It was a breezy April morning at the Westmont College track-and-field complex. Barbara Nwaba, the U.S. heptathlon champion, was practicing javelin throws under the scrutiny of her coach, Josh Priester of the Santa Barbara Track Club. For two visiting athletes, Ashton Eaton and his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, it was time to run.
Eaton did fast strides on the straightaway. “Relax the shoulders, Ash,” shouted his coach, Harry Marra. “Feel smooth. Keep it there. Stay in rhythm.”
Theisen-Eaton’s workout was focused on a 300-meter time trial. “Have some fun, Bri,” Marra said before the three-quarter-lap sprint that would suck the oxygen out of her lungs. She sped around the track without faltering. “Thirty-six-oh-four,” Marra said, reading his stopwatch. “She didn’t run that fast until July last year.”
It was all going according to plan. Now is the time for the Eatons to be at their highest, fastest, and strongest. They could make history by becoming the first husband and wife to win gold medals in the same Olympics — not just in any event but in two of the most daunting tests of body and mind.
Theisen-Eaton will be first on the stage at the Rio Olympic Stadium, competing in the heptathlon Friday and Saturday (Aug. 12-13). Four days later (Aug. 17-18), it will be Eaton’s turn. He will be trying to win back-to-back decathlon titles, joining Bob Mathias (1948 and ’52) in U.S. Olympic lore.
Marra has been coaching “Team Eaton” — as he calls Ashton and Brianne — since the fall of 2009 at the University of Oregon. They have developed a deeply trusting relationship that has produced spectacular results. Marra says he harvested his knowledge of the sport during the time he spent in Santa Barbara in the 1970s with UCSB coach Sam Adams. He worked out a deal to bring his athletes from Oregon to train at Westmont in the spring of 2012. Eaton set his first world record and won the London Olympics that summer. Santa Barbara has been their destination every April since then.
Marra, who turns 69 on Saturday, rejects rigidity in his coaching. “You have to listen to the athlete,” he said. “My philosophical bent was fundamentally based on work. In the fall of 2010, Ashton showed up at the office one morning, looked at me, and said, ‘Coach, less is more.’ This guy knows his body. I said okay. I cut back, and his performances just took off. At that point I trusted him. As time went on, he trusted me.”
The turning point for Theisen-Eaton, who competes internationally for her native Canada, came after the 2012 Olympics, where she finished tenth in the heptathlon. “She came to me in the fall,” Marra recalled, “and she said, ‘Coach, I’m tired of going to big meets and not being a factor. I’m not going to continue to do this if I’m just getting on an airplane and taking rides to finish 10th, 11th, 12th. I’ve got to make a change.’ I told her, ‘You’ve got to completely commit. … Your work ethic is good, but maybe you’ll have to listen a little more and back off a little because you’re working too hard sometimes.’ As soon as we did that, up she goes.”
In the summer of 2013, Eaton and Theisen were united in marriage. They held the ceremony in an Oregon forest. At their request, Marra was the officiant. “I punched a couple things into a computer and was licensed to marry them,” he said.
Even though their training has been geared toward this year, the couple did well in the IAAF World Championships in Beijing last summer. Eaton set a new world record of 9,045 points, but Theisen-Eaton was lagging after the first day of the heptathlon. “We had a talk [the next] morning,” Marra said. “I saw she was still down. I said, ‘Hey, do you want to win in Rio next year?’ She goes, ‘Coach you know I want to win.’ I say, ‘Well, you stunk the house up yesterday; you know you stunk the house up. It wasn’t to your level. … You roll over and play dead right now, and you don’t come back fighting and kicking and screaming, they’re going to eat you up and spit you out in Rio next year.’ As soon as I said that, she got like this” — he bared his teeth — “and she does great in the long jump, great in the javelin, and ends up second place. She sent a message.”
The pair did train hard last year. “We busted our humps,” Marra said in April. “This year, the Olympic year, we take it easy. You come out to practice; whatever you run, run fast and run it sharp; have a light workout the next day; come back and do it again. They’re fresh all the time, and they’re absolutely running like the wind. We paid the piper, and now we’re reaping the benefits.”
It is difficult for multi-event athletes to avoid injuries — they put stress on every muscle in their bodies — and the peril caught up with Eaton on May 20 in Ostrava, Czech Republic. He was going to race Usain Bolt in the 100 meters, but he pulled out after straining a quad in the long jump. For the next month, preceding the U.S. Olympic trials, he trained gingerly.
“Every workout was smooth,” Marra said. “Our plan was to go mild in the trials. He went mild. He didn’t do any more than necessary. He’ll be ready to blow the doors off in Rio.”
But first, Theisen-Eaton will try to loosen the hinges.
THE RIO HEPTATHLON
Five contenders with personal best scores:
• Jessica Ennis-Hill (Great Britain) 6,955: She blew away the competition in London to win the 2012 gold medal.
• Brianne Theisen-Eaton (Canada) 6,808: No woman in the past four years has topped her winning score at the 2015 meet in Gotzis, Austria.
• Katarina Johnson-Thompson (Great Britain) 6,682: She has tremendous ability, indicated by her best high jump of 1.95 meters (6′4¾″) and long jump of 6.84 meters (22′5¼″).
• Laura Ikauniece-Admidina (Latvia) 6,622: She was the bronze medalist behind Ennis-Hill and Theisen-Eaton at Beijing last year.
• Barbara Nwaba (U.S.A./S.B. Track Club) 6,500: She is capable of surpassing 6,600 points if she puts together optimal results in all seven events. The 800-meter run gives her strong come-from-behind potential.
Pacific times. Events streamed live at NBCOlympics.com.
Friday (8/12) — 100-meter hurdles, 5:35 am. High jump, 6:50 am. Shot put, 4:35 pm. 200 meters, 6:05 pm.
Saturday (8/13) — Long jump, 7:45 am. Javelin, 4 pm. 800 meters, 6:53 pm.