Marra tells SPIKES how he first came to work with the special pair in 2009 while they were collegiate athletes at the University of Oregon.
What led you to Oregon?
I had kinda almost retired from coaching. I was coaching Paul Terek down in San Luis Obispo and running an after school physical fitness programme for at-risk children. I was enjoying it and having fun, without the pressure of the Olympic Games and all that.
So Vin [Lananna, then Associate Athletic Director at Oregon] called and said, ‘Hey, Ashton’s coach just left, first day of school’. And I said, ‘Well you best get somebody good!’
He was on our radar. On the national team we always tracked everyone. ‘Hey there’s this kid out in Tuscaloosa who could be pretty good!’ So we tried to help and find good coaches and whatever. So I said [to Lananna], ‘You better get somebody good because this guy could potentially be pretty good’.
A month later he called me back. I figured they’d hired somebody. I’m living in California, loving it, nice house and all that. Sunshine, garden. And Vin says, ‘I don’t like any of those guys you recommended.’ So I say, ‘Well what are you gonna do?’ He goes, ‘I want you to take the job’. I said, ‘Aaah damn! I don’t want to leave California! When would you want me to start?’ He goes, ‘Tomorrow!’ I drove up the next day.
My wife, that day when he called, was working in a soup kitchen, stocking the shelves for the homeless, and you know, they come once a week for their food and whatever they’re allotted. I drove down in my Miata, top down, it was nice, it was November, but it was nice, packed, she came out and says, ‘Where you goin?!’ I said, ‘I’m going to Oregon – I think I got a job’. I never came home.
"You have to, with both Bri and Ashton, be able to say what you want to say a few different ways."
Had you met Ashton before then?
No. I’d never met him. That was 2009, so he was a senior. In 2006 or ’07, I took Paul Terek, an Olympian, to Arizona for an early season meet, and Ashton was a freshman. Dan Steele was his coach, and he had run for the Visa Decathlon team. I knew Dan very well. Good guy, great coach.
I bump into Dan Steele at this Arizona meet and I’m really focusing on what Terek is doing and so on, and late in the meet, just before the pole vault, Steele comes up to me and says, ‘Come ‘ere!’. He said, ‘Have you been watching this guy Ashton?’. I said, ‘No I really haven’t paid attention.’ And he goes, ‘He’s going to be really good one day’.
Just at that time Ashton was warming up for the pole vault. He ran down, put his pole in and did a front somersault – that used to be his pole vault technique – and I said, ‘Steele: you’ve got some work to do!’. That was really my first introduction.
Marra developed Eaton from NCAA champion to world record holder and two-time Olympic champion
What about when you started working with him – could you see his ability?
In the first 30 seconds – no. But, early on, I watched the first couple of days – here I am in November, they were already doing whatever they were doing based on what Dan used to have them do at that time – and I didn’t pay attention specifically, because I had Ashton, Bri, and two other heptathlete/decathletes, then I had the high jumpers and pole vaulters, so I was pretty busy. And Ashton had just had knee surgery, which I didn’t know about, so he was a little bit limited in what he could do.
When it really struck me was this: he was healthy and ready to run in January, I guess it was, and we were going to do hurdles for the first time. It was just Ashton and me that day. I said, ‘You ran 13.90 last year, pretty good hurdle time, tell me about it’. He goes, ‘Coach, I’m the nails for the first five hurdles and then everything falls apart’. And I say, ‘Wait a minute. You’re running 10.40, 10.50 for the 100m, you run 46 seconds in the 400m, it can’t be that you’re out of shape, it’s got to be mechanical’.
I said, ‘Warm up, get in the blocks and come over the first hurdle – just show me what you got’. I’d never watched him. He does it. Gets in the block. One-two-three–four-five-six-seven-eight. Out like a bullet. He goes over the hurdle nice, but he’s cramped going into the first hurdle. I said, ‘Did you ever try seven steps to the first hurdle?’ He goes, ‘No’. I said, ‘Well it mandates switching your blocks ... To help yourself out, count to seven then go over the hurdle’.
He gets in the blocks and he counts, ‘one-two-three-four-five-six,’ puts his seventh foot down and shouts ‘money!’ and goes over the hurdle so impressively, like he’d been doing it for 100 years. With others it took a full year to get them comfortable. He does it in 15 seconds. Nothing. WHOOM! He just does it.
After guiding Theisen-Eaton to bronze and Eaton to gold at Rio 2016, Marra won the Coaching Achievement award at the IAAF Athletics Awards
That must be a dream to coach?
[Pause] Yeah. It is. It is. There are sticking points at certain times. So as a coach you have to be very, very… This has been the toughest seven years of my life. Not toughest from the stand point of not good, just focused. 24/7.
You have to, with both Bri and Ashton, be able to say what you want to say a few different ways to make sure you get the point across. You better be clear in your cues, clear in your explanations.
He came to me at a point in that first year and said, ‘Coach, whatever you tell me, make sure it’s correct, because I’m going to do it’. That told me he knew his body. He could decipher in his mind what you’re telling him. When you talk to Ashton about technique or anything in general, his eyes are wide open, it’s like a computer is processing. He does pick it up faster than others.