In 2006, Ashton Eaton was a high school senior in Bend, Oregon, hoping to land a college scholarship in football, track, or the long jump. His track coach had a different idea: What about decathlon? Eaton’s response: What’s decathlon?
Fast-forward four years and Eaton had won three NCAA decathlon titles at the University of Oregon. Last year, he broke the world record for points in a decathlon competition at the U.S. Olympic Trials and then captured the gold medal in the London Olympics. But this seemingly smooth rise to the title of World’s Greatest Athlete actually belies a tale of extraordinary perseverance.
Raised by a single mother, Eaton frequently ran across Bend as a teen to see friends when he couldn’t get a ride. In college, he had to learn to pole vault and throw the discus and javelin while developing the stamina to excel at a sport that had him competing in ten track-and-field events over 12 hours. Along the way, Eaton learned a thing or two about performing at his best in any circumstances. Here, he shares his hard-earned lessons.
On Setting Goals
"I don’t set goals. Competing with a number in your head can be limiting, and I don’t know what my capabilities are yet. If I reach a goal, I’ll feel happy without knowing how much more I might have been able to accomplish. One of my really good coaches used to say, 'Don’t run for the time, just compete and the times will come.'"
On The Mind Game
"Even though decathlon is really long, there’s always something different to look forward to, which is great for mental stimulation. I could never be a distance runner, because I can’t run for more than ten minutes. There aren’t enough iPod gigabytes in the world to make that worth it for me."
"My biggest competitor? Myself, mentally."
"When I was in college, I trained at least five hours a day. Now it’s more like three or four, but the quality is much better. Spending less total time training but really making it count is a smart way to improve. It’s also easier on your body in the long run."
On Handling Pressure
"I’ve heard people talk about walking into the stadium and feeling super scared and nervous because they’ve realized, Oh, my God, this is the Olympic Games. And it didn’t work out for them. That happened to me at the 2011 world championships and I got all flustered. In London, I knew what not to do."
On Diet and Nutrition
"I basically eat what you would normally eat but healthier versions. Turkey sandwiches and tuna melts, tons of veggies, a big salad, quinoa instead of rice. No sauce. Keep it as plain as possible. But after a decathlon I eat whatever I want. It’s usually a humongous burger. If we’re at a restaurant and they ask if I want dessert, I’ll be like, Hell yes, I want dessert"
On Constantly Pushing Yourself
"If you watch someone run the 100 meters, they’re always trying to see what place they got. Only Usain Bolt looks at the clock, because he’s ahead of everyone else. Decathletes, even before they cross the line, they’re looking at the clock, because they know what their personal best is and how many points that equals, so it doesn’t matter what place they get. Some guy could be last and he’s going to be jumping up and down. The strategy is always to improve on your best—and use other athletes to do that."
I met my fiancée when I was a freshman in college and she was recruiting for track and field. Fortunately, she came to Oregon. Now we train together, so we see each other a lot.
I’ve become a real perfectionist. The more I do this and the older I get, the more I understand that I have a limited amount of time to get something right.
Rest is training, too. We took off 12 weeks last year because the buildup to the Olympics involved so much mental and physical stress. Your body needs time to recharge if you want to perform at your best. It’s also a good way to catch up on summer block-busters.