Most athletes wouldn’t spend several days of their own time in the week before a major competition to mentor young athletes. Most athletes would also probably pass up the opportunity to attend a formal dinner on the eve of a championship.
Ashton Eaton isn’t like most athletes.
And it’s not just because the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 is being held in his home state that he has been so giving during the past week. These are just some of the countless times that Eaton has gone out of his way to help others. It’s simply who he is.
“People often tell me that they think Ashton is the greatest athlete in the world,” says his agent, Paul Doyle. “And I say, ‘no, he is the greatest human in the world’.”
Naturally, Eaton would politely dismiss such praise. Even when the topic of greatness is restricted to just the decathlon, he would be reluctant to put himself at the top of the list.
But the facts are hard to ignore. In track and field’s most demanding discipline, Eaton is the only combined events athlete in history to have achieved multiple world titles indoors and out, multiple world records indoors and out, and an Olympic title.
Eaton, who last year also became the first decathlete to be named the male IAAF world athlete of the year, will have the chance to win a second Olympic gold medal in Rio later this year.
Before then, though, is another major target; one which is a lot closer to home: the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016.
“One of the reasons why I love the sport is because I get to travel the world and meet people from different countries,” he said. “But when an event like this is held in the place where you were born, you have a lot of pride. It’s like bringing somebody into your home.”
Giant posters bearing Eaton’s image have been plastered around the city for the past few weeks. But, speaking at the press conference ahead of the event, Eaton appeared cool, calm and free from pressure.
“I actually like indoor track and field more than outdoor,” he said. “There are just seven events indoors compared to 10 outdoors. There’s no 400m, no 1500m. It suits athletes such as me who are built for speed and power. I also love how intimate it is.
“Even had it not been in Portland, we still would have done the World Indoors,” he added. “Since 2012, it has always helped. It’s that meet that breaks up training, you’ve still got good fitness, and you see where you are and what you need to work on. For us, at this stage of the game, it’s not even about training. It’s about competing. The breakthroughs and gains are less and less. The improvements are smaller and smaller. So now it’s just about getting fired up to compete and breaking up that monotony of training.
“I don’t have a lot of combined events competitions left. Maybe we can count them on one hand and that’s pretty sad. But I love seeing all of my competitors and any time I get to compete against those guys is fun. And the fact that it’s at home makes it a lot more special. It’s in the town I was born and that’s just weird.”
While his days as a decathlete may be numbered, Eaton still intends to continue competing beyond the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“If I won a second Olympic title, maybe I would be tempted to go after a third,” he said. “But I understand the commitment. It’s a four-year deal. 2017 is a pretty obvious goal and I may go for a single event, or two or three. But that four-year commitment is tough and there are other things I want to do.”
When asked about which disciplines he may focus on in future, Eaton initially ponders the pole vault, then recalls his fondness of the 400m hurdles before considering training for the 800m. If it’s a question of choosing an event for the 2017 World Championships, he says, then the long jump and 110m hurdles would be a possibility. And then he remembers that he likes long races. “Long jump and 400m hurdles,” he finally declares. “And maybe I could get thrown into the 4x400m; that would be good.”
It’s easy to see how he ended up doing combined events.
He has one other goal, though. “I’ve got to do Gotzis at least once,” says Eaton, who had been set to compete there last year before a back injury ruled him out. “I mean, come on. Honestly, I don’t even feel like a full member of the multi-event club. Even if I only compete there once, I don’t know if I’d be a part of the club yet. You’ve got to go to Gotzis multiple times.”
Mental battles in Beijing
Despite being forced to miss the Hypo Meeting in Gotzis, the 2015 season ended well for Eaton. In his first decathlon in two years, he successfully defended his world title in Beijing and broke his own world record for good measure.
Although he knew he was on pace to do so, Eaton’s head was full of doubts heading into – and during – the final event, the 1500m.
“I remember not knowing if I was going to be able to do it or not,” he says. “As the pole vault was wrapping up, I was getting pretty tired. You think you’d just say, ‘you’re tired but you can go for a world record; just suck it up, dammit!’ But I hadn’t done a decathlon in two years. I knew that it would be mentally and physically draining but I’d underestimated how tired I was going to be.
“I knew I had to run a certain time. I just didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it. Brianne said, ‘remember the 2014 World Indoors when you missed the world record by one second and you said you were never going to do that again? That’s what’s going to happen right now. You’re going to go for it.’
“So I told myself that I had to go for it. But honestly, with 500 metres to go, I felt how I usually feel with 200 metres to go. I was really doubting myself. I didn’t even know if I had the gears left.
“You’re just constantly battling this thing that is telling you, ‘I don’t think I can do it’. I think we all have it. When you’re fresh and alert, you can easily put those doubts down. But when you’re tired, they easily come up to the surface.
“It really helped that Larbi Bourrada was in front of me because I just kept looking at his feet and making sure they stayed in my vision,” he added. “When I decided to go for it with about 350 metres to go, I was thinking of how disappointed I was going to be and how disappointed I would make other people if I didn’t make it. I thought, ‘If I miss by a second, damn, I cannot do that again’.
“And then I thought that it would be so cool if I could break the world record again.”
‘Cool’ would be an understatement in describing Eaton’s world record tally of 9045. It is more a testament to his reluctance to give in, of always being able to find something extra.
“It is very tough mentally,” he says. “You can beat yourself up, but it’s not smart to do that. It’s such a good life lesson, over and over again. How many times will you trip over the first hurdle in life? You’ve just got to freakin’ keep going. You can throw in the towel or you can keep going. And that’s what I love about multi-event athletes; more often than not, they choose to not throw in the towel.
“There are really talented athletes who will throw in the towel sometimes," he adds. "But I would say the successful ones, the ones who make it to a certain level and make it to major championships, they never throw in the towel. They just keep fighting.”
Inspired by greatness, on and off the track
Speaking at an IAAF dinner on Wednesday night, Eaton didn’t recount his Beijing triumph or his other past glories. He didn’t even reflect on his forthcoming heptathlon. Instead, he spent several minutes – no notes in hand, just speaking from the heart – thanking those responsible for inspiring him as a young athlete.
“When I was in high school, I was lucky enough to have a coach who knew the sport and loved the sport and knew how to inspire a young athlete,” he said. “He took me to Hayward Field to watch the Prefontaine Classic. I would not be standing here today had I not been sitting in the front row of the grandstands at the Prefontaine Classic that day.
“While I loved running and doing the long jump, I didn't know what track and field could be. But when I went to the Prefontaine Classic, I saw these athletes who were absolute gods and goddesses to me. Not only that, I saw the love and admiration that I just had to give these athletes, that the fans in Oregon were giving to these athletes. I thought, 'I want to be a part of that'.
“Without that event, without seeing the potential of track and field, I don't think I'd be here.
“What you guys do – constantly working, day in and day out – to put something like that competition on, I just can't thank you enough.
“Somewhere in a room like this, people are doing that,” he added. “And little do they know there's this kid jumping around in the dirt whose life will one day be changed because he saw a track meet that these people put on, and the athletes that they were able to host displayed their skills so that this young athlete could be inspired. I honestly can't thank you guys enough.
“People call me the greatest athlete in the world and I don't feel like it,” said Eaton. “I just feel like the most fortunate person in the world.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF