written by Kevin Max | photos by Terry Manier
Ashton Eaton never thinks about the day he’ll lose a competition. To be fair, he hasn’t had much experience with failure since he became the world’s best decathlete. He blew past the indoor and outdoor world records, he won a gold medal at the last Olympics and, if things go right, he’ll win another in Rio, Brazil next summer.
He drinks water in an otherwise perfectly good pub, where others keep theirs untouched behind their beer. He talks about being motivated not by winning, but by improving his own systems and beating himself.
Today Ashton lives comfortably in Eugene with his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, a heptathlon track star from Canada who also graduated from University of Oregon, where the two met. They train together in the same rain at Hayward Field that, in June 2012, magnified Ashton’s joy and relief as he set the new world record for decathlon and became the world’s greatest athlete.
When he barreled around the final turn of the final event of the decathlon during the Olympic Trials that day, Ashton Eaton felt the weight of all of this lifting from his shoulders, pushing him to a new stage, for which he was oddly well prepared.
Life was about to change for the small-town track star. The gravity of the moment fell like relief down his face and onto the shoulders of his mom, Roslyn, and his fiancée, Brianne.
As a boy, Ashton knew the sky was the limit he had to test. Though he wouldn’t have seen them as roadblocks, the looming obstacles would become hurdles that he strode over while counting steps in between. The long road ahead he would make much shorter by speeding through its turns, ignoring the side streets where, for many, dreams sat on blocks and rusted in front yards.
He grew up in then-unincorporated La Pine. The small town in Central Oregon is, in many respects, an idyllic setting. It sits in the middle of the Deschutes National Forest along the Little Deschutes River and is surrounded on all sides by mountain lakes with stunning views. Hunting, fishing and boating comprise the three preferred pillars of recreation.
Since its inception, La Pine has struggled economically. In the mid 1800s, the railroad bypassed the area after briefly being considered for a spur line. By the 1950s, mills that had processed large ponderosa pines into lumber markets for the nearby booming Bend had closed. The local economy struggled. Median income in La Pine today is roughly half that of the state as a whole. More than two-thirds of students at the elementary school qualify for free lunch. The small Oregon town is almost uniformly white.
It was in school here that Ashton Eaton, raised by a single parent, learned that he was fast, he was black and that his mom struggled to make things better around them.
To understand Ashton’s unlikely path to becoming an elite track star, we must first consider his primary influence growing up. Roslyn Eaton taught Ashton humility, the importance of sticking with commitments, that the Confederate flag is a symbol of hatred and that life isn’t always fresh-cut roses but filled with Y-shaped paths of right and wrong.
Rosyln’s own upbringing in Santa Clara, California was a handful. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her mom, a night-shift nurse, moved to Nevada. Her dad, an insurance salesman, remained in California. Roslyn fell into the care of her paternal grandmother, who worked two jobs while taking care of her own high school-aged twins and a terminally ill husband. “The house was always in some sort of chaos,” Roslyn, 49, recalled. On any given day, there could be as many as six grandkids at her grandmother’s house.
It was during this period that she recalls being alternately “kidnapped” by her mom and dad and taken to two different states, though her father had legal custody of her. With the exception of a few weekends, the young girl spent her early childhood, essentially, without her parents.
“I felt emotionally isolated,” she said. “In fact, there was a time when I didn’t speak, I just counted in my head to one hundred over and over. … I was afraid of everything. I was angry and lonely. I had no dreams of becoming anything.”
She finished high school and tried community college, but couldn’t focus and soon dropped out. At age 19, she packed her belongings and moved to Oregon to find her mom, who was then living in Sandy. Roslyn took various jobs as a reservation clerk at Sunriver Resort, as a teller at Bank of the Cascades, as a receptionist at a law firm, a waitress at Kayo’s Road House, a flagger on a county road crew, a dance instructor, and a loan and mortgage processor.
While working one such job—at the Sheraton Hotel at the Portland airport—she met and began dating Milton Bennett. She soon became pregnant yet had little support from family. Her father’s side of the family worked as sharecroppers in the tobacco fields in South Carolina. “Needless to say, there was no jumping and shouting for joy when I told my father and stepmother that I was pregnant and that the child would be mixed race,” she said. “They were not the proud grandparents by any stretch of the word.” In January of 1988 in Portland, she gave birth to her only child, Ashton.
