Eugene, Ore. erupted Saturday afternoon.
There’s a reason they call it Track Town, USA.
The capacity crowd of 21,000 at Hayward Field for the US Olympic Track and Field Trials stood and roared as one. But the roar remained loudest, noticeably louder, as it pulled one figure around the track.
Of course, it helped that the figure was one of their own.
Ashton Eaton had competed here for the University of Oregon. He won three straight NCAA decathlon championships beginning in 2008. He won the US championship last year, and went on to finish second at the World Championships.
But he had finished fifth at the 2008 US Olympic trials, so this was his chance to become an Olympian for the first time.
And Eaton was making the most of it.
He began the competition on Friday morning with a 10.21 time in the 100 meters. Fast? Only the fastest ever run in a decathlon.
He followed that with a long jump of 27 feet — the best long jump ever recorded in a decathlon.
Quite a start. But you can’t rest on your laurels in the decathlon; there’s always another event. And Eaton kept it going. He didn’t score well on the throws (shot put, discus and javelin) but he put up huge numbers in the 400, hurdles and pole vault.
All of which meant that when he stood on the line for the start of the final event, the 1500 meters, he needed to run a 4:16 — two seconds better than his personal best — to set a new world record.
That’s why the knowledgeable crowd urged him around the track with the same fervor reserved for track’s legends. And Eaton felt it.
“The last 600 meters, I was like, not running with my own legs!” he told Luke Cyphers of espn.com.
“It was incredible. I don’t care what anyone says, there is magic here. And I felt it for 600 meters!”
So did his competitors. The two best milers in the field, Curtis Beach and Joe Detmer, slowed to a jog down the homestretch, enabling Eaton to hit the tape first.
The clock read 4:14.48. He had broken Roman Sebrle’s 2001 world record by 13 points. Overcome with emotion, Eaton burst into tears, and then shared a lengthy hug with his mom and fiancée.
Eaton must have a sense of history. This being the 100th anniversary of the decathlon, the event’s immortals — past Olympic champions Milt Campbell, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey, Bruce Jenner and Dan O’Brien, as well as heirs of Jim Thorpe — were all on hand for the event.
They witnessed a performance for the ages from an athlete who is only 24 years old. “Not to pump my own tires,” Eaton told Cyphers, “but I feel like I have not maximized yet. I feel like I could still jump higher, run faster.”
He certainly impressed the other Olympic champion on hand at Hayward Field. “The kid’s phenomenal,” Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic champion, told Cyphers.
“There’s just no other way to describe him. I was happy for him. It’s an honor to be part of it.”
Those words also tell you what kind of a person Bryan Clay is. For just a few hours before he uttered those kind words, Clay saw his chance to defend his Olympic title evaporate.
Clay scored well in Friday’s five events, ringing up 4,252 points. That trailed only Eaton (4,728) and defending World Champion Trey Hardee (4,406). Clay was on pace to make the team, completing a trio that Sports Illustrated proclaimed had a chance to sweep the medals in London.
Competing in Saturday’s first event, the 110 meter hurdles, disaster struck. Clay clipped the ninth hurdle with his front foot. He stumbled, lost his balance, pushed down the final hurdle, lost his composure, and strolled across the finish line.
Thinking he would be disqualified for pushing over the last hurdle, Clay messed up his best event, the discus. Only then did he discover that his hurdle race would count.
“It’s the worst feeling ever,” he told Cyphers.
“There’s just no way to explain to people. You train every single day, six, seven days a week, six, seven hours a day. I don’t ever go into the hot tub with my kids during the week, because I can’t have my legs be flat the next day.
“I can’t wrestle with my kids the way they want me to because I’m afraid I might hurt something. Everything — everything — you do gets put into this, and then to have it slip through your fingers …
“You want to bury your head somewhere and go cry. And you can’t.”
So Clay finished the competition. And as he rounded the track for the last time — it would take him 5:09.62 to finish his 1500 meter run — the Oregon fans rose and cheered him almost as lustily as they had Eaton. Track Town, you bet.
“It’s nice to know that people still appreciate what you’ve done,” Clay told Cyphers.
So do his competitors. As Eaton told Cyphers, “It was an honor to compete with Bryan Clay.”