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As a runner, Eaton, unsurprisingly, does not bear the physical appearance of the typical World’s Greatest Athlete prospect. If you peruse photos of past decathlon world record holders—Sebrle, O’Brien, Germany’s Jurgen Hingsen—you observe a great deal of upper-body mass. One, Russ Hodge, weighed 225 pounds and was a 60-foot shot putter. Eaton, by contrast, is 6'1", 180 pounds, and all rangy grace. He is a natural sprinter taking on the field events while bulking up as little as necessary. As a result, it’s not surprising that Eaton’s marks in the throws often pale in comparison with other decathletes, past and present. His best scores in the shot put (47' 41*2"), discus (151' 53*4"), and javelin (184' 41*4") fall short of the numbers put up by Sebrle when he set the world record (a shot put of 50' 31*2", discus of 157' 3", javelin a towering 232' 8").
Yet no decathlete in history has scored as many points in the running events as Eaton. His PR of 13.52 seconds in the 110-meter hurdles is nearly a half-second faster than what Sebrle ran when he set his world record. In the 400 meters, Eaton’s time of 46.28 is two seconds faster than Clay clocked when he won Olympic gold. He’s also a fine pole-vaulter and solid high jumper, and among the best in the long jump. Alas, it’s just the throws that drag him back from immortality.
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Every fine decathlete is the result of years of self-creation. Each must understand his own distinctive talents and metabolism—his design—and train in ways that are right for him alone. With his titles and records, Ashton Eaton has proven that he can succeed on the world stage with his running pedigree. But to take the next step, to first qualify for this summer’s Olympics in London and then win gold, does he have to do more? Eaton has faced that question for years and long since come to a decision. He intends to be true to his design. And in the process he intends to remake the 100-year tradition—and the very image—of The World’s Greatest Athlete.
Small Oregon towns have produced a startling share of wonderful decathletes. Dan O’Brien grew up in Klamath Falls. Dave Johnson, the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist, went to high school in Corvallis. Tom Pappas, the 2003 world champion, was from tiny Azalea.
Ashton Eaton is the latest to climb from this cradle of the discipline. He was born in Portland on January 21, 1988. By the time he started first grade, Ashton and his mother, Roslyn (who had separated from Eaton’s father when the boy was 2), had moved to La Pine, 4,200 feet high, in the Central Oregon Cascades. It was there that Ashton’s love for competition, and for running, was seeded. He played basketball, soccer, and football during recess with classmates. “It kept going around that I was really fast,” says Eaton, who has a thoughtful, considered way with words. “I wouldn’t say there was a moment of realization when I wanted to be a runner; it was always just something I was.”
By the time he got to high school, Eaton had fallen for track and field. He was coached by Tate Metcalf and John Nosler, who also assumed roles as exemplars. The two coaches would stay late after practice trying to get Eaton’s step right on the long jump runway or to show him proper running form. They also taught him off-track lessons. “I knew I could compete with most people in high school. It didn’t quite give me an attitude, but it made me think I didn’t have to try hard sometimes,” Eaton says. “I would get yelled at and have to run just as hard as anyone else.”
In his senior year, 2006, Eaton won the state high school 400 meters in 48.69 and the long jump with 24' 01*4". His ability caught the eye of Dan Steele, then the University of Oregon’s associate director of track and a former decathlete. “I saw him compete in a meet in Salem,” says Steele. “Raw athleticism.”
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Struck by Eaton’s ease in picking up skills, Metcalf suggested that Ashton choose a college where he could pursue the decathlon. Oregon seemed a natural fit. The Ducks’ program, a perennial college track-and-field power, had produced NCAA decathlon champion Santiago Lorenzo in 2001, but no one since. With Steele’s tutelage, Eaton seemed a perfect candidate to change that. “We had no idea that he was sitting on such untapped potential,” says Steele, who would coach Eaton in the pole vault and discus early on at Oregon.
And it didn’t take long for Oregon’s magic to seize the developing decathlete. Roslyn says things clicked as soon as her son arrived on campus. “I dropped Ashton off at the track to talk to Dan,” she recalls. “When I came back two days later, I could see his smile from across the field. He said, ‘Mom, I’m home.’”
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Image: Corbis Images
Video: Running Form and Technique