This summer, as the hype for the Rio Olympic Games builds to a crescendo, two athletes almost certain to be at the center of the storm are American decathlete Ashton Eaton and his wife, Canadian heptathlete Brianne Thiesen-Eaton. Last weekend, the couple won a pair of gold medals at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon, affirming their status as the most athletic couple in the world — and clear favorites heading into Brazil.
The Eatons have been media darlings within the track and field world ever since Ashton smashed the decathlon world record in 2012 and won gold at the London Olympics. Brianne competed as well, but this year they’ll be chasing gold together — and the buzz is already reaching a paparazzi-like level. When Brianne broke through for her first international gold medal at the world indoor championships last week, photos of the couple’s finish-line embrace went viral on social media, along with tongue-in-cheek nods at their enviable “relationship goals.”
While many track athletes are content to toil in relative obscurity, the Eatons have set out to build a brand for themselves this Olympic cycle, launching a slick website where they share photos, videos, and stories from their daily grind. The brand is purposefully unglamorous at times (“We wanted to humanize ourselves,” Ashton said), and the content is intensely dissected by fans, so much so that a cryptic message last month about an “exciting announcement” fueled speculation that Brianne, six months from the Olympic Games, might be expecting.
Thank you. pic.twitter.com/VOjkaehPkm
— IAAF (@iaaforg) March 19, 2016
“People are crazy,” she joked the next morning, arriving to practice in her Nike warm-up gear and without the slightest sign of a baby bump. The big announcement, the world would soon learn, was the launch of a social media campaign called #What’sYourGold, a challenge to fans to set their own Olympic-year goals and then use Instagram or Twitter to tell the story of their struggles and successes along the way. But as predictions of a #BabyEaton proliferated, Brianne found herself squashing the rumors. “I can tell you with 100% certainty it’s not a baby,” she tweeted (along with a #sorry).
The #What’sYourGold campaign asks people to share at least one struggle during their journey. In that spirit, what’s been the lowest moment for each of you?
Ashton: Low moments? That's tough.
Brianne: Ashton hasn't had any, let's just put it out there.
Ashton: Well, not being able to compete at the Götzis meet last year. I really wanted to compete, but then I got hurt. It was two days away, and I couldn't do it. That was pretty tough.
Brianne: Yeah, I remember he was in this weird funk when we came home from that. He became obsessed with what he was going to do after track. Four days in a row he went to the library and sat there for six to eight hours. Just sat there.
Ashton: I didn't just sit there!
Brianne: Yeah! He’d come home, and I'd ask, “What were you doing?” And he’d be like, “Just checking out books and reading and trying to figure out what I'm going to do with my life.” And he kept saying, “I don't know why I'm doing this? What's the point of doing this?” That was the first time I'd ever heard something like that ever come out of his mouth.
How’d you answer that question of ‘What to do with your life’?
Ashton: I don’t think I ever found an answer. I thought if I just spent a lot of time thinking about it and really focused, I'd get it. But I didn't. It’s the same with track, though. You try to figure out the best way to throw the shot put, or the perfect way to long jump, and you don't ever get it. You just chip away, chip away, chip away as time goes on. So I resolved to chip away at it.
What about you, Bri?
Brianne: Well, last year I was the favorite going into the world champs in Beijing, but I felt like I had to do something phenomenal in order to win. Instead of just having fun and competing, it became “I want to win so bad.” But the person who wants it the most doesn't win. It's the person who executes. I still look back on that 200-meter race and say what the hell happened? I wasn't hurt, I wasn't sick, the conditions were perfect, and I ran like total crap.
Ashton: I remember doing the same thing in Daegu in the 400. I ran like 46.9, and I tried hard. I didn't even go to the media. I just ran right by it.
Brianne: Ugh, I wish I'd done that. This one guy, I don't even remember his name, I just remember him sticking his mic out, and he said, “Bri, do you think maybe you're just not cut out for this?” And I was like, “I don't know.” I had nothing else to say. At that point, I literally believed it. Maybe I'm not cut out for this, maybe I should just quit. I remember going to bed and thinking, I just want to go to sleep so this nightmare will be over. That was probably my lowest moment.
Moving to a happier subject, what’s the story behind how you two started dating?
