Not old enough for a driver's license and without a bike of his own, young Ashton Eaton had to find another way to get around when he wanted to visit friends across town. So he ran.
“I didn't have to, but I just wanted to get there faster, so I would take shortcuts on the side of Pilot Butte,” Eaton, who spent his teen years in Bend, recalled in an interview last month. “I basically ran from Costco to Highway 97 and back (about four miles round trip), sometimes at night. I would always be outside running or doing something active.”
In his even younger years, as a grade-schooler in La Pine, he wanted to measure how far he could jump. So he placed sticks on the ground outdoors and tried to jump from one to the other.
“If I cleared them, then I would move them apart more and try again,” Eaton said. “Yes, long jump training without knowing it.”
The early running and jumping paid off.
Last Saturday during the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Eaton, now 24, set a new world record in the 10-event decathlon to earn the title “World's Greatest Athlete.” He is now the clear favorite to win the gold medal in the decathlon at the upcoming London Olympics.
Just after Eaton crossed the finish line in the competition's final event, the 1,500 meters, to win the decathlon and claim the world record, he was embraced on the track by his mother, Roz Eaton, and his fiancee, Brianne Theisen.
The emotions, captured by television cameras and by dozens of photographers, came surging out in the form of tears and shouts of joy by Eaton and his loved ones.
It was emotional because of the spectacular drama of the athletic accomplishment, but also because of what Eaton and his mother had endured on his way to the top.
“It was just the culmination of all the years and of the struggles that Ashton and I have been through personally as a family,” Roz said this week. “And the payoff, the success of his reaching his dream and goal ... it was just really overwhelming.”
A single mother raising a biracial son (Roz is white and Ashton's father is black), Roz admits that they struggled at times, both financially and emotionally. She worked multiple jobs to support Ashton, as a receptionist at a Bend law office by day and as a waitress at a local restaurant by night.
“I just feel like there were so many times that I couldn't be everywhere and do everything,” Roz recounted. “And things that I missed, signature moments I missed when I really didn't want to.”
By all accounts — including the one that matters most — Roz, who still lives in Bend, was and is a devoted mother. Anyone could see that by her expressions on the Hayward Field track last weekend.
“My mom and I are pretty close,” Ashton said. “We both are very perceptive, her more than I. She can pick up on any little thing that may be bothering me and always helps me feel better. When I was growing up, she always told me I had a purpose and I'm not here or doing what I am doing by accident.”
Eaton was born in Portland, the only child of Roz, then 22, and her boyfriend at the time, Milton Bennett (who now goes by the name Terrence Wilson). The couple split up two years later. And while Eaton is fairly close to his three half siblings on his father's side, he has had little contact with his dad, who currently lives in Bend.
According to court documents, Roz through the years has filed claims asking the state to enforce child support that Wilson has not paid.
In a phone interview last week, Wilson expressed regret about not being more of a father to Ashton.
“I made contact with him in 2004, when he was 17,” Wilson recalled. “I hadn't seen him since he was 5. We had a good relationship when we first met. But we have not spoken in 2 1/2 years.”
Wilson — who said he watched Ashton's world-record performance on television — declined to go into detail about what caused the falling out between his son and him.
Roz and Ashton moved from Portland to La Pine when Ashton was 2.
At one point, Roz remembered, baseball was Ashton's sport. They traveled the Northwest for youth league games, with tripleheaders on Saturdays and doubleheaders on Sundays. Then came traveling basketball, and then taekwondo three nights a week for seven years. Ashton earned his black belt when he was 13.
“Ashton wanted to be a Ninja Turtle — Donatello, to be specific!” Roz said, referring to the popular “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” comic and cartoon series. “We must all remember that when Ashton was younger, he was NOT an Olympian. He was just a boy giving everything he had to whatever he was doing at the time. Unofficially, Ashton has been training for (the Olympics) pretty much his entire life.”
In fifth grade, he began running cross-country at La Pine Elementary School — early training for the impressive 1,500-meter time (4 minutes, 14.48 seconds) he ran last weekend to set the world decathlon record.
“Whatever I wanted to try, she made sure I followed through with it and tried it 100 percent so I would really know if I liked it or not,” Ashton said of his mom.
The Eatons moved to Bend when Ashton was in sixth grade. He competed in track and field at Pilot Butte Middle School.
Roz, now 47, says she was always looking for father figures for Ashton — sometimes, she admits, to a fault.
