It would take something truly special from rising U.S. decathlon star Ashton Eaton to overshadow the most shocking disqualification in American decathlon trials since the summer of "Dan and Dave." But Eaton proved capable of delivering that something special--and then some.
Eaton ran a personal-best 4:14.49 in the 1500 meters -- the 10th and final decathlon event -- to finish with 9,039 points at the U.S. Olympic Trials and break Czech Roman Sebrle's 2001 world record in the decathlon. One of the first people on the track to congratulate Eaton was Dan O'Brien, whose 20-year-old American record of 8,891 points Eaton shattered with relative ease.
The 24-year-old Oregon native is only the second athlete -- after Sebrle -- to crack the 9,000-point barrier and becomes a firm favorite to be crowned the "world's greatest athlete" at the London Games.
"Give me words," Eaton told an NBC interviewer immediately following the conclusion of the 1500. "I can't describe how this feels."
Eaton entered the 1500 needing a time of 4:16.37 to break Sebrle's record, a little more than 2.5 seconds better than his personal best. But after his previous performance over the two days of competition, it wasn't a shock to see Eaton pull it off--he had already set a pair of world decathlete records in the 100-meter dash and long jump on Day 1, and had won six of the first nine events.
“It's unbelievable," said defending Olympic gold medalist Bryan Clay. "I don't know if anyone has matured in the event as quickly as he did. It's mind-boggling.”
If Eaton's record was a cause for celebration at USA Track and Field, there was reason for disappointment as well. Eaton will be joined at the Games by Trials runner-up and reigning world champion Trey Hardee, but not Clay, the third member of a trio many believed could sweep the podium in London.
Clay knocked over a hurdle with his hand in the 110-meter hurdles early Saturday and was disqualified--giving him zero points for the event and digging him a hole far too deep to climb out of and into the Olympic qualification places. (Clay faulting on all three of his throws in the discus, giving him a second zero, made things officially official.)
Despite being eliminated, Clay finished the competition, even finishing second in the javelin.
"It was a rough day for me," Clay told USATF.org. "As much as I didn't want to [finish], there was no other option. I want to be the best role model, and the worst thing you can do as a role model is quit."
With third-place finisher Gray Horn having failed to make the Olympic "A" standard for points, the U.S. will enter only two athletes -- Eaton and Hardee -- in the Olympic decathlon.
Clay's stunning disqualification was reminiscent of O'Brien's failure to make his initial pole vault height in 1992, ruling him out of the Barcelona games 20 years ago and infamously short-circuiting Reebok's "Dan and Dave" promotional campaign. But O'Brien wasn't the only echo of the U.S.'s decathlon past in attendance--organizers had brought back all six living American gold medalists to be honored, including 1976 hero (and for reality TV fans, Kardashian scion) Bruce Jenner.
2012 also happens to be the 100th anniversary of the decathlon's debut at the Olympics. With that much history in the air at Eugene, perhaps it was inevitable that the Hayward Field crowd was treated to some history themselves--history that Eaton will happily relive forever, and history that Clay would prefer to forget as soon as possible.