FASTER HIGHER STRONGER

World's greatest athlete? Take your pick: In London, Americans Ashton Eaton, Bryan Clay and Trey Hardee could sweep the decathlon and return the spotlight to one of the Games' defining events
June 11, 2012

Here's Bill Toomey, running in the footsteps of Jim Thorpe and Rafer Johnson and Bob Mathias. Running in the cold and the dark of Mexico City. In the breathless air. WINNING the decathlon.

—JIM MCKAY, ABC, 1968

Now three modern decathletes run in shadows, somewhere far out on the distant borders of fame. Their task hasn't changed: two days, 10 events. Upon the winner is still bestowed an unofficial title: World's Greatest Athlete. But that title has been dulled by overuse in other sports, and its value has been diminished by the shifting hierarchy of athletic achievement. Decathletes are generalists in an era of specialization, workaday grinders when celebrity springs from flash and swag. So they compete for medals, but also for relevance.

One of the three, Ashton Eaton, 24, is a little too young but headed rapidly toward historical transcendence. Another, Bryan Clay, is a little too old at 32 but already has two Olympic medals, including the 2008 gold. The third, two-time world champion Trey Hardee, 28, is in the chronological prime of his career but is contending with a surgically repaired throwing elbow. Eaton is the best decathlon runner ever, Clay the second-best thrower in history. Hardee, when he's healthy, is a ticking metronome of consistency through all 10 events.

And this too: All three are Americans. When the Olympic decathlon is finished on the night of Aug. 9 in London, if they have survived the U.S. trials in Eugene, Ore., in June—a very big if—and if form holds at the Games, Eaton, Hardee and Clay could all be wearing medals. It would be the first national sweep of the event since Bob Mathias led three Americans to the victory stand 60 years ago in Helsinki, and only the third in the 100-year history of the Olympic decathlon in its current form, the other by a U.S. trio in 1936. "A perfect storm," says Chris Huffins, bronze medalist in the decathlon in Sydney in 2000. "We have three very talented guys in stable training situations, and the European combined-event factories—the Czech Republic, Germany, the former Soviet countries—do not have that one guy. This is our time."

The future of the decathlon sits poolside at a hotel in West Covina, Calif., wearing shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops on a warm spring evening. Ashton Eaton has flown to California with his coach, Harry Marra, 64, from their home in Eugene to compete in four individual events at the Mt. San Antonio College Relays in nearby Walnut. Road congestion on the way to the hotel was brutal, and the van driver didn't have any change. Still, Eaton is so cool he looks like he could be predicting a Super Bowl win over the Baltimore Colts. "I feel good," he says. "Really good."

Eaton, 6'¾" and 181 pounds, has been a decathlete for barely five years; he has never beaten Hardee or Clay in a decathlon that the others completed, and his personal best is 8,729 points, lowest of the three as measured by the event's arcane scoring table. But soon that will change, and everyone connected with the sport knows it. "Ashton is the next world-record holder," says Huffins. "The only things holding him back right now—his throws—are things that are going to get better with repetition and age." Though Eaton's best score is almost 300 points short of the decathlon world record of 9,026 set by the Czech Republic's Roman Sebrle in 2001, he has broken the world record for the indoor heptathlon three years in a row. Eaton is the fastest elite decathlete in history in the combination of the 100 meters, the 400 and the 110 hurdles, and at the World Championships last summer in Daegu, South Korea, he locked down the silver medal with a 4:18.94 in the 1,500, roughly equivalent to a 4:36 mile.

"Guys who have those great 100s and 400s," says two-time Olympic decathlete Tom Pappas, "usually run five flat in the 1,500." Eaton is 132 points better than Clay and 153 better than Hardee in the 1,500 alone, a huge mathematical and psychological edge in a sport in which medal positions are often decided by less than 100 points over 10 events. "Ashton knows he has that hammer in the 1,500," says decathlon guru Frank Zarnowski, a visiting professor of economics at Dartmouth. "And they know he has the hammer."

At the Mt. SAC Relays, Eaton long-jumped a personal best of 26'5½"; only five world-class decathletes have jumped farther. He is the second-fastest 110-meter hurdler in decathlon history, and this spring he equaled Bill Toomey's 400-meter decathlon record of 45.68 (although Eaton's was not in a decathlon). In late April, true to Huffins's prediction, Eaton threw the javelin 197'8", a scary 10-foot increase in his personal best and a difference worth 42 points in the table. "I just hope somebody can push him," says Dan O'Brien, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist and American-record holder. "Just for the drama, I'd like to see him under duress at the trials or the Olympics."

