Let the Games Begin, Eh

Canadian track stars set to shine at Toronto 2015

Brianne Theisen-Eaton and Ashton Eaton
Brianne Theisen-Eaton and Ashton Eaton. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

A funny thing happened on the way to the Pan Am Games for the world’s marquee couple in track and field. Saskatchewan’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton, arguably the world’s best heptathlete, and her Olympic decathlon champion husband Ashton Eaton, an American, were planning to compete in individual events at Toronto 2015.

Saving their multisport specialties for the world championships later this summer in Beijing, Theisen-Eaton, 26, qualified for Pan Ams in long jump and will run as part of Canada’s 4×400-metre relay team.

Eaton also looked to long jump to join his wife in Toronto. Then the cruel humour of sport intervened.

“The competition in long jump at U.S. nationals was the best it’s been in years and I walked in like I was going to get handed a spot on the team,” Eaton, 27, told IMPACT. “What I got was dead last. It was a sobering reminder that track and field does not play favourites. The lesson was gladly learned, as I have a reinvigorated fire for competition. Unfortunately, a spot on the Pan Am team was the trade-off. The most disappointing part is not being able to share the experience with Brianne.”

It’s not like the couple, who grew up on opposite sides of the Canada-U.S. border, don’t already share a wealth of parallel experiences. They had their first serious conversation at junior Pan Ams in Brazil; they live and train in Eugene, home of their alma mater, the University of Oregon. Go Ducks.

Each are products of small-town upbringing rooted in strong family values. She’s from Humboldt, Sask., a bald-flat prairie town of 5,000 and he was raised as the only black kid by his single mom and grandparents in La Pine, a “redneck, two-blink” truck stop of 1,700 in the Oregon hills.

“I grew up a coloured kid in an extremely white community, a redneck community, but never suffered any negative consequence,” says Eaton, the world record holder in decathlon. “This is where I played every single sport imaginable — baseball with the same kids for seven years, basketball, martial arts. I was extremely active and when I wasn’t playing sports I was out in the sticks. I was never bored.”

Brianne Theisen-Eaton
[/media-credit] Brianne Theisen-Eaton throwing the javelin.
Photo: Matthew Murnaghan

Dirt fields, gravel tracks and hour-long drives to practice. Those rural details make up Theisen-Eaton’s backstory. Yet she’s excited about the prospect of competing in Canada’s largest city and hearing stories of other competitors at the Games.

“I don’t get to compete in Canada a lot and especially not at an event of this calibre,” she says. “Coming here was a no-brainer for me. I think Ashton was doing it because he knows what it means to me. It’s a thank you to my country for what they’ve done. Being from small towns, we both understand the importance of giving back. And whether that’s doing volunteer work in the community or coming back to Canada to compete, it’s a way of saying thank you for your support.”

Theisen-Eaton’s star has been steadily rising since London 2012 where she placed 11th, then told her coach if the podium wasn’t the target, she didn’t want to train or compete. She leapt to a silver medal in the 2013 world championships and won gold at the 2104 Commonwealth Games: more than 300 points ahead of Canadian team rival Jessica Zelinka. Earlier this spring, Theisen-Eaton won the prestigious Gotzis Hypo Meeting in Austria with a new Canadian record of 6,808 points.

Eaton says there is little that can stop his wife’s progress, calling her the best heptathlete the world has seen since American Jackie Joyner-Kersee set the event’s world record of 7,291 points in 1988.

“Brianne’s ability to think about the future and do something now to affect it is very natural,” says Eaton. “It’s what makes her wildly successful. She’s so tough on herself and has the physical ability to handle it. In our house, she is the more focused, more determined one. Anything that doesn’t add to her progress gets cut from the picture.”

Brianne trains every day with Ashton under legendary track coach Harry Marra. She has been working with Canadian Sport Institute nutritionist Trent Stellingwerff for the past six years, gradually altering her body composition to reduce fat and gain muscle. Theisen-Eaton pared six pounds from her 5-foot-9 frame before Gotzis and felt “lighter and more powerful” than ever, competing at 136 pounds for her record-setting competition.

