Published June 23, 2012
EUGENE, Oregon – Meter by meter, Ashton Eaton kept swallowing up real estate on a track that has always felt like home.
Second by second, the clock to the side of that track ticked away -- daring him to cross the finish line in a time that would put his name in the record books.
Eaton was every bit as relentless and stubborn as that clock Saturday. He set a personal best in the exhausting 1,500-meter finale and is now the world-record holder in the decathlon -- the cream of the crop in the event that determines the world's best athlete.
"This is just crazy," Eaton said.
He finished the grueling two-day event with 9,039 points in the U.S. Olympic trials to beat Roman Sebrle's 11-year-old mark by 13 points. Eaton joined the likes of Bruce Jenner, Dan O'Brien and Rafer Johnson among the Americans who have held the world record. He did it on the 100th anniversary of the first Olympic decathlon -- and many of the American greats who have made history in the event were on hand to watch Eaton do the same.
"I knew this day was coming," O'Brien said. "I really did."
Eaton, the 24-year-old and a former NCAA champion for University of Oregon, needed a time of 4 minutes, 16.37 seconds in the 1,500 to break the mark. He finished in 4:14.48.
When it was over, he bent down and put his hands on his knees, then brought them up to cover his mouth. Tears were falling -- elated and shocked all at the same time.
A few minutes later, he took the mini American flag he'd been handed as a newly minted member of the U.S. Olympic team and stabbed it into the turf near the scoreboard that displayed his accomplishment: "World Record Decathlon. Ashton Eaton. 9,039 points." Photographers lined up for the historic shoot. Certainly, Eaton will own a copy or two by the time this night is over.
"I wanted it to be a special event because this is my home state, my hometown, my home university," he said to the crowd at Oregon's Hayward Field. "And just from the start, I just wanted to perform well."
What to do for an encore?
We'll see in six weeks in London, where he'll go in as the favorite, along with the man he beat, defending world champion Trey Hardee, who finished 656 points back.
"Going into London, I'm not going to change a thing," Eaton said. "Clearly."
Chances for an American medal sweep in London, thought to be a good possibility, were vanquished when defending Olympic champion Bryan Clay fell during the hurdles. He finished 12th.
Everything else on this memorable evening in Oregon got second billing -- even Lolo Jones' lean at the finish line to earn the third and final Olympic spot in the 100 hurdles by 0.04 seconds. Dawn Harper won in 12.73.
Allyson Felix won't be in the 100 in London. She lost third place by less than 0.001 to Jeneba Tarmoh. Carmelita Jeter won the race in 10.92.
Elsewhere, Tyson Gay made it through his first 100 heat cleanly, while LaShawn Merritt, Jeremy Wariner and Sanya Richards-Ross all advanced in the 400.
Nobody, however, covered more ground, or did it better, than Eaton.
He opened his pursuit Friday by setting world-best marks for the decathlon in his first two events, the 100 (10.21 seconds) and long jump (27 feet). He had a mark of 46 feet, 7 1/4 inches in shot put, cleared 6-8 3/4 in the high jump and ran the 400 in a driving rainstorm in 46.70 seconds to finish the first day in the mix for the world record.
He returned Saturday to equally dreary weather, but didn't slip. The results: 13.70 seconds in the 110 hurdles, 140-5 inches in the discus, and 17-4 1/2 in the pole vault. His javelin throw of 193-1 meant he would need to top his personal best by at least 2.57 seconds in the 1,500.
The sun finally peaked out shortly before Eaton made it to the starting line, illuminating his green and black shirt and neon-orange shoes. He stayed on pace the entire time and crossed the line with nearly 2 seconds to spare.
Eaton also overtook O'Brien's American record of 8,891 points, which he set in 1992 -- nine years before Sebrle became the first man to break 9,000 points.
Back in 1976, Jenner put the decathlon squarely in the spotlight, winning the Montreal Olympics and becoming a celebrity when he returned home. He was on the front of the Wheaties box back then, and the fact that he's on the front of it now -- as part of a retro marketing campaign -- is as good an argument as any to prove the event no longer has the stranglehold on the public that it once did.
But that hardly diminishes this accomplishment.
Eaton went through the large part of the first nine events in dreary weather -- a long jump in drizzle, the 400 meters in a driving downpour. He smiled through most of it, and when he was introduced before the final 1,500 race, he waved to the crowd, then put his hands together to try and close the deal.
It was, he said, more than he expected.
"I thought I'd get a good 100, a good long jump and from there, just have a go at it and make the team," Eaton said. "But when you're in this place, in this atmosphere, this is what happens. I'm so glad I was able to be a part of it."