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A double Olympic decathlon champion, winning gold at London 2012 and Rio 2016, and the world and joint Olympic record holder in the event, the USA’s Ashton Eaton announced his retirement having gone unbeaten since 2011.
Born in Portland, Oregon, on 21 January 1988, Ashton Eaton showed he was a natural athlete at an early age, playing a number of sports and displaying a particular gift for track and field.
Following his victories in the 400m and long jump at the 2006 state championships, Eaton’s then coach, Tate Metcalf, suggested he try the decathlon. The young athlete promptly enrolled at University of Oregon in Eugene, which was famed for its decathlon programmes. It was there that he met his future wife, Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theissen, and came across coach Dan Steele, who would hone his talent in the years that followed.
Getting straight down to work, Eaton sharpened up his skills in the 1,500m, the high jump, hurdles, pole vault and the throwing events, and passed the 8,000 point mark for the first time in his sixth collegiate decathlon. He then went on to win the national NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship in 2008 and 2009.
In 2010, Eaton and Theissen took on Harry Marra as their coach. Marra, who once coached Dan O’Brien – the Atlanta 1996 Olympic decathlon champion, former world record holder and three-time world champion – would stay with the pair through to the end of their careers.
Raising his game even more under Marra, the Portland powerhouse set a new men’s heptathlon world record of 6,449 points at the 2010 NCAA Indoor Championships, eclipsing the previous best, set by O’Brien. He made his first appearance at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu (KOR) in 2011, winning the silver behind compatriot Trey Hardee. It was the last time Eaton would suffer defeat.
Crowned world indoor heptathlon champion in Istanbul in March 2012 with a world record points total of 6,645, Eaton went on to post another world decathlon best at the US Olympic trials in Eugene shortly afterwards, tallying 9,039 points to beat the previous record of 9,026, set by Roman Šebrle of the Czech Republic in 2001.
Two months later, Eaton stepped out at London’s Olympic Stadium with his sights set on Olympic gold. Making the strongest possible start, he turned in stunning performances in the 100m and the long jump, running 10.35 and then leaping 8.03m to amass 2,079 points and move into a very healthy lead over his rivals.
He continued in the same vein in the following events and ended day one by running the fastest time of the 31 competitors in the 400m. There was to be no catching Eaton on day two either, with another string of excellent showings in the final five events giving the American a gold medal-winning total of 8,869 points, with Hardee taking second with a personal best 8,671 and Cuba’s Leonel Suárez climbing up from eighth place after eight events to snatch bronze with 8,523 points, also a PB.
There was further joy for the new Olympic champion in July the following year, when he and Theissen married. One month later, the newlyweds won decathlon gold and heptathlon silver at the World Championships in Moscow, results they repeated in 2015 in Beijing, with Eaton totalling 9,045 points to post the only world record of the championships, a mark that was still unbeaten by the time he retired and which looks set to stand for a very long time.
Then, in March 2016, on home soil in Portland, Eaton won world indoor heptathlon gold and Theissen-Eaton topped the podium in the women’s pentathlon. Dominant in the US trials for the Rio Games, the all-conquering American headed to his second Olympics as an overwhelming favourite to retain his title
Eaton’s first act at the Olympic Stadium in Rio was to cheer his Canadian wife to the bronze medal in the heptathlon, with Theissen-Eaton producing a stirring second-day comeback to earn her place on the podium behind gold medallist Nafissatou Thiam of Belgium and Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill.
Five days later, the American, who always played down the tag of “the world’s greatest athlete”, began his title defence by running 10.46 in the 100m, the second-fastest time of the day. After then taking the lead with a leap of 7.94m in the long jump, he held on to it for the rest of the competition.
There was a scare or two along the way, however, not least in the pole vault, the eighth event, when he needed three attempts to clear 4.90m, narrowly avoiding a score of zero, which would have seriously jeopardised his gold medal hopes.
In the process, Eaton picked up a shoulder injury that hampered him in the penultimate discipline, the javelin, in which France’s Kevin Mayer moved right into contention for gold with a throw of 65.04m. Faced with an unexpected challenge, Eaton dug deep to produce a final throw of 59.77m and take a 44-point lead into the 1,500m, which equated to more than seven seconds.
The American did not need the cushion, and eased past Mayer with 200m of the race remaining to retain his crown and equal Šebrle’s Olympic record of 8,993 points, set at Athens 2004.
In winning back-to-back Olympic titles, Eaton emulated Great Britain’s Daley Thompson, the last decathlete to achieve the feat, at Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984. “To win two Olympic golds in a row like Daley Thompson is very special,” said the American after completing his double. “One day, I’m going to have to meet Daley, shake his hand and thank him for giving me something to chase after.”