Despite having competed over the 110m hurdles three times at the Prefontaine Classic meeting in Oregon, the American combined events superstar, often referred to as the world’s greatest athlete, has never before tasted the unique atmosphere of an IAAF Diamond League event in Europe.
That all changed when he arrived in Oslo for the Bislett Games, the fifth meeting of 2014 and Eaton’s first taste of IAAF Diamond League action outside of his home state.
“I got to the hotel and I just felt the energy. Everybody knows about the games, everybody has their favourite event to watch and there’s a real buzz,” he explains.
Eaton’s enthusiasm even extended to him taking photographs of his breakfast in the athlete hotel for the benefit of his wife, Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen-Eaton, such is the excitement he feels as he embarks on a journey into unknown territory over the 400m hurdles.
It’s a journey that he is undertaking with relish, after feeling fatigued by his efforts in 2013.
“I was very tired mentally and I thought maybe I’ll be able to go to 2017 and then I may have to reevaluate what I can do, because I didn’t know if I can keep doing this for that long,” he recalls.
“Then I thought, ‘I can’t think like this, I’ll need to take a break’ and that was basically the reason behind it. Having a break from decathlon means that I go to practice now and instead of doing something and screwing up and worrying that I have a meet in two weeks and that I need to figure this out - that’s stress – I think ‘ok’ and come back tomorrow.”
The change in approach and the freedom offered by focusing on one event is already paying dividends as Eaton looks towards his long-term combined event goals.
“With the 400m hurdles I never really had a long term goal. That’s the beauty of it. I go to every race and just try to run faster,” he says. “With the decathlon, I have long term goals in Rio and London 2017, so I know what it’s like to have those goals and that pressure, but with this I just show up at the track, do my thing and then go.”
“I knew that I wanted to do something different and so did my coach. The base of our decathlon training is 400m, so I wanted to do something centred around 400m and the newest thing was 400m hurdles. I’d always thought it was a fun event, so I went into it with curiosity, thinking, ‘I wonder what it’d be like to try.’ So I did it in practice a little bit and liked it. I mean I really liked it! That was basically it. There was no formula, it was just, hey, let’s try this.”
While there are aspects of competing a single event that the 26-year-old doesn’t enjoy when compared to the decathlon, the opportunity to compete in IAAF Diamond League meetings is a definite advantage:
“I’ve never been on the Diamond League circuit, just Eugene. Oslo seems like it’s going to be a great meet. For me, this is really awesome for track and field athletes. Without Diamond League, what do we do? We need a circuit that everyone understands and that’s the Diamond League.”
After years of looking on enviously as his teammates have travelled the globe, 2014 has also offered Eaton the chance to sample life on the international circuit.
“Competing keeps you sharp and for me, as a decathlete, you see everyone else doing the circuit and getting to see these countries,” he comments. “Travelling is a great part of track and field. Doing the decathlon, you know that’s not going to be me. You go to two places and that’s it. Now I get to see this other world. I would love to do more Diamond Leagues.”
So, while the decathlon retains is place close to Eaton’s heart, the 400m hurdles and the IAAF Diamond League are keeping the world champion fresh as he looks towards the challenges ahead in Beijing, Rio and London.
“In a way I’m sad that this is going to be over, but I’m also looking forward to going back to decathlon.”
In the meantime, track and field fans will be treated to one of the all-time greats enjoying his sport and entertaining crowds in a whole new set of venues.
Dean Hardman for the IAAF Diamond League