“I would love to be able to do the heptathlon in Toronto, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you look at the bigger picture,” she says. “Instead of just competing against heptathletes, I’m hoping with the crowd and good competition, it can bring me to the next level of performance.”

Theisen-Eaton isn’t the only star on what will be of one of Canada’s strongest track and field teams in any Games. Seven other Canadians have set new records in their specialties this year. They are:

  • Cameron Levins, 10,000M: 27:07.51
  • Natasha Wodak, 10,000M: 31:41.59
  • Andre De Grasse, 200M: 20.03
  • Rachel Seaman, 20K racewalk: 1:29:54
  • Elizabeth Gleadle, javelin: 64.83M
  • Christabel Nettey, long jump: 6.99M
  • Shawnacy Barber, pole vault: 5.91 metres

De Grasse, the 20-year-old from Markham, Ont., has the world’s fastest sprint times this year: a blistering 9.75 second 100 metres and a 19.58 in the 200 metres (both marginally wind-aided) at the NCAA championships this spring; Toronto’s Barber set new Canadian indoor and outdoor pole vault records and Levins, the Commonwealth Games bronze medallist from Black Creek, B.C., set his mark in a Diamond League meet in May, placing fourth in a race won by British Olympic champion Mo Farah.

“The opportunity to compete at an international meet at home in Toronto in front of what will be a fantastic crowd is something that all of us are looking forward to,” says Levins, 26, who will race the 5,000 metres on the last day of competition in Toronto. “I may not have considered doing Pan Ams if it wasn’t at home, but you just don’t get opportunities like this. We are looking to take advantage and show how strong our athletics program is.”

“Andre De Grasse and Shawnacy Barber have been fantastic in the NCAA. I think we have athletes in every discipline that will be exciting to watch and looking to medal in just about every event.”

The Games run July 10-26, then Aug. 7-15 for the Parapan Ams. They are the largest multisport games ever hosted in Canada, with 36 sports in the Pan Ams and 15 in the Parapans. More than 700 Canadians will be among 7,500 Pan Am athletes from 41 countries competing at the Games. They will enter the field of play in sports from archery and athletics to paddling and rowing, cycling and mountain biking, swimming, triathlon, seven team sports and more.

The venues stretch over 350K from the flatwater canoe and rowing facilities in the Niagara region to whitewater facilities in Minden. But the bulk of activity takes place in and around the GTA. Athletics and tennis are at York University, a new velodrome has been built in Milton for cycling and a world-class aquatics centre hosts swimming and diving in Scarborough. The new infrastructure has been cited as key to a future Summer Olympics bid for Toronto.

Team Canada Cycling
[/media-credit] Team Canada will take centre stage at the new Pan Am velodrome in Milton.
Photo: Matthew Murnaghan

Double Olympic medallist Ryan Cochrane leads the swim team while the Canadian women, including Jennifer Abel, Meaghan Benfeito, Rosaline Filion and Pamela Ware, will look to dominate at the diving tank.

Monique Sullivan, a top-5 world ranked cyclist will be one to watch at the new velodrome, as will Canada’s world No. 3 women’s pursuit team.

Theisen-Eaton recounts a story from a recent trip to Austria, where she and her husband watched a young schoolgirl treading lightly on a makeshift 2×4 balance beam in the rain. She would stumble and carry on, stumble and carry on.

“Ashton looked at me and said, ‘That is how Olympic champions are made,’ ” she says. “I love seeing kids with smiles on their faces and showing them it’s possible to be from a town of 5,000 running on a dirt road and one day go to the Olympics.”

Suffice to say, when these Pan Am and Parapan Games are over, you will have witnessed a new generation of Canadian sport stars emerge and countless more youngsters will be inspired to follow their dreams.

And while there are naysayers more concerned about traffic in Toronto than having the rare opportunity to witness world-class talent putting forth their best, consider this: if the world’s top decathlete can’t make the grade, maybe the quality of athlete on display in Toronto will be pretty darn good.

Parapan Am Athletes to Watch:

  • Austin Hinchey, Volleyball
  • Zak Madell, Wheelchair Rugby
  • Janet McLachlan, Basketball
  • Jaye Milley, Cycling
  • Aurelie Rivard, Swimming
  • Becky Richter, Wheelchair Racing