Eaton was born in Portland, the only child of Roslyn Eaton, then 22, and her boyfriend, Terrance Wilson. Though the couple broke up two years later, Eaton is close to his three half siblings from his father's side. The oldest of them, Verice Bennett, 34, is a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps; last December he received the Silver Star for his role in a battle in Afghanistan in September 2010. Eaton flew to Virginia for the ceremony and afterward wrote on his personal blog: "Until now I didn't know what gravity it held to hold the American flag at something like the World Championships or Olympics."

After splitting with Ashton's father, Roslyn took her son to live with her family in La Pine, a town of about 5,700 in central Oregon. They stayed until Ashton reached fifth grade. "At that point," says Roslyn, "Ashton was showing some potential in athletics. I wanted to give him more of an opportunity." They moved 30 miles north to the larger city of Bend.

Always Roslyn emphasized finding strong male role models for her son, men who reminded her of her father, James Eaton, who played running back at Michigan State. One of those men was Tate Metcalf, track coach at Mountain View High in Bend, who came across the Eatons during their first summer in town, when Ashton was participating in Metcalf's summer track program. "You could see he was going to be a complete stud," says Metcalf. "He was very close to his mother, and she wanted to do everything right for him."

Eaton played football and wrestled at Mountain View. On the track he won the state championship in the 400 meters (he gave the medal to Metcalf "as if he knew there would be more," says the coach) and the long jump as a senior. But recruiting was sparse. Eaton considered Division III football, but one day in the spring of his senior year Metcalf stopped him outside the high school locker room and said, "How would you like to try the decathlon?"

Eaton said, "Sure." Then, after a long pause, "What's the decathlon?"

Metcalf worked on selling Eaton to recruiters, even though Eaton had done none of the throws—shot put, discus, javelin—and had never pole-vaulted. Oregon assistant Dan Steele was the one coach willing to take a chance: He came to a meet in Salem, watched Eaton long-jump and run, and soon afterward offered him a partial scholarship as a decathlete. It was an exciting time to be a Duck; Vin Lananna was just taking over as director, and distance runner Galen Rupp was leading a rebirth of the program Prefontaine made famous.

Eaton had much to learn, but it came quickly. Steele has posted a video on YouTube showing Eaton comically pole-vaulting 10'6" as an Oregon freshman, clinging to the pole and then awkwardly somersaulting over the bar. But in the second part of the clip, from the 2008 Olympic trials just 17 months later, Eaton clears 16'9", with sound technique. "He doesn't have a lot of the personal demons most alpha-male college athletes have," says Steele, now the coach at Northern Iowa. "He didn't chase girls until 3 a.m., he didn't get drunk every weekend, he didn't skip classes. A lot of talented guys sabotage themselves with bad behavior. Ashton never did that."

Eaton's contribution to Oregon would be three national titles in the decathlon. (One of its contributions to him is that it's where he met heptathlete Brianne Theisen; they will be married in 2013.) He started with a small scholarship, and Steele says every time he tried to increase Eaton's money, Ashton and his mother would ask, "Are you sure?" Eaton's personal record has climbed steadily, by 967, 119, 216 and 272 points, respectively, in the last four years. "And he never gets injured," says Pappas.

The top stand in London beckons. "It's important not to make the gold medal bigger than it is," says Eaton. "But nobody ever says that about things that aren't big. There's an edge in the air this year. I can feel it."

On the patio of an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant, Trey Hardee recommends the stuffed avocado. He is sitting in a booth next to his longtime girlfriend, Chelsea Johnson, the pole vault silver medalist at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. Hardee has an easy confidence that seems natural but in truth has been hard won.

His goal at Vestavia Hills High near Birmingham was to be a basketball star, but he was cut from the team as a junior, one day before the start of the season. The 6'5" Hardee threw his energies into track—he was a pole vaulter—and earned a scholarship to Mississippi State. But in 2003, after his freshman year, the school deemphasized track and field by dropping its indoor program, and his coach, assistant Keith Powell, left a year later.