By the time Ashton was 2 years old, his father had abandoned them and changed his name to Terrance Wilson. The young single mom became focused on raising the best son she possibly could, sacrificing what she had to along the way. Her mother and her mother’s husband had moved to Central Oregon for the logging trade. Roslyn moved to La Pine to be closer to them.
The ensuing years became a parody of a courtship reality show—two bachelors had prior arrests, another had a problem with drugs and a fourth would go on to spend involuntary time at a mental institution. “My picker was broke,” Roslyn declared. “I desperately wanted Ashton to have as much ‘normal’ as possible, but so much of his life so far had not been that.”
Ashton was aware that his mom was struggling but kept to himself. “I wasn’t completely naive of situations,” he noted. “When my mom would act like everything was okay, it was more powerful to me because I knew that it wasn’t and how strong she was trying to be but how much she was hurting. I didn’t want to grow up to be like the people that made her feel that way. I also didn’t want to contribute to hurting her. I wanted to accomplish things so that she could see that she was doing something good.”
In the meantime, on the playground in La Pine, he had earned the nickname “Wheels” for his speed. He recalled one of his first challenges in kindergarten, when a classmate threw down the gantlet in what would become his first foot race. Ashton remembered the boy saying, “If I beat you, you have to be my friend. If you beat me, you don’t have to be my friend.” Wheels out-sprinted his challenger but chose to befriend him nevertheless.
A couple of years later, when he was 8 years old, Ashton watched Michael Johnson put on gold track spikes in Atlanta and speed past all of his competitors in the 200-meter and 400-meter races in the 1996 Summer Olympics. “This was the moment I thought, ‘I want to be an Olympian like Michael Johnson,’” he said. “I went out into the yard and started running around and jumping off of logs like the long jumpers did.”
His mother took this all in, looked to her own past and saw limitations. She turned to Ashton’s future and hoped for more. “I recall thinking, I am not enough, Ashton needs more, and that is a very interesting place to be as a parent,” she said. “So I decided that he needed people in his life who knew things. I encouraged him to spend time with family friends. That’s where he learned to fly-fish, tie flies, camp, chop wood and run tractors.”
Roslyn continued to work two and three jobs to pay bills and to provide her son with the tools to succeed. They moved to Bend. It was becoming increasingly clear, though, that Ashton’s life was anything but normal. By the time he reached high school, he had played baseball, soccer, football and baseball. He earned a black belt in taekwondo, wrestled and ran track.
A friend from middle school Justin Heacock recalled Ashton in raw athletic form and function. “First off, he had these sick shoes that had flames on the sides of them,” said Heacock. “Second, he was fast, and third his dribbling was not up to par with his speed. So you would get this skinny kid, jersey barely hanging on to him, just hauling down the basketball court in flaming shoes and, as he streaked down the court, the basketball would just be getting farther and farther behind him. He would literally outrun his dribbling.”
It wasn’t until he met track coach Tate Metcalf at Mountain View High School in Bend that Ashton would find a rhythm and a focus. “Early on, I noticed that he picked up drills and technique earlier and better than the others,” said Metcalf. “He unknowingly had the gift. So many people think that he was such a talented athlete and dominated from day one—and that is absolutely not the case. He was gifted, but it took some years to learn his gift.”
The ability to compete well, however, is just one aspect of an athlete. Without sportsmanship, an athlete is a glass half full, talent without taste. Metcalf recalls one moment in his protégé’s early career when he knew that the young man was the complete package. During Ashton’s junior year, he had qualified for the state meet only in the long jump, though he had been close in the 200- and the 400-meter-relay. A long jumper from Tualatin High School, however, was the heavy favorite. Nevertheless, Ashton was having a good day and was in the lead going into the third and final jump. The Tualatin long jumper produced a valiant effort and leapt into the lead. Ashton had one last jump to regain the lead. He came up short.
“Instead of throwing sand in disgust or pouting as most high school athletes would, he quickly got out of the sand, ran back to congratulate his competitor and then ran back the other direction to thank the officials,” said Metcalf. “It was one of my proudest coaching moments.”
Sometimes your best effort doesn’t win the day, his mom had told him during a losing Little League baseball game years before, “but you can sure sleep at night knowing you gave it your all,” she said. “It’s the difference between regret and disappointment.”
