Saturday, January 14, 2017

V 7 N. 3 Ashton Eaton and Harry Marra

Athlete and Coach:  

An Appreciation of Ashton Eaton and Harry Marra

by Jon Hendershott

(All photos supplied by Jon Hendershott)

     It was the perfect storm:  supremely talented athlete meets ultra-experienced coach.  Once their work together began to bear fruit, the multi-events would never be the same.
Harry Marra, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, Ashton Eaton, and Jon Hendershott

     Ashton Eaton was the athlete, just beginning his third season at the University of Oregon in the fall of 2009.  Harry Marra had just been hired by then-head coach Vin Lananna to work specifically in developing the obvious talents of emerging decathlete Eaton--as well as the second-year heptathlete from Canada, Brianne Theisen.

     The connections that formed virtually from the beginning between the coach and both athletes would result in world-class performances, championship medals plus Eaton remaking records in the men's multis, indoors and out.  And Theisen would eventually become Eaton's wife as well as a world-class seven-eventer in her own right.

     Now, after Ashton's two Olympic 10-event titles, two decathlon World Records and three indoor heptathlon bests, two World Champs deca wins, three World Indoor heptathlon victories and a total of five NCAA triumphs (three decathlon, two heptathlon), both Eatons announced their retirements on January 4.

     Brianne tallied five NCAA titles, two outdoor Worlds heptathlon silver medals and a pair of World  Indoor pentathlon awards, including the 2016 gold medal.

     Eaton himself headed west across the Cascades to Eugene out of Mountain View High School in Bend, in central Oregon.  He had been directed as a high schooler by Tate Metcalf and had won state sprint and long jump titles.

     Oregon's then-assistant coach Dan Steele--8th placer in the '99 Worlds 10-eventer with  his 8130-point PR--recruited Eaton and felt all along he could make an impact as a decathlete.  Steele directed him to the 2009 NCAA Indoor heptathlon win and a defense of his outdoor decathlon title.  Then Steele was hired as head coach at Northern Iowa and Lananna had to find a knowledgeable, experienced coach for his obviously diamond-in-the-rough talent.

     So he called Marra for advice.  Marra had earned his Masters in physical education from Syracuse and had coached at San Francisco State University in the 1980s, as well as with the VISA Decathlon team.  He was a 6524-point scorer in the mid-1970s while training in the then-hotbed of U.S. decathloning, Santa Barbara.

     Even though he measured just 5'6" and 140 lbs (168cm/64kg) then, Marra was known as a tenacious competitor, but also a voracious reader and student of the sport.  He constantly asked questions, especially of renowned coach Sam Adams, as well as the athletes training in Santa Barbara at the time.  Marra just couldn't soak up  enough technical knowledge about events in general and the decathlon in particular.

     When Lannana sought his advice about coaches, Marra and his wife Madeline lived in San Luis Obispo, just north of Santa Barbara.  With his wide knowledge of the decathlon and its coaches, Marra directed Lannanna toward various candidates.

     But Lananna once recalled, "None of the coaches Harry recommended could take a job at Oregon.  Suddenly, I thought, 'Why am I asking other people?  Harry knows as much, or more, than any of them.'  So I offered Harry the job.   I asked him, 'Can you keep developing Ashton, and eventually Brianne, so they win more NCAA titles?'  He said, 'Sure, I can do that.'"

     While he admitted, "I just loved California," the prospect of a university coaching job--especially with the storied program at Oregon--won over Marra.  So he and Madeline left their large home in SLO to move to a small apartment in Eugene.

     On November 3, 2009, Marra began coaching Eaton and Theisen--and , yes, the rest is history.  As in, just four months after they began working together, Eaton won the NCAA Indoor heptathlon--with a World Record 6499-point score.  And Brianne won her first of three straight NCAA Indoor pentathlons.

     Marra knew immediately that he would work with two exceptional athletes, and people.  He said,  "The thing with the multis, in all the variations, is that life needs to revolve around the event.  It can't be vice versa or you won't be successful.

     "From the beginning, it was clear that Ash and Bri were very mature kids, on all levels.  Athletically, they ate, drank and slept the multis.  They also were endless readers with curiosity about the world in all aspects.
Marra shows desired shot form to the athletes.
     "In the multis, an athlete has to be excited to accept challenges--but you also have to know and accept that you won't get the desired outcome right away.  It's a long, long process and an athlete has to be ready to continually accept challenges.

     "A multi-eventer needs to have an attitude of coming  back from failure.  You're going to fail in practice more than you're going to succeed.  Ash is the type of athlete who might have a very good high jump practice one day.  But it still wasn't quite what he wanted.

     "Damn good, but he was still ticked off about it. 'Aw, I didn't like that,' he would say.  And that's a great attitude to have.

     'But you also have to be sensible.  You can't expect to be good in the decathlon tomorrow.  You can be better than you were yesterday, but you have to stick with it for a number of years.  I try to teach safe mechanics because I want every  athlete I coach to be 100% healthy going to the starting line for any competition."

     It didn't take long for the athletes to connect totally with their coach.  Only about three weeks after they began working together, Eaton approached Marra and said, "Coach, for me, less is more."  Marra recalled, "He meant that training didn't have to be hammer-hammer-hammer every session.  He felt fresher not doing that and could keep moving forward."
Marra and Eaton compare notes on their training observations

     "So we kept our training short and sharp.  I learned long ago that you listen to the body.  When it's time to go, you go.  When it's time to rest, you rest.  The body will tell you."