"It seemed like every decision was turning out badly," says Hardee's mother, Jan DiCesare. "Basketball: cut. Track: college coach leaves. But all of those things had to happen for Trey to get where he is."

Hardee had gradually moved from the vault to the decathlon, and he finished second in the 2004 NCAA meet as a sophomore. In the fall of '04 he transferred to Texas, where he was paired with multievents coach Mario Sategna. It was a propitious match. Sategna has coached Hardee to both of his world titles, a 2008 Olympic berth and his 8,790 PR, in Berlin in '09. Only two Americans, O'Brien and Clay, have scored higher. Sategna, like O'Brien, Huffins, Dave Johnson and many others, sunk roots in the decathlon in the 1990s when Visa threw financial support behind the event. That backing has long ended, "but the success you're seeing now," says Zarnowski, "is a spillover from that program."

Hardee was leading the decathlon at the Worlds last summer with two events remaining: the javelin and the 1,500 meters. Before the javelin, he told Sategna, "I'm going to put some heat on these guys. I'm going to throw this like I'm trying to hurt myself." Hardee threw a personal best of 226'4½" on that first toss. "Not even a good technical throw," says Hardee. "I took nine crossover steps instead of seven. I thought, Oh, wow, we're about to throw really far tonight." He glided into his third attempt, faster than he can ever remember on a run-up, and as his right elbow passed his ear, he heard a loud pop. Hardee dropped to one knee and grimaced, grabbing the joint. American trainers examined the elbow and believed it was a ligament strain. In the 1,500 three hours later Hardee had the elbow taped at a 90-degree angle and ran through the pain to secure his gold medal. (The world hardly noticed, as moments later Usain Bolt false-started out of the 100-meter final. London will present a similar problem—the decathlon ends on the night when Bolt would run the 200 final.)

A week after Daegu, Hardee underwent an MRI in Texas that showed he had torn the ulnar collateral ligament—the Tommy John ligament—completely off the humerus bone. His mother, a CPA, works in the same building in Birmingham as noted orthopedist James Andrews and got Trey an appointment. Nineteen days after winning the gold medal, Hardee had Tommy John surgery.

"It went as well as you could want," says Andrews. "He had a very clean elbow. A lot of baseball players who have this surgery have chips and other arthritic components. Trey had none of that. But it's a 12-month to a year-and-a-half recovery."

The decathlon at the Olympic trials will begin nine months and six days after Hardee's operation; the London decathlon is 47 days later—still less than 11 months postsurgery. "If Trey makes it to the Olympics," says Andrews, "he would certainly break the record for recovery from surgery on the Tommy John ligament. But for a once-every-four-years event, it's worth the risk."

Hardee has done thousands of weight reps with his right elbow, under the supervision of Longhorns assistant athletic trainer Tara Burnett. Last November he started throwing tennis balls—painfully—40 feet across the training room. He graduated to weighted balls in January, threw a discus in February and a javelin, lightly, in April.

In 1998, Andrews performed Tommy John surgery on 22-year-old javelin thrower Breaux Greer. Nine years later the free-spirited Greer set a U.S. record in the javelin (299'6") that still stands. But Greer says he was ready to throw long before the 12-to-18-month window opened. "When I had the surgery, Dr. Andrews told me I was done with the javelin," says Greer. "So I didn't even do any rehab. I just sat back and let it heal on its own. Then the coaches came to me the next spring, so I started throwing after about seven or eight months, and it felt perfectly natural."

Greer, however, threw only 241 feet in 1999, 20 feet less than before his injury; it took him another full season to reach his presurgery distance. "A guy like Trey, an Olympic-level athlete, he's never babied himself in his life," says Greer. "When the time comes, he's going to let it go."

That time will be postponed as long as possible. "I hope it's in London," says Sategna. The goal is for Hardee to make the U.S. team primarily on the strength of his other nine events and not have to throw the javelin all out at the trials. U.S. track Olympians must qualify at the trials. Sategna says Hardee has recently thrown the javelin more than 165 feet with a short approach, which would be plenty sufficient to earn a spot in the top three. But qualifying is a particularly chancy proposition in the decathlon, with so many events in which things can go wrong. "Odds are, something will happen to one of them," says Sategna of the three favorites. "It's a shame, but that's the way we do it."