His senior year in high school, Ashton took the state high school championship in the 400 meters and long jump. It was then that his coaches saw the pieces of an emerging decathlete. The decathlon is not part of the American high school track and field curriculum, so often potential decathletes find other paths. The University of Oregon, however, took a scholarship interest in Ashton and recruited him for its hallowed track team.
”It was my chance to break out of our life, and both mom and I knew that it was something better or at least could lead to something better,” noted Ashton.
For his mom, this moment loomed large. “When the dream or idea of Ashton getting a college education became the reality, it was as if the universe was saying, ‘Yes.’ … It was a day that I exhaled and smiled really, really big.”
Ashton excelled on this stage under track coach Harry Marra and was soon the favored decathlete going into the World Championships in 2011 in Daegu, South Korea. He led the field after the first day, but faltered in the shot put and pole vault on the second day and ended up with a silver medal. “I started going down a negative mental worm hole when things didn’t go how I thought they were going to,” Ashton said. “It was a year before the Olympics, and I learned a valuable lesson.”
While his teammate Trey Hardee of the United States stood above him on the podium, Ashton mulled how he could improve his own response when things don’t go his way.
Hayward Field on University of Oregon campus hosted the Olympic Trials in June 2012. For Ashton, this meet was as strategic as it was momentous, being the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the modern decathlon. The sport’s royalty were on hand to be a part of that history. The packed stadium included Dan O’Brien, the American decathlon record holder; Rafer Johnson, 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medalist; Bill Toomey, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in decathlon; Milt Campbell, the first African-American to win a gold medal in the Olympic decathlon; and Bruce Jenner, who, well before reality show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” won the gold medal in decathlon in the 1976 Olympics.
Ashton’s mom was percolating with excitement. “I was a jumble of hope, excitement—as any mother would be,” she said. “The tiniest bit of anxiety for the unknown nipped at my edges, yet I was over the moon knowing that Ashton’s dream of becoming an Olympian was just a matter of two rigorous days, ten fights, ten battles away.”
The events of a decathlon are split in half over two days, with the 100-meter sprint, the long jump, the shot put, the high jump and the 400-meter race coming first. Ashton aced the five events of the first day and was in the lead as the second day’s events unfolded—the 110-meter hurdles, the discus throw, the pole vault, the javelin throw and the 1,500-meter distance race.
Ashton was solidly in first place as he entered the last two events—the javelin and the 1,500. He asked Marra if Marra thought he was good enough to beat the American record. Marra turned to him and told the 24-year-old to set his sights higher—the world record could fall.
Making such a leap required Ashton to have a good result in the javelin throw and to break his best time in the 1,500 by an impossible four seconds. His javelin mark was middling at 58.87 meters, or fifth place. He needed a miracle pace for the mile to have a shot at breaking the world record.
As the rain fell over Hayward, the starter raised his pistol over the still heads of the runners and squeezed a shot into the sky. Ashton’s first lap was 67 seconds, not fast enough to break the record. His second lap put him at 2:18. The commentator, sensing this could be a make-or-break moment, urged on Ashton over the loudspeaker. “Eaton is really gunning it on the third lap,” he said. “Remember two years ago at the NCAA Championships when he missed the collegiate record by two seconds. He knows the importance of this lap.”
As Ashton rounded the last lap, the capacity crowd of 10,500 people came to their feet and roared. “C’mon Ashton!”
When Ashton crossed the line in 4:14, he broke into tears. His mother and fiancée raced out on the track and embraced him. Everything he had worked for, everything they had endured poured out of him and mingled with rain. The kid who grew up in a town where dreams stay dreams had shattered the decathlon world record. Things were going to change.
“It’s like living an entire lifetime in two days,” Ashton told the media that day. “It doesn’t mean that much to the rest of the world, but to me it’s my whole world.”
For his mother, who had spent much of her adult life struggling to provide a stable platform for her son, the moment was overwhelming. “I was in awe of this human being and the man that Ashton had become,” said Roslyn. “I remember watching each lap of the 1,500 and knowing how hard he was working, the pain he was in and the determination to do it in the face of all he was going through. And it occurred to me that this was symbolic of Ashton’s past.”