A week before the Portland World Indoor Championships, SPIKES joined the world’s four luckiest teenage athletes for On Camp with Ashton Eaton. Three weeks on, the multi-event king tells us how the project reminded him where he came from.

Careful in that car to Eugene

At my cousin’s wedding last year there was a goldfish bowl – complete with goldfish – on every table. I was going to take one home, but decided a one-hour car ride with a fully loaded fishbowl in my lap was too much pressure.

That’s a little bit what it felt like while driving south from Portland to Eugene with four of the best young athletes in the world. My precious cargo and I were whizzing down to TrackTown for On Camp with Ashton Eaton.

For decathlete Niklas Kaul, sprinter Khalifa St Fort, discus thrower Werner Visser and hurdler Maribel Caicedo, the four teenage athletes chosen by Eaton to join the training camp following their standout performances at last year’s Cali World Youth Championships, it was the ultimate opportunity to learn from a man who hasn’t lost a multi-event competition in four years: a dream ticket for any aspiring athlete. I’d been asked to cover it (and agreed to drive). 

Before we got to Eugene, the athletes didn’t know how much time they’d have with Eaton. Niklas told me later that he thought he and his fellow campers would maybe get to meet him briefly, run a lap or two with him at most.

As soon as we arrived it was clear that this was more than just a photo opportunity. There he was, waiting for the athletes at the unassuming entrance to the modest indoor training space underneath Hayward Field’s main grandstand, grinning broadly from under a white cap, attempting in vain to shelter from the wind and rain.

Niklas, Harry and Ashton On Camp ()

Harry Marra admires Kaul's arms. The German won world youth decathlon gold and javelin silver in Cali

Inside the rudimentary but adequate facility, his wife Brianne Theisen-Eaton, the Canadian heptathlon record holder, was finishing her session that had begun that morning at 8am under the watchful eye of the couple’s coach, Oregon Track Club’s Harry Marra.

The four young athletes huddled round Eaton. His suggestion of three laps of the Hayward track by way of warm up was not a popular one. “I’m sorry the sun’s not shining!” the mischievous Marra called over in his New York accent. “It never shines here!”

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On that first morning, which consisted of long jump and pole vault approach work, the shy, jet-lagged athletes watched as Marra, now focusing solely on Eaton, provided constant feedback. A misplaced stride, a slight rotation of the hips, shoddy elbow position: Marra would pick up technical infractions that would simply pass most track fans by. There was no missing the unswerving trust and honesty between coach and athlete.

After lunch and an afternoon nap, we reconvened at the Putters Family Entertainment Center on the edge of Eugene. Eaton had the idea to play lazer tag, which he argued was a great light workout. A couple of games of bowling followed, Eaton happily joshing with the young athletes, chatting with anyone who spotted one of the town’s most famous citizens out in his civvies.

By the second day of training, the athletes had become more comfortable in the presence of Eaton and were keen to join in. Werner, Niklas and Eaton enjoyed a pretty fierce shot put competition before Khalifa and Maribel joined him for block drills. It was heartening to see them in their natural environment. American high jumper Jesse Williams had appeared and was hammering out two-tens just to get warm. Burundian 800m runner Francine Niyonsaba was interval training outside. It was all go, and the young athletes were right in the thick of it.

tl;dr? WATCH THIS THEN

So much for Niklas expecting just a quick intro to Eaton. This was a genuine training camp. Eaton was giving everything, apparently unbothered about the world championships coming up in a few days’ time.

When training was done on day two, he sat with the young athletes in the University of Oregon canteen. I caught Marra telling his athlete that he needed to do his contrast (cold and hot baths) and should probably get some rest, but Eaton insisted on staying out for a tour of the college athletic facilities. Only when that was complete did he leave the visiting group, squeezing in his final preparations before driving to Portland later that evening.

Worlds

We reconvened in Portland the next day minus Khalifa, who had to go back to school in Florida. Eaton insisted on meeting Niklas, Maribel and Werner at the championship track to go through a warm-up. This was not in the original itinerary. He insisted again the next day, the eve of the champs.

