Over two dreary days that finally closed with a bright ray of sunshine, Eaton found out just how good life can be.
He's the world-record holder in the decathlon, the cream of the crop in the hallowed and history-filled event that has long identified the world's greatest athlete.
Needing a personal best in the grueling finale, the 1,500 meters, to get the record, Eaton came through Saturday night in the U.S. Olympic trials, running the last event in 4 minutes, 14.48 seconds to finish with 9,039 points and beat Roman Sebrle's 11-year-old mark by 13 points.
"It's like living an entire lifetime in two days," Eaton said. "It doesn't mean that much to the rest of the world, but to me, it's my whole world. To do the best that I possibly could in my world makes me pretty happy."
Eaton joined the likes of Bruce Jenner, Dan O'Brien, Bob Mathias and Rafer Johnson among the Americans who have held the world record. He did it on the 100th anniversary of the first Olympic decathlon — and many of the American greats who have made history in the event were on hand to watch.
"I thought he showed some real courage," Johnson said. "He hung in there and figured out a way to win. He was brilliant in everything he did."
He won seven of the 10 events and did most of it in terrible weather — drizzle, rain, cold and then, finally, sunshine as he got ready for the final 1,500-meter push.
"It's like the 11th event," runner-up Trey Hardee, the defending world champion, said about the weather. "I hope when they put his name in the record books, they'll put every parenthesis, asterisk and every other mark you can put down. Every athlete out there tries to act like that stuff doesn't bother them, but it does."
Eaton, the 24-year-old and a former NCAA champion for University of Oregon, needed to beat his personal-best time of 4:18.94 in the 1,500 by at least 2.57 seconds to break the mark. He did that, and then some.
When it was over, he bent down and put his hands on his knees, then brought them up to cover his mouth. Tears were falling — elation and shock at the same time. Adding to the fun, he did it at Hayward Field, his home field in college and the site of some of his biggest triumphs. None, of course, any bigger than this one.
"It's a feeling that you get, even if you're off pace," Eaton said of the sensation he calls "Hayward Magic." "I was so tired before the 15 (hundred). I felt like sleeping. As soon as the gun is fired, it all goes away."
After the initial celebration ended, he took the mini American flag he'd been handed as a newly minted member of the U.S. Olympic team and stabbed it into the turf near the scoreboard that displayed his accomplishment: "World Record Decathlon. Ashton Eaton. 9,039 points." Photographers lined up for the historic shoot. Certainly, Eaton will own a copy or two by the time this celebration is over.
"The kid is phenomenal," said Bryan Clay, the defending Olympic champion, who fell in the hurdles and finished 12th. "There's no other way to describe him."
What to do for an encore?
We'll see in six weeks in London, where he'll go in as the favorite, along with Hardee, who finished 656 points back and was every bit as much a fan as an opponent when the last race was over.
"I don't think it changes anything for the Olympics," Hardee said. "It was his before we started yesterday and it still is now. It hasn't sunk in for Ashton. For me, it's something down the road that I'll tell my kids, my friends, my nephews about. I'll say, 'See, I saw it. I've got the pictures to prove it.' "
While Eaton earned his place in history, the women's 100 final provided a much less-concrete result.
After a long review, race officials determined Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh finished in a dead-heat for third place, each at 11.068 seconds. Only three spots are available at the Olympics and USA Track and Field officials huddled late into the night, trying to solve a problem for which there is no written solution. Carmelita Jeter won the race in 10.92.
Elsewhere, Lolo Jones leaned at the finish line to earn the third and final Olympic spot in the 100 hurdles by 0.04 seconds. Dawn Harper won in 12.73. Tyson Gay made it through his first 100 heat cleanly, while LaShawn Merritt, Jeremy Wariner and Sanya Richards-Ross all advanced in the 400.
Nobody, however, covered more ground, or did it better, than Eaton.
He opened his pursuit Friday by setting world-best marks for the decathlon in his first two events, the 100 (10.21 seconds) and long jump (27 feet). He had a mark of 46 feet, 7 1/4 inches in shot put, cleared 6-8 3/4 in the high jump and ran the 400 in a driving rainstorm in 46.70 seconds to finish the first day in the mix for the world record.
He returned Saturday to more dreary weather but didn't falter. The results: 13.70 seconds in the 110 hurdles, 140-5 inches in the discus, and 17-4 1/2 in the pole vault. His javelin throw of 193-1 meant he would need to top his personal best to set the world record.
The sun finally peaked out shortly before Eaton made it to the starting line, illuminating his green and black shirt and neon orange shoes. He waved to the crowd, toed the starting line, took an early lead, stayed on pace the entire time and crossed the line with nearly 2 seconds to spare.
Eaton also overtook O'Brien's American record of 8,891 points, which he set in 1992 — nine years before Sebrle became the first man to break 9,000 points.
"He didn't have any letdowns," O'Brien said. "It's real easy when you're way ahead to have that letdown. That's what separates him from even myself. I don't know if I would've run my guts out in the 1,500."
Eaton's record adds another chapter to a rich history of decathlon success in the United States.
Jim Thorpe won the first Olympic decathlon in 1912. In 1976, Jenner put the event squarely in the spotlight, winning the Montreal Olympics and becoming a celebrity when he returned home. He was on the front of the Wheaties box back then, and the fact that he's still on the front of it now — as part of a retro marketing campaign — speaks volumes about how far the event's stature has fallen over the last few decades.
But that hardly diminishes this latest accomplishment.
"It pleases me to be in that fraternity with a kid that carries on a great tradition in a very classy way," Johnson said.
All this, Eaton said, was more than he expected. He came to Eugene simply hoping to make his first Olympic team. He'll leave with a spot in the history books.
"It's not just numbers," he said. "It's all the little stuff that you guys don't get to see that kind of makes this thing possible. There's really very few words to describe it, so unfortunately, I'm brief in that respect."
Photo via Twitter/@MigVillasenor
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