Most of Ashton Eaton’s work had been done in the years leading up to the two rainy June days at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon; running, jumping, and throwing day after day, week after week, year after year. Strained tendons and pulled muscles, being raised by a single mom who worked three jobs at a time just to keep food on the table, a father who walked out on him when he was two years old and a high school coach who took over as best he could, and six years of training every day, sometimes to the point of throwing up, led to him pacing on the track before his final Trials event.
The most basic and taxing of all sporting events is the decathlon. It is literally running and jumping and throwing, perhaps paying homage to what it once took simply to survive and is now used as a basis for the title “The World’s Greatest Athlete.” For two days competitors exert and exhort themselves to sprint as fast, jump as long and high, and throw spears and balls as far as they can – in a throwback to days when doing so meant food for a clan – and then run for a mile in order to bring it all home.
Ashton Eaton is a world class decathlete. For years he trained in scorpion-loving desert heat, icicle cold, pea soup fog, and steady rain. Virtually every day he awoke at dawn, pulled on his sweats, laced up his shoes, and hit the track. “I really truly love this event. To me it is my whole world,” explained Ashton. “I think the reason the decathlon is so appealing is because it is like living an entire lifetime in two days; you have the ups, the downs, the goods, the bads, the comebacks, it all happens in two days. Everybody loves life and I think that is why we love the decathlon.”
From the time he was two Ashton saw that perseverance mattered. His mother who raised him alone worked by day as a secretary at a law firm, by night as a waitress, and on weekends doing whatever she could in order to keep Ashton fed and believing in himself, as she believed in him. “When, in 2007, his high school coaches said he had potential in track to get a scholarship and more,” said his mother Roz, “he really started to focus and believe in himself.” He set and reset his intentions: to be a good track athlete, to get a free ride to the University, to win the national championship, and to medal in the Olympics. He took action, training first in the high desert of Bend, Oregon and then in the drizzle capital of the world, Eugene.
Getting to be a world class athlete at the decathlon requires a regimen that demands that every part of your body be ideally honed. The individual events are grueling enough in their own right but especially so when track meets require you to do all of them over a two day period: 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter run, 110-meter hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1500-meter distance race. Winning national and international decathlon competitions demands a heart and soul on fire, where you exist in a state of confidence and belief in yourself, perhaps so much so that visualizing and feeling the win means the win.
Becoming an Olympian also requires a community of support. In Ashton's case, coaches, other families, mentors, teachers, and others all helped him achieve. Hope, opportunity, belief, community, love. These are the ingredients to make anyone better, for someone to change into a community leader and change agent themselves. More often than not, transformation takes a team.
Ashton was poised for the race of his life and needed to run his best time ever in the Trials 1500-meter contest – the final decathlon event – to set a new world-record. A good race meant qualifying for the Olympics and a great race meant becoming the favorite to win at the Olympics courtesy of a fresh world-record. On his home field track he felt the adoring crowd and heard their whispers as the race announcer stated the time needed for him to become the World’s Greatest Athlete. Puddles from the rain soaked the track; conditions were lousy to run a personal best.
With years of goals behind him, tens of thousands of hours of training under his belt, and the belief ‘I can do it’ playing over and over again in the seconds leading up to the race, Ashton walked up to the start line. He toed the white stripe as thousands of hushed fans, electrified by the moment, looked down with him. The starter’s gun sounded and he took off like a true payload rocket as a controlled powerful burn pushed him forward. The crowd surged as well, screaming and cheering, inspiring him to greatness.
“Those last 600 meters, that is when the crowd was lifting me up,” exclaimed Ashton after the race. “I knew there was no way I was not going to get the world record, in large part due to what was happening around the stadium. I was not running on my own legs. I felt the magic. It let me do what I was made to do.” Ashton ran his best race ever, broke the record and became the highest scoring decathlete in history. He embraced his mother and fiancée. And he cried, not just his years of tireless training had paid off but because the atmosphere in which he ran, with thousands raising the energy, was one of pure love.