Hardee's strategy fits his skill set; he ranks among the alltime best decathletes in only two events, the 100 and the 110 hurdles, but has no holes in his lineup. His training has been shifted toward maximizing his running fitness and bringing throws along later. He ran a personal best in the 60 meters this winter. "I'm fit. I'm going to be really fast," says Hardee. "Everyone is waiting for me to throw the javelin. I consider myself the favorite. But I've never been in a position like this before."

And might not be again. Huffins fires off a warning: "I wouldn't want to wait four more years to beat Ashton."

Just past noon and a strong spring sun beats down on the track at Azusa Pacific, in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains east of Los Angeles. This has been Bryan Clay's home base since autumn 1998, when he came here from Hawaii as a modestly promising sprinter and hurdler who'd discovered the decathlon only after his senior year in high school. The son of a Japanese immigrant mother and an African-American father who divorced when he was in the fifth grade, he had preferred the waves over schoolwork and mainstream sports. "I figured I would wind up working at 7-Eleven," says Clay, "and surfing every day."

Not quite. In 2001, three years after his first decathlon, Clay surpassed 8,000 points, the benchmark for world-class status, and finished third in the U.S. championships. Among his teammates at the '01 Worlds in Edmonton were sprinters Marion Jones and Maurice Greene—that's how long ago it was. Three years later he won Olympic silver in Athens, and a year after that he won the Worlds in Helsinki. In Beijing he led after every event and won gold by 240 points, the widest Olympic margin in 36 years.

Since then, however, Clay has completed just one decathlon, in May 2010 in Götzis, Austria. He has not attempted the event since June of that same year. It has been a challenging time, during which Clay questioned not just his career but also his role as husband and father to three children. In the 14 months after Götzis, he rested and nursed a sore right knee. Then, last August, as he got off a plane in Los Angeles with his family after delivering a speech to the congregation at the Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, he was greeted by a phone call from his manager, Paul Doyle, telling him that Nike had terminated his endorsement contract.

Clay had been sponsored by the shoe and apparel giant for eight years and says his deal, including performance bonuses, accounted for 90% of his annual income. "It was one of the hardest times of my life," says Clay, sitting at a battle-scarred table in the Azusa Pacific locker room. "I wanted to crawl in a hole. I'm looking at not being able to provide for my wife and kids, selling our house." Clay was not new to anxiety; before the 2008 Olympic trials he'd been overwhelmed by the fear of not winning the gold medal in Beijing, to the point where his wife, Sarah, told him, in tears, "Bryan, I don't care. Whatever happens, we'll be together." She put together a book of e-mails from Bryan's family and friends, expressing love and support and, most important, no concern about his performance. "It was so freeing," says Clay. "In subsequent years all those worries came back."

Clay received no windfall and very little recognition from his Beijing gold, save for the cover of a Wheaties box; he was far more anonymous than 1996 gold medalist O'Brien or the benchmark, '76 champion Bruce Jenner. Previous American winners—from Jim Thorpe in 1912 through Mathias, Rafer Johnson in '60 and Toomey in '68—were all towering figures in American sports.

In that respect Clay exemplifies the decathlon's loss of cultural mojo. In a three-channel TV universe it was much simpler to sell a sport that unfolds slowly over two long days and in which competitors are ranked by abstruse tables. Moreover, the decathlon has long been pitched to the public as an endurance event, a tough sell when thousands of Americans complete triathlons every year. In truth the decathlon is only minimally an endurance sport; more practically it's a test of very disparate skills, all at a level just below the best in the world in each individual discipline.

Clay was eligible for the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, but rocked by losing Nike, he stayed home, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and with the help of agent Jeremy Snyder lined up 12 new sponsors, including BP, Polo Ralph Lauren, Asics and Oakley. That, says Clay, has pushed his income beyond what he was getting from Nike. "I've figured out that there are companies that need speakers, that need people to inspire their workforce," says Clay. "With the shoe companies it's all about winning, and when winning becomes who you are, you become desperate. You're willing to do anything, like take drugs, alienate your family. These companies appreciate the journey, not just the medal."

