RIO DE JANEIRO — When you’re the world’s greatest athlete and you’ve won two Olympic gold medals, two world championship titles and own the world record as well as the Olympic record, what is there left to accomplish? It’s a question that U.S. decathlete Ashton Eaton now faces after winning his second Olympic gold medal in the decathlon on Thursday night.
Eaton became the first man to defend his Olympic decathlon title since 1984, and he joins track and field greats Bob Mathias and Daley Thompson as the only men in history to go back-to-back over the 10 events at the Summer Games.
The trip to Rio was a successful one for Eaton and his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who earned bronze in the women’s heptathlon—all part of a plan set forth when Eaton and his coach Harry Marra first paired up in 2009.
SI caught up with Marra to chat about what may be next for him, Ashton and Brianne. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SI: Great week for Team Eaton. Is it as successful as you were hoping for?
HM: It really was. We were aiming for two golds and walked away with two medals. In Brianne’s case, she had a little bit of a hiccup in a couple events on the first day, but she was still fighting for a medal. She’s happy with that. She knows how much blood, sweat and tears she put in her training to get that medal. In Ashton’s case, to be able to come back and join Bob Mathias and Daley Thompson as the only two-time winners ... holy cow. That’s historic.
SI: For someone like Ashton, what’s left to accomplish?
HM: In the decathlon, he had some aches and pains this year. He’s only 28 years old, but that’s starting to get up there in age in the decathlon, in which you’re pounding and starting to beat yourself up. I don’t know what he has left to accomplish. If he asks for my advice, I’d say “Don’t do the decathlon anymore.” There’s more ways to screw it up anyway. Since 2011, when he was second [at the world championships], he hasn’t lost a decathlon. That doesn’t happen. That’s like going out and shooting birdies every time in golf. That doesn’t happen, right? You’re always going to knock one into the woods.
He could be a great pole vaulter. He jumped 26" 1' in this meet. You know how many long jumps he’s taken since May 20? One. He jumped at the trials because he was injured.
In Brianne’s case, it’s the same. The multi-events just beat you up. If they do individual events next year, that would be fine. They could detox their way out of the sport.
SI: Someone asked Ashton the likelihood that he comes back in 2020 and he replied by saying, “Less than 50%.” Does that sound about right to you? It could be possible he comes back in a single event.
HM: He might. He could be a great short hurdler and in the 400 hurdles he can can run 48.69. He can do a lot of things. You know what he told me maybe a year ago? “Maybe I should try baseball when I’m done. I think I can hit.”
SI: He played baseball when he was little.
HM: He was excellent from what I heard too. A couple of the college coaches at Oregon knew him and they said he would have been a big-time pro guy. Plus could you imagine that? When he got a hit, he was on third. As soon as the pitch came, he was home.
SI: You’ve been around enough decathletes in your career to see the toll it takes on their body. How hard is it for them to step away from the sport?
HM: For some athletes, it’s tough. I had an athlete named Sheldon Blockburger and he was 32 years old, so I said to him ‘You can go one more year.’ He wrote me a note one night that said, and this is paraphrasing, “Here’s why I’m retiring: I’m retiring because I don’t want to go home at night after training or work and stretch for 40 minutes. I don’t want to strictly watch my diet. I don’t want to wake up in the morning and have a little twinge in my hamstring, which is meaningless if I’m walking around as an everyday citizen. It’s all the little things.”
Ask Brianne Theisen-Eaton about the attention to detail that she put into her diet or sleep or vitamin intake, etc. I think those are the things that are demanding on you. I think sometimes, when kids walk away from sport, if they didn’t satisfy what their goals were, they carry that frustration into life.
Caitlyn Jenner is a good friend of mine. In Montreal she breaks the world record, kills everybody, beats the Russian and the defending champion but she turns to me and says, “Damn! That discus. I could’ve had more. In the 1,500, I could’ve run gone a couple seconds faster.” I look at her and say, “You just broke the world record and won the Olympic gold medal!” That’s the decathlon.
SI: If they’re done, are you done?
HM: I’m contractually obligated to coach them through next year. What they’ll do, I’m not sure and we’ll figure that out until November. We’ll take a long break. I am definitely done and will not coach another Olympic cycle. For me, the reason is this: If some young kid wants to go to the Tokyo Olympic Games, it’s not just wait until the year before and go. It’s a full four-year commitment. For Ash and Bri, I felt a special responsibility that their careers kept moving forward with better teaching and coaching on my part. I’m constantly thinking. I don’t want to do that anymore. I turn 70 next year.
I was walking last year along the Pacific Crest Trail in Tahoe last summer. I’m in the Donner Summit and I texted Ashton saying, ‘I know you’re struggling with what you want to do after track is done, whenever it’s done. But I figured it out! I’m walking the Pacific Crest Trail. I’m going to go out and have fun.’
We beat the decathlon. We beat it by Ash and Bri coming out here and getting medals. Ashton beat it by winning two times in a row. When Brianne came out of Oregon, most people said “Brianne Theisen ... Good athlete. Good NCAA athlete but not going to compete on the world stage.” Brianne improves another almost 800 points [for a personal best of of 6808] which is higher than [former world record holder] Jane Frederick ever scored, she holds the Canadian record and now is the Olympic bronze medalist.
The old adage is leave when you’re on top. I’m leaving. I’m getting out. (Laughs)
SI: How did you spend that break after London?
HM: I don’t see them. We don’t text eachnother. We don’t call. We just get away. I’m at a football game at Autzen Stadium in Late October where Oregon was blowing somebody out and they were sitting a few rows ahead and I had no idea. They decided to leave early and I said, ‘Hey, are you the Olympic champion?’ They laughed and said, ‘Coach, coach! We haven’t seen you! We thought you were dead.’ I said, ‘We should probably start training pretty soon.’That’s what we do and it’s good to get away because as a coach and athlete you’re always bantering.
I’m spending time with my family. I haven’t seen my wife all but 17 days in the last 10 months because she moved to Reno to live there with my son while we were traveling the world these past couple years. I want go home and do that to figure out what we’re going to do in the next phase of our lives.
SI: Ashton came up to you and hugged you right after he ran the 1,500. What did he say?
HM: I can’t hear sometimes and Ashton will say, “Coach, you gotta get the wax out of your ears!” But he just said, “I love you ... We finished this thing off.’ And we did. We’ve been together seven years—Ash, Bri and I—the three musketeers. A lot of good things happened and I love those kids. I think it’s mutual. It was good.
I’m older now now and if you talk to kids, you tell them that you can’t win 100% at what you do in life but if you pick something you do and you beat the living crap out of it, that’s about 90%. That’s all about you can expect. Try to get the whole thing but don’t be hanging your head if you don’t get the 100%. I think they’re happy with where they’re at. I love Ash and I love Bri.