American Ashton Eaton may be the reigning Olympic champion and world record holder in the decathlon, but there's still one thing that makes him nervous during his two-day, 10-event competition: the pole vault.
Eaton, 28, is the heavy favorite to win the decathlon at the Rio Games. The decathlon, which ranges from sprints to the 1,500 meters, from the shot put to the high jump, is being held Wednesday and Thursday. And ever since American Jim Thorpe won the 1912 decathlon, the winner has customarily been described as the "world's greatest all-around athlete."
That title may be open to debate, but Eaton has taken the decathlon to new heights with spectacular performances in recent years and he could make a very strong case for being the greatest American athlete that most Americans haven't heard of.
He set the world decathlon record at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012 and then won gold in London. He raised his world record at the World Championships last year. He's now seeking to become the first decathlete to win back-to-back Olympic titles since Britain's Daley Thompson did it in 1980 and 1984.
Despite this hugely impressive resume, Eaton says things can always go wrong in the decathlon and his tip to viewers is "watch the pole vault."
"In the past, the moment that has determined the outcome is the pole vault," he said in an interview earlier this summer.
He noted that it's the eighth event, followed only by javelin and the 1,500 meters.
"It's the event where you're tired, it's day two, the event is four hours long ... and sometimes people just don't clear the height," he added.
The risk of one bad event
At the Olympics, all the top decathletes score more than 8,000 points, meaning they average more than 800 points per event. If an athlete is a bit off in one event, he can hope to make it up in another.
But the pole vault requires great technical skill and many things can go wrong. If a decathlete misses all three tries at the opening height, he gets zero points — and is out of the race for a medal.
Eaton has another reason to fear the pole vault: back in March at the USA Track and Field Indoors Championships, Eaton ended the day with a jagged gash in his scalp requiring stitches.
In a bizarre mishap, another pole vaulter's failure to clear the bar sent the bar cartwheeling to the side where Eaton was standing. He finished the competition in sixth place with a large bandage wrapped around his skull.
For Eaton, the pole vault is all about the first attempt.
"I'm looking at it like, you always want to make it on your first try," he said.
He recalled the 2015 World Championships when he missed his first attempt.
"And then the panic starts happening. And if you miss your second, it's probably the most stressful moment you can experience," he added. He calls that moment the "peak of the mental struggle."
He says that by the time the pole vault event comes around, "you're seeing where you're falling in the score and you start to get a good sense about having to stay steady to pull this off."
Married to a medal winner
Watching to see if he will pull it off this week will be his wife, Canadian Brianne Theisen-Eaton. The two met running track at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, where they still live and train.
Theisen-Eaton is an outstanding athlete in her own right. Last weekend, she fought her way back from a sixth place ranking after day one to win the Olympic bronze medal in the women's heptathlon.
Together, they could lay claim to the world's most athletic couple. In the run-up to the games, the couple quietly trained together, pushing each other to battle against their limits, while supported by a team of nutritionists and physiotherapists.
"The strong ones are the ones who realize that having a bad training day, those types of days are necessary," Eaton said, a remark that proved prescient as his wife fought back after a rough opening day in the heptathlon.
Eaton will be facing tough competition besides his own demons with the pole vault.
Canada's Damian Warner, who finished second behind Eaton at the 2015 World Championships, is "very fierce and talented."
Cuban Leonel Suarez, who won bronze at the London Games, is considered a crowd favorite: the Brazilians have loved cheering on Cuban athletes throughout the games. And German Rico Freimuth is also expected to be a medal contender.
But American Trey Hardee, who brought home silver at the London Games and has challenged Eaton for years, won't be competing. Hardee aggravated a hamstring injury in the Olympic Trials and this year will be a spectator in Rio. Olympic newcomers Zach Ziemek and Jeremy Taiwo will join Eaton on Team USA.
Eaton has had time to watch plenty of the Olympics so far, because, as he points out, "Unfortunately, my sport is always at the end of the Games."
He recalls how in London at the 2012 Games, "I had to sit in my room in the village and wait the whole Games for my competition, and then the next day, I pack my stuff and I'm out."
He says that after London, he and his wife toured Europe for about six weeks, and he plans to do the same in South America. For a couple accustomed to rigid training schedules, Eaton says they are going to be ready for a period of indulgence, which is likely to include Brazilian churrasco.
"I'm looking forward to Brazilian steak," he said. "When they bring out that thing – oh man, unbelievable!"
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