Living in the moment: track’s It Couple

The world’s greatest athlete is taking his first outdoor runs of the season in the pole vault.

His coach, Harry Marra, is here, of course, at the Westmont College track, in the hills above Santa Barbara, California. His wife, Brianne, herself the reigning indoor and outdoor silver medalist in the women’s versions of the all-around event, is here, too, practicing her javelin throws and running some hard sprints.

Ashton Eaton is the 2012 gold medalist at the London Games in the decathlon. At the U.S. Olympic Trials earlier that year, he set the world record in the event. He is the 2013 Moscow decathlon world champion. He is also the 2012 and 2014 gold medalist in the heptathlon, the indoor version of the multi-discipline event. He holds the heptathlon world record, too, and missed setting it again at the 2014 indoor worlds by one second in the 1000 meters.

On this day, a bungee cord takes the place of the bar at 5 meters, or 16 feet, 4 ¾ inches. Eaton takes his practice runs. He doesn’t go one after the other, in sequence. No. He shares pole vault time, and graciously, with a 54-year-old doctor of holistic health, Victor Berezovskiy, and a 77-year-old clinical psychologist, Tom Woodring.

Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen Eaton after practice at Westmont College

Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen Eaton after practice at Westmont College

This scene summarizes perhaps all that is both sweet and unsettling about the state of track and field in our world in 2014.

It’s sweet because the fact that Ashton Eaton would so willingly, humbly take practice runs with these two guys speaks volumes about his character. Obviously, neither is coming anywhere close to 5 meters. It’s no problem. Eaton patiently helps them both with their marks. In turn, they watch his take-off points.

Sweet because Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen Eaton – he’s now 26, she’s 25 – are, by every measure, track and field’s It Couple. They are at the top of their games. Yet here they are, at the track, just like everyone – anyone – else, practicing. And practicing some more. And then some more, still.

Because, obviously, that’s how you get better. How even the best get better.

It’s hard work that gets you to the top and for those who have seen track and field tainted these past 25 or so years by far too many doping-related scandals, here are Ashton and Brianne, examples of the right stuff. Never say never about anyone. But Ashton and Brianne? So wholesome, Harry says, and he has been in the business for, well, a lot of years, and seen it all, and he adds for emphasis that they don’t even take Flintstone vitamins.

Ashton follows his pole-vaulting with a series of 400 hurdle splits, trying to get the timing down – how many steps between each? 13? All the way around? Does he cut the hurdle? Float? What’s right? She does her repeat 150s so hard that, when she’s done, it’s all she can do in the noontime sun to find some shade.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you rise to the top.

And yet – the questions have to be asked:

Is track all the better because it’s a kind of extended family where one of its biggest names can hang on a sunny morning practice with a 54-year-old and a 77-year-old?

Or isn’t that, in its way, kind of ludicrous?

Does LeBron James practice with a 54-year-old doctor of holistic health?

Do Peyton Manning or Tom Brady run 7-on-7 drills with a 77-year-old clinical psychologist at wide receiver?

Tom Woodring, 77, left, and Victor Berezovskiy, 54, right, with Ashton Eaton

Tom Woodring, 77, left, and Victor Berezovskiy, 54, right, with Ashton Eaton

It’s not that James, Manning and Brady don’t understand their responsibilities as stars. But this is – practice. This is not a fan meet-and-greet.

What if things were different for track and field? What if the decathlon champ was The Man, the way it was when Bruce Jenner and, before him, the likes of Bill Toomey, Rafer Johnson and others were venerated the way Manning, Brady and James are now?

It’s not just Ashton. Brianne is herself a major, major talent.

Of course, track and field does not hold the same place in the imagination that it once did. Dan O’Brien, the 1996 Olympic decathlon winner, is not The Man the way Jenner was. Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic decathlon winner – not The Man the way Jenner was.

And that’s no knock on either O’Brien or Clay.

Times simply have changed. Jenner won in Montreal in 1976. That is a long time ago.

Yet in Ashton and Brianne, track has a marquee couple.  Here are breakout stars in the making: doping-free, handsome, articulate, passionate about advancing track and field the same way Michael Phelps has always been for swimming. Phelps is on bus stop advertisements in Shanghai. Why aren’t these two, for instance, featured on the bright lights looking out and over Times Square?

For sure that would be better for the sport.

Would it be better for Ashton and Brianne – and Harry?

It’s all very complex.

