OREGON - Four years ago, 23-year-old Ashton Eaton learned something crucial at the 2011 World Track & Field Championships in Daegu, South Korea.
Eaton put forth a valiant effort in that decathlon, but he finished second behind two-time world gold medalist Trey Hardee.
Afterward, Eaton admitted that he struggled mentally throughout the competition, even bringing up the term Zehnkampf - German for "ten struggles" - to describe how he felt in his first closely-contested battle for decathlon gold at the world level.
In contrast to Eaton's anguish at falling short, his Oregon Track Club Elite coach, Harry Marra, could not have been happier.
"I always want to see him win and do well, but (taking second) will serve him better than winning," Marra said in 2011. " . . . Because you always have to go through a hard time. I am tickled pink - it will help him."
Did it ever.
Eaton hasn't lost a decathlon since.
His next ten-eventer after Daegu was at the 2012 Olympic Trials in Eugene, where he not only won, but also set a world record of 9,039, breaking Roman Sebrle's 2001 record of 9,026.
Then Eaton went on to win, in succession, the 2012 Olympic gold in London, the 2013 world gold in Moscow, and, last week, the 2015 world gold in Beijing. The 27-year-old Central Oregon native is now on a decathlon winning streak that only the likes of Daley Thompson and Dan O'Brien have ever mustered. In addition, he also improved his world record by six points to 9,045.
Just minutes removed from his victory lap in Beijing, Eaton was already being asked about the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and how many more points he might add to his decathlon record in Brazil.
"I don't know," Eaton said, "but you can bet your ass, I am going to try to get more."
At this point, Eaton looks nearly untouchable in a decathlon, assuming he is motivated and healthy. In fact, staying hungry and injury-free will be the key for his continued success into his late-20's and beyond. Many previous decathlon champions have seen their performances fall off dramatically around 28-30 years of age. Eaton will be 28 next summer.
After Hardee's victory in the 2011 World Championships, he has made it to the 2013 and 2015 world championships, but has been unable to finish either one due to injuries. Bryan Clay, then 28, won gold in the 2008 Olympic decathlon, but never made another U.S. Olympic or world outdoor squad. Great Britain's Thompson hit his peak at age 26, winning his second Olympic gold in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Another Oregonian, Tom Pappas, was 27 when he won the 2003 world title, but Pappas struggled with injuries and never won a major title after that.
However, two of the greatest all-time decathletes, Dan O'Brien of the U.S. and Roman Sebrle of the Czech Republic, both won major titles after turning 30. O'Brien won the 1996 Olympic gold medal - the last of his four major titles - when he was 30. Sebrle, who held the world record that Eaton broke in 2012, won the 2007 World Championship decathlon at the ripe old age of 32.
Eaton has been relatively healthy throughout his track and field career, both at the University of Oregon and as a professional with OTC Elite. He did have hamstring issues in 2013, which hampered his high jumping in Moscow that year. And he suffered a minor back sprain in practice this spring, keeping him out of the Hypo Meeting in Gotzis, Austria, a major early-season decathlon he had planned to use as a tune-up for worlds. But, he has not had to deal with season-ending injuries, or major surgeries.
Reducing injury risks and physical decline was likely what steered Eaton into taking 2014 off from the rigors of the decathlon. He and Marra decided that it would be best to focus on running the 400 meter intermediate hurdles during a year in which there was no major international title on the line. It might add to his longevity, they reasoned, and the challenge of the intermediate hurdles would be a nice change of pace.
The experiment worked beautifully.
Despite the fact that he had never competed in the 400 hurdles at an elite level, Eaton ended the year ranked number two in the U.S. and number six in the world in that event. He also noted that the experience helped him improve his decathlon 400 significantly this year. Eaton smashed Bill Toomey's 47-year-old decathlon 400 record by running 45 flat in Beijing, a stunning performance that propelled him into world record territory.
As successful as his foray into the 400 hurdles was, Eaton said it was good to get back to the decathlon. He especially missed the special camaraderie that decathletes share.
"When I got here I (to Beijing), I realized what I didn't have last year," Eaton said. "I missed it and I was really trying to enjoy it here. I was very relaxed and having a lot of fun talking with the guys because we share things. (My athletic career) won't last forever. So I was just taking advantage of that and I'm glad I did."
Eaton was emotional, too, when he talked about the sacrifices he and his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton, who won silver in Beijing in the heptathlon, have to make to train and compete at a high level. He was happy his mother, Roz Eaton, and other family members were there in Beijing.
"We choose to not do certain things in life to have these experiences, you know. And our family understands that. We don't see them a lot. We don't see our friends a lot. It's tough on a person. We understand it's temporary, which is nice to know. But it's still hard. For them (family) to be able to see why we do that, I think is special."
If he needs a nudge to stay hungry and keep his competitive edge, Eaton may get it from Brianne. She is every bit the tough-as-nails competitor that he is, but she has not yet taken home the gold medal in an Olympic or world heptathlon, and dearly wants one.
One of the favorites going in, Theisen-Eaton got off to a rocky start in Beijing, but battled back in the last four events. With only long-shot chance to catch leader Jessica Ennis-Hill as they entered the final event, Theisen-Eaton left it all on the track. She went hard from the gun in the 800 to create separation and score enough points to overtake Ennis-Hill. It didn't happen, but her fighting spirit matched the effort her husband gave in his 1500 to take down the record.
We can expect to see that same go-for-broke effort next summer in Rio from the pair, as Brianne goes for her first gold, and Ashton goes for the title, "Greatest of All Time."