In his prime Clay was fast—10.35 for 100 meters, eighth best among decathletes who've scored at least 7,700 points; and 13.74 in the 110 hurdles, 10th by the same metric. But it's his throwing that sets him apart: In Helsinki in 2005 he totaled 2,734 points on the three throws; only retired Canadian-record holder Michael Smith, who was six inches taller and 48 pounds heavier than the 5'11", 177-pound Clay, has scored more in a single decathlon. No elite decathlete has thrown the discus farther than Clay's 183'3½" in 2005. "Raw power," says Pappas. "Bryan is not tall, but his legs are like tree trunks."

How much of his speed, power and health is left—he ran a 13.75 in the hurdles in May—will be a major factor in determining whether he becomes the first man in history to medal in three Olympic decathlons. The sport's underground is skeptical that Clay will even complete the event at the trials. "He's already got a gold medal," says one longtime coach. "There's a spot on the team if he wants it. But I just don't know."

"There's an age drop-off," admits Clay's longtime coach, Kevin Reid. "But the experience factor is going to be huge; it always is in the decathlon."

It will have to be. The Olympics has never had a decathlon gold medalist older than 30, and only one decathlete older than 32 has ever scored more than 8,500 points, a threshold that will surely need to be surpassed to medal in London. "Bryan is a tough guy," says Pappas. "But the history of the decathlon isn't real great for guys that age."

If track and field is fundamentally a sport of arithmetic and absolutes—the stopwatch and the tape measure—the decathlon is a cruel exception. It is two days long, mixing events that have little in common. In the Olympics it becomes a psychological battle too. O'Brien still remembers the anxiety he would feel before the pole vault—in which he famously no-heighted at the 1992 trials, costing him a place on the U.S. team even though he was the Olympic favorite—or the need to get a legal long jump on the first try. He says today, "Any decathlete would tell you he never quite put it together."

So the three Americans are scarred and enriched by their private epiphanies. In Athens in 2004, Clay found himself losing concentration and drive when a race-walk competition entered the stadium and the crowd roared in support of the Greek walkers. A year later, from beneath the stands in Helsinki, he called his wife back in California as an electrical storm raged outside. On Day 2 in Beijing his management team sneaked him into a nearby hotel for rest between events. "The decathlon is always about which guy makes the fewest mistakes," says Clay. "Always."

In Beijing, Hardee was in fourth place with three events remaining but hit the decathletes' wall, succumbed to the pressure and no-heighted in the pole vault. He tries to stay fresh by taking showers and changing what he's wearing during the competition. "You'd be amazed at what a difference a fresh pair of socks makes," he says. Eaton insists on eating a turkey sandwich with lettuce and cheese during the high jump on Day 1 and after the discus on Day 2.

Routine sustains them, in pursuit of elusive consistency. In Daegu, Eaton found himself fixated on cumulative point totals instead of the standings, beating himself up even though he led Hardee through six events. He expects to better control his emotions in Eugene and London.

But nothing is certain. The decathlon will resist control, and the decathlon will decide.

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"I hope somebody can push him," O'Brien, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist, says of Eaton. "Just for the drama, I'd like to see him under duress."

"Much can go wrong over two days and 10 events. "The decathlon," says Clay, "is always about which guy makes the fewest mistakes. Always."

PHOTOPhotograph by JUSTIN LUBIN/NBCPOWER TRIO Clay (center) won the gold in Beijing, and Hardee (far right) is the reigning world champ—but they and everyone else in the track world know that Eaton (left) is the event's next big thing. PHOTOBILL FRAKESPLAYING TO THEIR STRENGTHS Eaton (far left) and Hardee excel in the four running events; Clay, compact and powerful, has thrown the discus farther than any other world-class decathlete. PHOTOKERSTIN JOENSSON/AP[See caption above] PHOTOKEYSTONE-FRANCE/GAMMA-KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES (1952)SWEEP SCIENCE The U.S. dominated the decathlon at Berlin in '36 (below left) with Robert Clark (silver), Glenn Morris (gold) and Jack Parker (bronze), and in Helsinki in '52 with Milton Campbell (silver), Mathias (gold) and Floyd Simmons (bronze).
PHOTOPOPPERFOTO/GETTY IMAGES (1936)[See caption above] PHOTOBOB MARTIN (EATON AND HARDEE)PRESSURE POINTS Troubled by a knee injury and endorsement woes, Clay (above right) skipped the '11 worlds, where Hardee and Ashton (3) went one-two. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (CLAY)[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)