What's a world record mean? Eaton rethinks career

Updated: March 25, 2010, 6:01 PM ET
Associated Press

Funny how a world record can change one's perspective.

"I think it means track just got a lot more serious for me," laughed Ashton Eaton, marveling that, at least for the time being, his name will be linked to the words "heptathlon world-record holder."

The Oregon senior broke Dan O'Brien's 17-year-old mark in the seven-event track and field discipline at the NCAA Indoor championships earlier this month.

All of a sudden, he's not just looking like the man to beat in the decathlon when the Ducks host the NCAA Outdoor championships in June, he's looking at making track a career. He's looking at a serious bid for the London Olympics in 2012.

In just two short days in Fayetteville, Ark., everything changed.

"Looking forward, it's cool to know that potentially I could do track after college -- because I love track, you know?" he said. "But it also makes me a little nervous because I reached this level so far ahead of where I thought I would. The expectations may be too high."

Eaton scored 6,499 points, surpassing O'Brien's previous indoor best of 6,476 set in Toronto in 1993.

The men's heptathlon includes the 60-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 60-meter hurdles, pole vault, and 1,000 meters. The athletes switch to the decathlon for the outdoor championships.

To put Eaton's record in context, Olympic gold medalist Bryan Clay defended his heptathlon title at the world indoor championships in Qatar earlier this month and scored 6,204 points. Runner-up Trey Hardee scored 6,184.

Even Eaton was stunned.

"It's almost like nothing was going through my head. I didn't know how to think," he said. "This accomplishment sprung on me so fast and it surprised me so much, that it was like 'I don't know what to do."

So he excitedly called his mom from the infield. She normally watches her son's meets via the Internet, but she was busy that day visiting Eaton's grandfather in rural Oregon.

"She goes, 'Wait, wait, wait. You mean like the meet record? The American record?" Eaton recalled. "I said 'No mom. I broke the WORLD RECORD -- the never-been-done-before record."

Eaton was just 5 when O'Brien set the mark, and it frankly didn't ever occur to him that he'd break it -- especially while still in college.

Eaton scarcely knew what the multi-events were about when he became a Duck. His high school coach in Bend, Ore., had contacted the university touting Eaton's potential.

"I didn't come into college thinking I want to be a multisport athlete. I came into college not knowing anything about anything," he said. "All I knew was how to run and jump, basically."

Eaton excelled. He is a four-time NCAA champion, twice in the decathlon and twice in the indoor heptathlon. He's a two-time Pac-10 champion in the decathlon.

In his formative days with the Ducks, Eaton worked primarily with assistant coach Dan Steele, now the head coach at Northern Iowa.

"He has got all the right physical tools," Steele said about Eaton. "But I think the thing that makes him so amazing and so fun to watch is that he's got all the mental, emotional and intellectual tools as well. He's got virtually no ego. He's got an appropriate level of respect for the decathlon. He's humble yet confident. He's a tenacious competitor, yet he can handle losing."

Steele said he believes that Eaton is going to rise to the top level of the sport -- if he's not there already -- and help shine a spotlight on a discipline that is sometimes overlooked in track and field.

Not to say that the multisport events haven't had their moments, like Bruce Jenner claiming the world record and gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and O'Brien's gold at the 1996 Atlanta Games after the hyped but ultimately busted rivalry with Dave Johnson leading up to Barcelona.

The addition of Eaton to the elite ranks with Clay and Hardee could give the historically dominant United States a Dream Team for the London Olympics. Americans last swept the event in the 1952 Helsinki Games, when Bob Mathias, Milt Campbell and Floyd Simmons did it.

"I know all about Ashton," O'Brien told The Associated Press. "I saw the potential. I just didn't think it would come as soon as it has."

O'Brien figured Clay or Hardee would be in a better position to break his record, which was sealed when O'Brien went under the 3-minute mark in the 1,000 meters.

"Looking back on it now I should have run a little faster," he joked, "then it would have stood longer."

Last summer Eaton finished second to Hardee in the decathlon in the U.S. championships, while Clay nursed a hamstring injury. Eaton went on to finish 18th at the world championships in Berlin.

Just like when he arrived at Oregon and had no idea what he was getting into, Eaton says he honestly has no clue how to move to the next level. He imagines he'll have to hire an agent and get a sponsor.

The sponsor thing should be easy: Oregon's highest-profile booster is Nike co-founder Phil Knight, himself a former track athlete.

But before all that, Eaton is happy just playing out his last season as a Duck, hoping for a strong finale to it all at Hayward Field in June. The difficult part -- training and competing while earning a degree in psychology -- will close, and a new, unimagined chapter will open.

"If I knew then how hard it was going to be," he joked, "I would have said, 'You know what? Forget that."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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