Right now, track and field is, for all intents and purposes, Usain Bolt.

Isn’t there room for Ashton and Brianne, too?

The scene at Westmont this weekday morning is all the more striking because it comes amid the news Phelps will be racing again. The media attention enveloping Phelps is, predictably, striking.

Yes, Phelps is the best in the world at what he does.

Then again – so are these two.

Yet here are Ashton and Brianne and Harry – and, for that matter, a Canadian delegation that includes Damian Warner, the 2013 world bronze medalist in the decathlon – going about their business at Westmont, along with the others at the host Santa Barbara Track Club, with no interference, no autograph requests, no attention.

Phelps has always sought to live a normal life. But let’s be real: could Phelps walk around Westmont – or, for that matter, any college campus in the United States – with the same quietude?

Coach Harry Marra watches as Brianne Theisen Eaton throws the javelin

Coach Harry Marra watches as Brianne Theisen Eaton throws the javelin

After practice, there is a quick session in the Westmont pool. No one swims like Phelps. Then it’s over to the Westmont cafeteria, where lunch is five bucks and the beet salad is, genuinely, awesome.

Brianne says they consistently make a point of reminding themselves that these are the best days of their lives – to live, truly live, in the present and know that they are experiencing special moments.

“To somebody who is in it more for fame or money,” Brianne says, “they would have a lot different outlook on this.”

“The goal is to improve yourself,” Ashton says.

“The goal is excellence,” Harry echoes.

So sweet.


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9 thoughts on “Living in the moment: track’s It Couple

  1. Sadly, while Ashton is a superb athlete, many track fans could care less about his individual event competitions unless he’s competing in a full decathlon.

    • Many track fans or just you? And could they really be considered fans then? If what you say is true I wonder why he’d be on the cover of track and field news magazine specifically because he’s not doing decathlons?

      You’re probably right though…

  2. Many track fans or just you? And could they really be considered fans then? If what you say is true I wonder why he’d be on the cover of track and field news magazine specifically because he’s not doing decathlons?

    You’re probably right though…

  3. Rafer venerated? Maybe, but he didn’t appear to think so. As a kid and T&F groupie around the UCLA track in the mid-1950s, I set up hurdles, retrieved shots, set up high jump bar, etc. Rafer helped with my long jump marks and occasionally jogged a few laps. He was a fine athlete and a great role model!

  4. HUGE fan of them all but why should they not train amongst “ordinary” athletes? Silly angle to the story.

  5. Love this story, love the humility. Love the simplicity: “the goal is to improve yourself,” “the goal is excellence!” Simple, powerful, land-a-man-on-the-moon stuff. Spoken by those who have done it. I too grew up looking at Bruce Jenner on the Wheaties box, and Alan raises an interesting question about why we don’t know these two… Today the sports media and marketing landscape is arguably as competitive as the track on which they run. Excellence in and of itself is not enough to get noticed, except by Alan! I am sure it could be if there was an economic imperative for making these two famous, if say a season of ticket sales to a stadium depended on it and the investors demanded ROI. If that were the case there would be an office full of budding young professionals working on marketing materials, selling sponsorships, working the media for stories, buying ad time and selling tickets, t-shirts and caps… Their story would be told, we would know them, we would care. But alas, today’s media coverage is focused on local high school sports, some college sports (mostly those that feed professional leagues) and the professional sports. I love em all, but I wish someone would dare to invest in covering Olympic sports again, beyond the two weeks every 4 years. Who could do that? It would need to be someone with an economic interest in seeing the popularity of Olympic sports soar, someone with the capital to invest in a long term plan, someone who had a long term interest locked up… for say 18 years or more… at least two corporate entities come to mind… There is no question that today’s fan demands a faster paced sports event, full of drama and entrainment. But then again the Masters has figured it out, so has the US Open…

  6. Jenner is not The Man Jenner was, that is what fame does to you. There are Track Olympians all around the world sharing facilities with college walk-on’s and recreational athletes. This is great. This is in no way insulting or demeaning or “sweet”. It is what it is and it is the correct. Brady and James, sadly, are the reflection of the loss of perspective in professional sports in this country. It is an obsession that unquestionably gets more distorted each year.

  7. Great write up and very spot on about the two. Living in Oregon and watching these two compete and give graciously of their time after competition or while out at a restaurant to talk, sign autographs and take pictures is remarkable. They are both very accomplished at being humble and have a great sense of who and what they are.

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