SOPOT, Poland — Over two days, the drama and excitement built, Ashton Eaton chasing his own world record through seven events of the heptathlon. It came down to, ultimately, the final event, the 1000-meter run. To set a new mark, the math tables said he needed to run a time that was, actually, one second slower than his personal best.
He started off great. The announcer said he seemed on his way. The crowd roared. His wife, Brianne Theisen Eaton, who herself had won silver in the pentathlon the night before, was in the stands, cheering. On the bell lap, he seemed to be digging deep.
He crossed the line. Everyone turned to the clock.
He was one second slow.
“I wish I could have gotten the record,” he told the crowd moments later, adding, “I’m not a robot. But I try.”
This all makes for a fascinating case study in success and “failure,” all neatly encapsulated in the person of Ashton Eaton, who — let us all acknowledge — is the gold standard, the most consistent thing going right now in American track and field.
If USA Track & Field were smart — this is a huge if — it would wake up, smell the Courier Coffee (Portland reference, get with it, people) and make Eaton the focus of, like, everything between now and the 2016 world indoors (oh, in Portland) and then the Summer Games later that year in Rio.
The guy is the real deal. He is solid. In every way.
In “failure,” Ashton Eaton should have inspired kids everywhere to ask their high school coach about the heptathlon or the decathlon or, at the least, to want to be a lot like him. For emphasis: everyone should "fail" like this. This was what it is like to test yourself and find that that even when you are best in the world, like Ashton Eaton, you can still discover things about yourself to become better still for the next test.
Because life always holds a next test.
Eaton is the London 2012 Olympic and Moscow 2013 world decathlon champion; he is also the Daegu 2011 silver medalist. He holds the decathlon world record.
He is now indoor world champion at both Sopot 2014 and Istanbul 2012.
The gold Saturday means he has now won the Olympic, world and two indoor titles within just two years.
He and Brianne — she competes for Canada — train in Eugene with coach Harry Marra. They comport themselves in seemingly every way with modesty, humility and decency.
Eaton’s prior three heptathlons had produced world records. The IAAF was offering $50,000 for any new world record here. Before the competition got underway, however, he insisted Thursday he truly was not thinking about a new mark.
“It’s all about pushing the limits and seeing where it takes you. The IAAF invites us,” meaning the combined-event athletes, “because they saw our performances and wanted us to compete here. I’m not going for a world record, I’m competing to win and whatever else happens is a cherry on top.”
Friday’s events — the first four of the seven — had left Eaton just one point behind world-record pace.
In Saturday’s morning session, precisely at the stroke of 10, Eaton ran the 60-meter hurdles in 7.64 seconds. That was just four hundredths off his lifetime best. It was also four-hundredths better than he did in Istanbul. That put him nine points ahead of world-record pace.
An hour later, in the pole vault, he cleared 4.90 meters, or 16 feet, 3/4 inch, and made it look easy. The same at 5.0, 16-4 3/4. He skipped 5.1, electing to go straight to 5.2, 17-3/4. There he missed his first two attempts. He cleared the third, seemingly more on will than anything else, veering to the right as he cleared.
As he hit the pad, both arms went up, touchdown-style. He was, still, nine points ahead of world-record pace.
“It was ugly,” he said later. “That’s the beauty of the decathlon. It doesn’t have to be pretty. At that point, it was — screw technique, just get the body over the bar.”
He missed his first two attempts at 5.3, 17-4 1/2. The music started pumping for the third try and he pumped his right fist in time. But he came up well short, indeed under the bar.
That meant he needed 2:33.54 in the 1000 to break the world record. His personal best: 2:32.67, at the 2010 NCAAs.
That, per the schedule, had to wait until Saturday night.
Other American athletes came through with some shining results as the evening wound around: in a major upset, Nia Ali, coached by Moscow 2013 110-meter men’s hurdles silver medalist Ryan Wilson, won the women’s 60 hurdles in a personal-best 7.80, defeating Australian Sally Pearson, the London 2012 100 hurdles champ, who finished second in 7.85; Francena McCorory won the women’s 400, in 51.12 seconds; Marvin Bracy took silver in the men’s 60 in 6.51; Kyle Clemons, who got on a car accident en route to the airport on his way to Poland, took bronze in the men’s 400, in 45.74.
Brianne, escorted by Marra, made it out to the seats about five minutes before Ashton’s race.
He went immediately to the lead and held it at every split but one, at 400 meters. At 800, the timing clock said 2:06.20, and he kicked it into high gear, gritting his teeth, pumping his arms.
He crossed the finish line in 2:34.72.
For sure, it was good enough for gold. Everyone knew that. Andrei Krauchanka of Belarus would end up taking silver, Thomas Van Der Plaetsen of Belgium bronze.
After Eaton saw the time, he slapped his fist in his hand. He shook his head. He took a few steps and then slapped the railing in disgust.
There will naturally be critics who say — that’s sportsmanship?
Attention, critics: Ashton Eaton is competing for two days with the other guys. They enjoy a fraternity and camaraderie. The only guy he was miffed at was himself, for a second, over a second.
We ask our Olympic champions to be real. Here’s real:
“I think,” he said, “I was just mentally weak.”
He also said, “I don’t know. I should be satisfied with the gold medal. But at this point — indoors, if I don’t get a world record, it feels like silver, like a loss.”
And: “I know, it’s kind of awkward. It’s the position I put myself in. I think I expected a lot from myself. I wanted the world record, too,” after the pole vault, when it became apparent it was again attainable. “I’m disappointed.”
This is what he was telling himself in the 1000: “Ashton, you need to be tough.” But: “I just didn’t push myself hard enough. Clearly, I mean, the last lap, I went, and I was like, let’s see what I have, and I had a lot — I was like, you idiot.”
What, then, he was asked, is the lesson from all this?
Good question, he said.
“If I hadn’t gotten silver in Daegu, I don’t think I would have learned from ‘quote’ failure. Not getting a record indoors, that’s a failure for myself. I’m not sure what I have learned yet. But I will reflect and I know I will learn something. Maybe a little bit about myself.”
A good place to start will be with Marra. Ashton and Brianne hugged each other under the stadium as their coach had this to say:
“Bottom line is this: you come to a competition, whoever you are, whatever event, you try to show to the world you’re the best. Ashton Eaton competed well. Bottom line is to win. He put himself in to position to try to go get a world record. You can’t put a damper on that; you can’t put a damper on that. Otherwise, the sport would go down the tubes.
“It’s about head-to-head competition. If you can, you get the world record. Would it have been nice? Of course. But it didn’t happen. OK.
“Solid,” Harry Marra said, “all the way through.”