decathlon until the U.S. Olympic Trials in June at Eugene, Oregon. In the events he did select, Eaton made a vivid impression on his fellow athletes and onlookers.
He started the first day by blasting the 100 in 10.45 seconds, a Westmont stadium record. And at the end of the day, he shattered another record in the 400, clocking 45.68 seconds — a time that has been equaled only once in the history of the Olympic decathlon, by 1968 champion Bill Toomey at Mexico City.
Toomey was a teacher at La Colina Junior High and trained for the Olympics at UCSB with the help of Sam Adams, the namesake of last week’s meet. Eaton is a professional athlete who competes for the Oregon Track Club Elite. His coach, Harry Marra, once worked with Adams and derived many of his training concepts from the former UCSB coach.
“Sam Adams taught us that you have to train hard, but you can’t just train,” Marra said. “You get stale and tired. So every Saturday we’d do a run, a jump, a throw, some kind of competition. This competition [at Westmont] is the perfect segue. Decathletes love to compete in anything.”
Marra started coaching Eaton in 2010 when the athlete was a senior at the University of Oregon. He proceeded to capture his third consecutive NCAA decathlon title. When he tried his first 10-eventer as a freshman, Eaton said, he did not even know what a decathlon was. Now he knows the Greek roots (deca, or 10, and athlon, or contests) as well as the German word Zehnkampf. “Ten fights,” Eaton said.
At 6’1” and 185 pounds, Eaton has the strong-but-sleek build of a natural athlete. He was a sprinter and football running back in high school at Bend, Oregon, and also participated in wrestling and taekwondo. He tries to focus on the rhythm of his activities.
“Track-and-field is so much rhythm it’s ridiculous,” Eaton said. “The throws, the jumps … if you just have a good rhythm, you can create the energy your body needs to perform. You have to have the tools to perform, but you also have to have the rhythm. The 400 was very rhythmical running, like a metronome with your feet: ‘thum, thum, thum … ’”
Eaton’s best score in the decathlon is 8,729 points. The American record is 8,891, set by Dan O’Brien in 1992. “That’s too long ago,” Marra said. “Bryan or Trey or Ashton, or all three of them, need to go after that and take it apart.” The bugaboo about multi-events is that they multiply the ways one can get injured. Hardee is recovering from surgery to repair an elbow he tore up throwing the javelin at the World Championships. Clay has been plagued by injuries since winning the Olympic title at Beijing.
“My biggest job is to keep Ashton Eaton healthy,” Marra said. “That’s where a coach has nightmares. You wake up at night thinking: six vaults tomorrow, or eight vaults? You’ve got to know when to shut it down. Because I’m older , and I’ve been around, maybe that experience helps. Sam [Adams] taught us: Let’s get to the starting line 85 percent in shape and 100 percent healthy, then let’s compete. Don’t come in being really fit, but ‘Aw, my hamstring is sore, my back is sore.’ Don’t do that.”
The Olympic Trials in the decathlon will take place June 22-23 at Oregon’s Hayward Field. Eaton said he’s inspired by the crowds in Eugene, known as Track Town U.S.A. “The fans are ridiculous,” he said. “They know who you are. They know what you go through. They know your results. They know when you’re down. They know when it’s time to support you. You feel they really understand what you’re doing. It’s not like, ‘Oh, that looked like a really far jump, good job.’ It’s like, ‘Okay, he needs to jump this or this to be in this place.’ Or, ‘He’s that much off his personal best.’ It’s good to have people who understand.”
MULTI-NOTES: The men’s decathlon at Westmont was won by Chris Randolph, a graduate of Seattle Pacific, with 7,840 points, followed by Dakotah Keys of Oregon (7,628) and UCSB’s Derek Masterson (7,558). … Cal Poly graduate Sharon Day, the reigning U.S. champion in the women’s heptathlon, improved her best score by 160 points to 6,337. “I can do better, especially in the high jump,” said Day. She was a 2008 Olympian in the high jump with a best of 6’4¾”, and she cleared 6’¼” at Westmont. … UCSB senior Barbara Nwaba finished second to Day with 5,986 points. She ran the closing 800 meters in a personal best 2:17.70 but needed to go a second faster to break 6,000 points. Both Day and Nwaba will compete in the Olympic Trials . … Brianne Theisen, a Canadian heptathlete at Oregon, set stadium records in the 100 hurdles and 200, but she did not do the full heptathlon. She and Eaton plan to get married in 2013.