     But Eaton added, "We went through a lot of different scenarios in our careers, but I always knew that Harry knew where we were and where we should end up.  He knows and could communicate the things an athlete needed to do to reach a certain goal.  Bri and I might get frustrated with something, but he would say, 'It will come.'"
Marra and Eaton compare notes on their training observations.

     Marra replied, "No decathlete or heptathlete in history has not dealt with frustration.  Ashton was so good because he could deal very well with chaos--and the decathlon is chaos."

     Those lines of communication remained open throughout their careers.  After Brianne placed 10th in the 2012 London Olympic heptathlon--short of all of their expectations--she told Marra,  "Harry, I'm not in this to place 10th.  I never want to do that again.  I want to be on the medal podium from now on."

     So Marra totally redesigned her training and the next spring she won the prestigious heptathlon staged annually in Goetzis, Austria.  Later that season, Theisen won the heptathlon silver medal at the '13 Moscow World Championships  She would win the Commonwealth Games  7-eventer in '14 and ultimately the '16 World Indoor pentathlon and the Rio Olympic heptathlon bronze medallion.
Eaton doing pole vault run-ups while Brianne  Theissen checks his step.

     Brianne said, "Harry just loves to coach and work with athletes."  Marra added, "I take coaching very seriously, regardless if an athlete is trying to win a junior high school championship or the Olympic title.

     "An athlete puts his or her life into the coach's hands.  So you have to take that responsibility seriously and say, 'I'm going to do the absolute best I can to see that this athlete becomes the very best he or she can be.'"

     Marra also believes,  "The coach can't be a crutch for the athlete.  Many athletes will do an event, then immediately look to the coach for feedback.  I want the athletes to be able to analyze things on their own.  They write down every aspect of their workout:  how they felt; what they did that they liked, or didn't like; every detail.   Then we can compare notes.

     "That's because the athlete and coach always should be continually learning.  You have to be confident in what you know--but you have to realize that you don't know everything."

     And there could be times of scary lessons.  On an early spring day in 2013, the athletes and their coach were training in Santa Barbara, logging a six-week bloc of work prepping for the World Championships season to come.  While training with the javelin,  Ashton had gone out to the far left of the landing area at Westmont College to retrieve his spear.
The trio doing javelin training --just before the "near-miss" incident.

     Brianne took her own throw, but instead of her usual to-the-right style, she pulled the javelin to the left--and it bore down on Ashton, who didn't know it was coming.  Brianne and Marra screamed warnings and the ultra-athletic Ashton arched his back to the left as the spear whizzed by his head.
Ashton reassures Brianne that he is OK after the javelin near-miss.

     "Whoa," he said later, "that was close.  I saw this flash of purple go right under my nose."  That was the handle of Brianne's javelin.  She immediately ran to him and they embraced, him smiling to reassure her that he was fine.  But that close call certainly went into the training logs--no doubt in the "near-miss" column.

     It was just one more unique happening in their unique relationship.  Yet while the athletes won major championship medals for their efforts, his peers honored Marra with the Coach of the Year awards from USA Track & Field in 2012 and the IAAF just this past November.

     He said, "I said after the USATF award, but it holds for any award I have received, that I owe the honor to every coach in the room.  I have tried to listen and learn from every coach I have ever met.  Then I try to transmit that knowledge to the athlete.

     "But I'm also a competitive guy and I have tried to teach that competitiveness to athletes.  I have been a teacher first and that's what has fired me up my whole career."

     Now,  the sport will be without the unique talents of all three.  Their lives will change markedly with the athletes' retirements.  Ashton and Brianne are taking their time finding new challenges in life to devote their energies toward.  Marra says he wants to stay with coaching, but in a much-scaled back fashion and perhaps working at directing younger athletes.

      In announcing his retirement, the always-thoughtful and introspective Eaton said,  "I gave everything I had to the decathlon.  I did all I could.  Thank you for making it the best time of my life.

     "I'm deciding what to do next.  Other interests of mine are education, transportation infrastructure and energy."

     Then, in a tease--or was it?--Eaton gave an indication that the world certainly has not heard the last from him, by far.  He concluded, "Being the first person on Mars would be cool."
The author Jon Hendershott with Coach Harry Marra (left)

(Jon Hendershott has followed track and field for 60 years.  For 48 of those seasons, he was a writer and editor at Track & Field News.  He has covered 9 Olympics, 13  outdoor World Championships, 3 World Indoor Championships and the World Relays, as well as dozens of NCAA and USA Championships.  He has twice won track Journalist of the Year awards presented by the Track & Field Writers of America.  An Oregon native, he is now retired and lives in Salem, Oregon, and is eagerly awaiting the start of his 61st year following the sport.)

Comment from Bill Schnier, U. of Cincinnati track coach (ret'd.)

Jon's article is right on point, devoid of glitz, yet full of the personal story which this topic deserves.  Great addition.

Comment from Don Betowski:
Hi George,
I enjoyed the story about Ashton, Bri, and Harry.  I was in Santa Barbara in the '70s doing research at UCSB, but also training at the track, usually doing interval training at noon.  I got to know several of the decathletes including Harry.  I remember Harry telling me he was the shortest decathlete, who scored over x number of points.

Another great runner has died of Parkinson's Disease.  Dr. Jack Reilly and Richard Greene were joined in the fact that they were very good milers in the early '60s, as both graduated from college in 1963, Richard from Western Michigan and Jack from Georgetown (where he was my resident adviser one year at Georgetown).  Richard had run a 4:06 mile, Jack a 4:01.  Perhaps Jack's most famous run was his anchor relay leg at the 1962 Millrose Games, the same meet where John Uelses broke the 16 foot pole vault barrier.  You can view Jack's anchor here: 

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