EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Ashton Eaton likes to compare decathlons to life — the ups and downs, the good and bad, the setbacks and comebacks.
Over two dreary days at the Olympic trials that finally ended with a bright ray of sunshine Saturday evening, Eaton found out just how good life can be.
He’s the world-record holder in the decathlon, the cream of the crop in the hallowed and history-filled event that has long identified the world’s greatest athlete.
Needing a personal best in the grueling finale, the 1,500 meters, to get the record, Eaton came through, running the last event in 4 minutes, 14.48 seconds to finish with 9,039 points and beat Roman Sebrle’s 11-year-old mark by 13 points.
“It’s like living an entire lifetime in two days,” Eaton said. “It doesn’t mean that much to the rest of the world, but to me, it’s my whole world. To do the best that I possibly could in my world makes me pretty happy.”
Eaton joined the likes of Bruce Jenner, Dan O’Brien, Bob Mathias 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.
“I thought he showed some real courage,” Johnson said. “He hung in there and figured out a way to win. He was brilliant in everything he did.”
He did it in terrible weather — drizzle, rain, cold and then, finally, sunshine as he got ready for the final 1,500-meter push.
“It’s like the 11th event,” runner-up Trey Hardee, the defending world champion, said about the weather. “I hope when they put his name in the record books, they’ll put every parenthesis, asterisk and every other mark you can put down. Every athlete out there tries to act like that stuff doesn’t bother them, but it does.”
Eaton, the 24-year-old and a former NCAA champion for University of Oregon, needed to beat his personal-best time of 4:18.94 in the 1,500 by at least 2.57 seconds to break the mark. He did that, and then some.
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 — elation and shock 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.
“The kid is phenomenal,” said Bryan Clay, the defending Olympic champion, who fell in the hurdles and finished 12th. “There’s no other way to describe him.”
What to do for an encore?
We’ll see in six weeks in London, where he’ll go in as the favorite, along with Hardee, who finished 656 points back and was every bit the fan when the last race was over.
“I don’t think it changes anything for the Olympics,” Hardee said. “It was his before we started yesterday and it still is now. It hasn’t sunk in for Ashton. For me, it’s something down the road that I’ll tell my kids, my friends, my nephews about. I’ll say, ‘See, I saw it. I’ve got the pictures to prove it.’”
While Eaton earned his place in history, the women’s 100 final provided a much less-concrete result.
After a long review, race officials determined Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh finished in a dead-heat for third place, each at 11.068 seconds. Only three spots are available at the Olympics and USA Track and Field officials were huddling, trying to solve a problem for which there is no written solution. Carmelita Jeter won the race in 10.92.
Elsewhere, Lolo Jones’ leaned 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. 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 to set the world record.
The sun finally peaked out shortly before Eaton made it to the starting line, illuminating his green and black shirt and 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.
“He didn’t have any letdowns,” O’Brien said. “It’s real easy when you’re way ahead to have that letdown. That’s what separates him from even myself. I don’t know if I would’ve run my guts out in the 1,500.”
Eaton’s record adds another chapter to a rich history of decathlon success in the United States.
Back in 1976, Jenner put the event 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 show how the event has fallen in stature over the last few decades.
But that hardly diminishes this accomplishment.
It was, he said, more than he expected. He came here simply hoping to make the Olympic team. He’ll leave with a spot in the history books.
“It’s not just numbers,” he said. “It’s all the little stuff that you guys don’t get to see that kind of makes this thing possible. There’s really very few words to describe it, so unfortunately, I’m brief in that respect.”