The warm-up area and track were heaving with the world’s best. While Werner watched the throwers and Maribel stole off to spend time with the Ecuadorian team, Niklas was left to complete paced runs with Eaton. It was a tender moment: the senior decathlon world champion dispensing advice, feedback and encouragement to the U18 decathlon world champ. That session was the end of On Camp, which had already extended beyond its original scope. 

Ashton and Niklas On Camp ()

Eaton and Kaul take a moment

Two days on, and just 0.1 seconds into Eaton’s competition, I panicked. He was ponderous out of the blocks in his 60m opener. Had On Camp left him sapped? There wasn’t long to wait for the answer. Eaton won his heat with the fastest time of the day, later on notching a huge 8.08m in the long jump. By that stage his lead was significant, his competitors were chasing and gold was as good as wrapped up for the seasoned performer.

There was no drama for him like there was for Theisen-Eaton, who delivered the highlight of the championships, winning pentathlon gold courtesy of a blistering 800m run that lifted her from third to first when it counted. It was a special moment for Eaton, who was on hand in the infield (competing in high jump) to embrace his victorious wife at the finish. It was a defining moment not just for the championships, but also in the careers of the ultimate athletics power couple.

Eaton’s verdict

A few weeks on from Portland, after the dust has settled, SPIKES catches up with Eaton over the phone. I put it to him that watching his wife win her first gold must have eclipsed his own success.

“Yeah,” he says. “For Brianne it was her first international world championship gold medal. That’s a big deal. She had a lot to overcome. It was definitely the most excting part. I think what she had to do to achieve was awesome. There was a big [points] defecit [before the final event], and it was a long shot. She took the long shot. She went after it. It shows how you’ve got to take the chance.”

Brianne and Ashton On Camp ()

Team Eaton train in Eugene, four days before competing at the Portland World Indoor Championships

Was running On Camp days before his own world championship tilt not something of a risk? “I think it was a really important thing to do,” Eaton says. “I remember being a young athlete and not really knowing the potential of track and field, as far as it being a career. What does it look like to be a professional athlete? I just didn’t know.

“I think for those athletes it’s a little bit different because they had the world youths – that’s a big deal. They’ve got a massive stadium and all these fans, competing with the best in the world. And they know for their age group they’re some of the best in the world. So with that in mind I think they’re already a little bit ahead [of where I was].

“But I still thought it was a good idea to say ‘OK, it’s really good for these young athletes to be brought in to a programme that could be considered an elite system’. And to show that things aren’t crazy. You don’t have to do something completely different to get to the next level. It’s just time and experience.

“I don’t think that we did anything crazy or flashy or science-y. I wanted to show them that you don’t need to try something different to be a senior elite athlete.

“Then I also think it’s good for outsiders looking in to see somebody like me before a world championships doing something like that. I think it’s good for other senior athletes to see that and say ‘if somebody like Ashton will do this with these youth athletes, and it was something that he wanted to do, then maybe that’s something good for me to do in the future’.

On Camp ()

ON CAMP: (l-r) Marra, Visser Caicedo, Eaton, St Fort and Kaul

Training, he explains, was not modified because of the camp, although the extracurricular activities were not Marra-sanctioned.

“[Training those two days] was definitely how he [Coach Marra] planned it to be,” he says. “A lot of it was basics. We maybe spent a little extra time outside of training, just doing stuff that we probably wouldn’t have done, but that was all good stuff – the bowling the lazer tag!”

Lastly, Eaton explains what he hopes the athletes took away from On Camp.

“What they saw was one example of how an elite level system can be. It’s really just about basics and the fundamentals. So when they go forward in their careers in the future, I hope they can remember where they came from.

“There are times when you get to the point where maybe your confidence is low, or you think you have to make big changes. But sometimes it’s best to revert back to basics. Like, why did you start in the track and field profession in the first place?”

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