Brianne: Go ahead, Ash.
Brianne: Okay [laughs]. I came on a visit to the UO when I was a senior in high school, and I remember talking with Ashton — don't know his name, nothing — but we were finishing each other's sentences. That's the first time with anybody that I was like, wow, I have so much in common with this person.
So then I went home and finished my senior year, and that summer we were both competing at the Pan-American Games in Brazil. We hung out there, and then we had the same group of friends when I got to Oregon. We hung out, hung out, hung out, watched movies together, and all this stuff, and Ash was just a sissy. I was like, when is this guy going to ask me on a date or something?
Ashton: Yeah, Brianne was typical, impatient Brianne.
Brianne: Well, I was thinking, Geez, we've been hanging out for five months, what’s the deal? You can speak to that. I don't know what the deal was.
Ashton: I don't know. It just took me a really long time to decide—
Brianne: If you liked me?
Ashton: Well, I'd never really dated somebody. I didn't know what it involved.
Brianne: Like if you going to have to give up all of your video game hours?
Ashton: Maybe this is the thing. I dated my first girlfriend for, like, two weeks in high school, and when you’re in high school it’s so much different. I wanted to hang out with my friends and play video games and play paintball and do guy stuff. Girls were never around for my friends group. So I had this girlfriend, and every freaking day she was like, "Do you want to hang out?" And I was kind of thinking, No I don’t. I didn't really want that again.
Brianne: So anyways, we went on our first date on Valentine's Day.
Officially a date at this point?
Ashton: Yeah, basically after five months I decided it didn’t seem so bad, and Brianne seemed quite a bit different. She was the one who always wanted to go do cool things.
Did Valentine's Day force your hand?
Ashton: That's a good question. I don't really know what I was thinking. After five months of going down the this-is-getting-pretty-serious path, I knew that it would be weird not to ask her. And I wanted to, so I thought, yeah, it's a good time.
Being both training partners and life partners, how do you strike that work-life balance?
Brianne: I almost feel like it's been all about track the last couple years. We have a work life, meaning track, and a personal life, and it's mostly work, work, work, work. Everything revolves around track. We won't go on a date or go to a movie or dinner because we're too tired, and we need to go to sleep at 10.
Ashton: We did once this year.
Go on a date?
Ashton: She took me to Wicked in New York.
Brianne: But we had to force that, you know? I had to say, come on, let's just go, we’re going to get to sleep in tomorrow… Next year, we have to start putting eggs in other baskets.
Ashton: Maybe I've already started. We're at different stages. I think people follow what's most interesting, and because I've been through the Olympics already and accomplished what I wanted, it got a little less interesting, maybe one or two percent. I know when I get there I'll be like, man, this is cool. But I'm getting pulled a little bit by other things.
Brianne: Yeah, Ashton sometimes gets consumed by what he’s going to do after track. And I couldn't be bothered. I'm just like, whatever, I have other things to worry about. I'm in Ashton's 2012 mode.
Ashton: There's a line from a book I remember, about how when you're first learning to play the piano, you really have to focus on the keys and which ones to hit. And then by the time you're fluent, you can hold a conversation and play a classical piece. I think it’s the same as an athlete. As you get older and gain more experience, you’re able to do multiple things. You don't necessarily have to focus so hard on your performance in order to have a good one.
So what's the goal for Rio?
Ashton: Well, I still want to win. I always try to do better than I have before, so I think it would be good to break the world record.
Is there a point total you've set for yourself?
Ashton: No, no.
Down the road, when you're both done competing, do you think you'll just hang up the spikes? Or will you be jogging around high school tracks with people like me?
Ashton: We’ve talked about it.
Brianne: We’ll go cold turkey.
Ashton: Yeah, we'll hang up the spikes. I might go out and throw discus every once and awhile. Women's disc, though.
Brianne: We talked about wanting to move some place where you can ski, snowshoe, cross-country ski, and snowboard all winter, and then do something completely different in the summer, like bike, or white water raft, or whatever.
So are you just going to move to Bend (Eaton’s home town, in the Oregon Cascades)?
Brianne: We need to live somewhere like that, you know? We're not the kind of people who would want to run every day as exercise. And I think once we're ready to be done with track, it would be too painful to half train. Either we do it, or we don't.