RIO de JANEIRO — Ashton Eaton is, again, the world’s greatest all-around athlete.
And so, so much more.
To fully appreciate the gold medal that Ashton won Thursday night after 10 events in the decathlon means to wholly appreciate as well the bronze medal that his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who competes for Canada, won last Saturday in the heptathlon.
Ashton and Brianne are husband and wife. And way more.
They are a team. One’s success is the other’s.
That’s what makes Ashton’s Rio 2016 gold so vastly different from the decathlon gold that he won four years ago in London.
Ashton and Brianne met in college, at the University of Oregon. They married in 2013, the year after the London Games.
Since then, they have come to embody — warning: risk here of losing journalistic skeptic’s card — everything that can possibly be good about track and field and, more broadly, Olympic sport.
Do they compete clean? You could bet your mortgage on it.
Do they love what they do? Respect themselves, their rivals, the sport? Yes, yes, yes and yes.
When Kerron Clement of the United States won the men’s 400m hurdles at Thursday morning’s session, improving on his silver in the event from Beijing 2008, who was it that came over — Clement on all fours on the track — to offer congratulations and support?
Do Ashton and Brianne, first and foremost, love each other?
Ashton and Brianne share a shining love that the world needs a lot more of.
They went on their first date on Valentine’s Day 2008. Ashton has said many times that he was nervous and it took him five months to gin up the courage to ask her out. At their wedding, their longtime coach, Harry Marra, officiated.
Marra is so regular and normal that for 25 years he has driven the same car, a white Mazda Miata.
Are Ashton and Brianne perfect? Don’t be silly. No one is perfect. Are they excellent? Absolutely. Do you want your kids to be just like Ashton and Brianne? You so want them to be like these two.
They donate their time to, among other things, Team World Vision, a program that helps raise money for clean water in developing nations, and Right to Play, which focuses on helping young people get and stay involved in sports.
At the 2016 world indoor championships, in Portland, Oregon, Ashton was way more excited for Brianne’s victory in the pentathlon than he was for his own win in the heptathlon (indoor track: the multi-event discipline switches to five for women, seven for men).
When it was announced that she had won, Ashton, in his warm-ups amid the long jump competition, bolted onto the track to give Brianne a hug.
Here, Ashton, in the stands, took in every session of Brianne’s heptathlon competition.
With her turn on the track over, she settled into the stands to root for him.
When he was spotted in the stands wearing a baseball hat that said Canada and some questioned why, these were his responses on Twitter:
Athletics Canada, for its part, posted this:
“To see her go through this meet, a little bit on edge first, then compose herself, I thought I could learn something from that,” Ashton would say late Thursday.
“Even though it was tiring to watch her, I think I got more from it. I got inspired. I got pumped up.”
About a week before the Games, Marra sent an email to supporters that included these lines:
“Make no doubt about it, we did not prepare these last seven years simply to show up…
“The Team Eaton goal is to try to do the very best in each of the contested events. If this is done, the end-result place will take care of itself.”
In 2009, when they were still at Oregon, Ashton and Brianne went to the world championships, in Berlin. He finished 18th in the decathlon, she 15th in the heptathlon.
Him, since then:
Decathlon silver at the 2011 worlds in Daegu, South Korea. Decathlon gold at the 2012 Games as well as the 2013 Moscow and 2015 worlds. Heptathon gold at the indoor worlds in 2012 in Istanbul, 2014 in Sopot, Poland, and 2016 in Portland.
Heptathlon silver at the 2013 and 2015 worlds. Pentathlon silver at the 2014 world indoors, pentathlon gold this past March in Portland.
At the 2012 U.S. Trials, Ashton set a decathlon world record: 9039 points. Last year in Beijing, he upped that by six: 9045.
The decathlon is a two-day grind.
You could tell that it was grinding on Ashton, and even from the start. Eaton is quick. Even so:
In Wednesday’s 100m, Canada’s Damian Warner went 10.3 seconds, Ashton a second-best 10.46.
On Thursday, in the 110m hurdles, Warner again topped the field, 13.58, Eaton again just behind, in 13.8.
In Thursday’s pole vault, Ashton missed twice at 4.9m, or 16 feet 3/4 inch, and then twice again at 5.1m, 16-8 3/4, before clearing both. He went on to clear 5.2m, 17 feet 3/4 inch.
As Trey Hardee, the gold medalist in the decathlon at those 2011 worlds in Korea, observed before the final two events:
“As a family and a team, getting to see her fulfill her goals and win a medal, probably in some part of his mind, checked a of of boxes,” adding of Ashton, “He just didn’t have that killer instinct.”
Even so, Hardee was quick to add, “Everything he has done here is a testament to how good he is.”
The trick to winning a decathlon, if this seems obvious, is to be at or near the top in all 10 events. Ashton did top-10 in everything but high jump (14th) and javelin (18th).
Javelin is the ninth of the 10 set pieces in the decathlon.
After it, France’s Kevin Mayer stood 44 points back, Canada’s Damian Warner 216.
For three of the nearly four laps, Eaton proved content to hang with Mayer. Down the final backstretch, he broke away, finishing in 4:23.33, Mayer in 4:25.49.
Eaton’s 8893 points tied the Olympic record, set by the Czech Roman Sebrle in Athens in 2004.
Mayer finished with 8834. Canada’s Damian Warner got third, 8666.
The other two Americans in the field finished seventh and 11th: Zach Ziemek with 8392, Jeremy Taiwo with 8300.
In victory, Ashton became the first man to repeat as Olympic decathlon champion since Daley Thompson of Great Britain, who won in Moscow in 1980 and in Los Angeles in 1984. He is the first American to go back-to-back in the decathlon at the Games since Bob Mathias, in 1952 in Helsinki and 1948 in London.
Before the final 1500, with the camera on him, Ashton said, “Thank you.” Immediately after crossing the line, he and Mayer embraced.
“To be a decathlete,” Mayer said, “is to enter into a circle and this is very — this is a human experience, This is a lot of pain. But when you finish a decathlon, even if there is no result, you are so proud to finish it.”
“I can’t imagine the pressure that’s on Ashton,” Taiwo said, adding, “To see him … still be such an incredible individual, great character and a great guy — I’m so happy that’s who it is that has the Olympic record now and the world record.”
Warner echoed, “What more can you say about him? He has won everything and he is great for the sport.”
Which is why what you got from Ashton afterward is exactly what you might expect — appreciation for his wife, his coach, the journey, all of it.
Of Brianne, he said, “She’s a big part of my success, and to share this moment as Olympians and as Olympic medalists, with her, is awesome.”
Of the others in the field, he said he likes even while he’s in the midst of it to watch the others competing with and against him:
“It’s amazing to sit and watch, know the feeling of what it takes, watch people pur themselves through it. Your mind either says, “i can do it or not to do it,” adding a moment later, “They’re choosing to do it. That’s cool.”
With the grind behind him, he said, “There was a lot of times there on third events, in the pole vault and the javelin, it was like, oh my gosh.
“You know what got me through it? I was thinking back to all the times I was under the west grandstand,” at venerable Hayward Field in Eugene, “and I was on the track running 300s, bent over, Brianne huffing and puffing — I would think, you know what, all that was getting ready for this.”