“I was a pretty young mom, and I really wanted Ashton to have a family,” Roz reflected. “I feel like, in my search of that, I didn't really choose men well. So, I stopped doing that. I stopped trying to produce this family. The struggles had to do with that, but also financially. There were times when I was working three jobs. It was difficult. Every little boy wants to have a dad.”
In middle school, Ashton met Tate Metcalf and John Nosler through the Central Oregon Track Club. Metcalf and Nosler coached Eaton at Bend's Mountain View High School, where he won state championships in the long jump and the 400 meters as a senior and was a standout running back on the football team. (Ashton's maternal grandfather, Jim Eaton, played running back for Michigan State University in the early 1960s.)
Eaton and Metcalf formed a special bond — a bond that remains strong today. (Metcalf and his wife, Aimee, plan to travel to London in early August, along with Roz, to watch Ashton compete in the Olympics.)
Roz said she credits Metcalf and Nosler with seeing the potential in her son, and with providing a positive male influence.
“After a dinner meeting with Tate Metcalf and John Nosler at the beginning of Ashton's senior year at Mountain View,” Roz recalled, “I believed what they were saying — that Ashton could have a future in collegiate track, even have a future as an Olympian.”
Decathlon is not an official high school event in Oregon, but Metcalf was pushing Eaton toward it going into his senior year at Mountain View, even though Eaton had never actually competed in throws or in the pole vault. When Metcalf first mentioned the decathlon, Eaton did not even know what it was.
“The decathlon always chooses you; you never choose it,” Eaton said after setting his world record in Eugene. “I think the reason the decathlon is so appealing is because it's like living an entire lifetime in two days. You have the ups, the downs, the goods, the bads, the comebacks. It all happens in two days, and everybody loves life, and I think that's why we love the decathlon.”
With advocacy from Metcalf, Eaton was recruited to the University of Oregon by Dan Steele, who then coached decathlon for the Ducks. Eaton went on to win three NCAA decathlon titles for UO.
“We had no idea he was sitting on this much untapped potential,” Steele said — in 2008.
“After I won the very first decathlon I did in college,” Eaton said last month, “I knew I would be doing it forever.”
Showing a bit of clairvoyance, Metcalf said this four years ago before the 2008 Olympic trials, in which Eaton finished fifth in the decathlon: “I truly believe he is the next great American decathlete. It's unbelievable what he could accomplish.”
Metcalf was in awe watching Eaton last weekend from the front row of the east grandstands at Hayward Field.
“He absolutely, 100 percent dedicated himself to the sport,” Metcalf said. “While he went to school (at UO), he kept up the good grades (receiving a bachelor's degree in psychology in 2011) and did everything the right way.”
Eaton won the decathlon at the USA Championships last year and went on to finish second at the world championships.
Frustrated with a silver medal at worlds, Eaton and his coach, Harry Marra, focused on his training this past year in Eugene, working to get stronger in the throws, his weaker events, and to polish his skills in his better events, like the 100 meters and the long jump.
The training produced results with a world record of 9,039 points last weekend. That broke the former record of 9,026 points, set by Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic in 2001.
Eaton, who continues to live in Eugene, competes for the Nike-sponsored Oregon Track Club Elite. He has endorsement deals with Powerade and Procter & Gamble, with more likely to come during the lead-up to London. Eaton also reportedly received a $750,000 bonus from Nike for his world record.
Theisen, Eaton's girlfriend of four years and fiancee of one year, is a heptathlete who also competes for OTC Elite and shares Marra as a coach with Ashton. (Theisen this past week finished second in the heptathlon at the Canadian Olympic Trials and will represent her native Canada in London.)
Should Eaton win the gold medal in London, Theisen said she believes Roz deserves a spot on the medal stand next to her son.
“Ashton and Roz definitely didn't have the easiest life while Ashton was growing up, and they had to work for everything they got,” Theisen said last month. “Roz is a fighter, though. She wanted Ashton to have all the things that the other kids his age had, and more. She worked her butt off so that he could do all the sports he wanted, and she helped him in any way she could — financially, mentally.
“But the most important thing is that she taught him how to be a good person. She'd discipline him if he ever treated anyone with disrespect, but she also taught him how to be a tough person and to stand up for himself and others. Anyone that knows Ashton or meets him for the first time is always shocked at how well-spoken and friendly he is. People aren't just blessed with this type of personality; it needs to be taught. And he's only lived with his mom growing up, so you know where he learned it from.”
With the steadfast support of a single mother's hard work and love, Ashton Eaton achieved the dream of a world record. Now he pursues his next goal: an Olympic gold medal.
“I believed in Ashton,” Roz said. “And he never let go of his dream.”