LONDON — It was moments before the 1,500 meters, the 10th and final event of the decathlon at the London Olympics on Thursday night, when Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee came together at the starting line.
The two U.S. decathletes hugged, shook hands, wished each other luck and, most important, nodded at each other with knowing glances.
It was understood that this was their time.
As the gun fired, and the sold-out crowd of 80,000 at Olympic Stadium erupted into a deafening roar, Eaton and Hardee circled the track with a singular goal — to represent the U.S., and the history of the decathlon, with gold and silver medals for the first time since 1956.
“The 1-2 finish is what we really wanted,” said Eaton, the former standout from Bend's Mountain View High School and a five-time NCAA champion at the University of Oregon.
“There's a really good history with U.S. decathletes. This is the 100th anniversary (of the decathlon.) It started back in 1912 with Jim Thorpe, and Trey and I are doing our best to carry it on.”
There was never much doubt about Eaton's ultimate coronation.
The 24-year-old Oregon Track Club Elite athlete, who set the world record of 9,039 points at the U.S. Olympic trials at Hayward Field in June, became the 11th American to win the decathlon gold medal with his 8,869 points.
Hardee, the two-time reigning world champion, who is less than a year removed from reconstructive surgery of his right (throwing) elbow, took the silver medal with 8,671 points, and Cuba's Leonel Suarez won the bronze medal with 8,523.
“Ashton is the best athlete that ever walked the planet,” Hardee said. “It's safe to say my reign is over.”
It was a wire-to-wire victory for Eaton.
He took the lead after clocking an Olympic record of 10.35 seconds in the 100 meters on the first day of competition and never gave it up. Similarly, Hardee never fell out of the silver position.
“We did the best we could,” Hardee said. “We got 1-2 and that hasn't happened in a long time for the U.S. It's something that when Ashton and I are 80 years old, our grandkids will puff up their chests a little bit. I'm honored to be a part of it.”
Eaton has now completed 19 consecutive decathlons, including the past 14 over 8,000 points. He came into the second day with a 220-point lead over Hardee.
But Hardee was not about to go down without a fight.
He handed Eaton a rare defeat in the 110-meter hurdles, 13.54 seconds to 13.56, when Eaton banged hard into the eighth hurdle, and followed with a throw of 158 feet, 4 inches in the discus, compared with just 139-6 for Eaton, narrowing the gap to 99 points.
This was the only moment of the entire decathlon when the outcome seemed in doubt, but Eaton quickly restored order in the pole vault with first-attempt makes at 15-1 1⁄4, 15-9, 16-3⁄4 and 16-5.
He missed once before clearing 16-8 3⁄4, then soared over 17-3⁄4. On the advice of his coach, Harry Marra, he decided to stop vaulting at that point because his left quad was feeling tight.
Hardee bowed out at 15-9, and Eaton's lead was back to 222 points.
Eaton then set a lifetime best of 203-3 in the javelin, while Hardee countered with a 218-8 mark. But there was no chance for Hardee to catch the leader in the 1,500, which was essentially a victory lap for Eaton at 4:33.59.
After crossing the finish line, just shy of the Olympic record of 8,893 points, Eaton slowly walked over to the first row of the stands and gave both his mom, Roslyn, and his fiancee, former UO women's multi-event standout Brianne Theisen, long embraces.
He then sought out Marra, who has guided Eaton since coming to the University of Oregon in fall 2009.
“When Ashton made the first bar in the pole vault, and the javelins hit the ground, it was over,” Marra said. “I'm really, really happy for Ashton. We came here to win, regardless of the score.
“His quad tightened up on that last jump in the pole vault. That's why we stopped, and that's what affected the 1,500. It just started to grab, so I told him, no more vaulting. Most decathletes would give their eyeteeth to run 4:33 in the 1,500, and he did it on one leg.”
Marra could not have been more pleased with Eaton's performance, not to mention Theisen's 11th-place finish in the heptathlon for Canada earlier in these Games.
“I told Bri and Ashton, you guys were prepared well,” he said. “Oregon prepares the kids well. They put them in high-pressure meets. I guess some fall by the wayside, but obviously, these two did not. I'm extremely pleased with the way they both competed here.”
Later, when a physically and emotionally drained Eaton met with reporters in the mixed zone, he remained his usual humble self.
He was asked if he now considered himself “the greatest athlete in the world,” the title that Sweden's King Gustaf famously bestowed upon Jim Thorpe when he won the first decathlon title back in 1912.
Eaton just smiled.
“For me to consider myself the world's greatest athlete, I'd have to really amaze myself in every single event,” he said. “But I also don't want to discredit what King Gustaf told Jim 100 years ago.
“I want 10 perfect events. I know that's pretty much not possible, but that's the toughness of the decathlon.”
And that's the legacy of Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee at the London Olympics.