Second place won’t do for Canada’s top heptathlete
Brianne Theisen-Eaton knows the feeling of being second-best. She plans to change that in Rio.
FRANK GUNN / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton starts her heptathlon training Monday, and doesn’t plan on settling for anything less than gold at next year’s Rio Olympics.
Brianne Theisen-Eaton sometimes dreads small talk with strangers, especially when the conversation turns to what she does for a living.
It’s not that the 26-year-old athlete from small-town Saskatchewan isn’t friendly. She is.
It’s not that she doesn’t love her job. She does.
But she’s a heptathlete and, more times than not, that elicits blank looks and annoying questions.
“So, you do the shooting and the horse riding?” she says, repeating a common query.
“It gets frustrating. You put in so much work and nobody really knows what you do. I can’t blame people for that, it’s just unfortunate that that’s the state of track and field in North America.”
For the record, the horses are in modern pentathlon. Theisen-Eaton — the Canadian record holder and a favourite for an Olympic medal in Rio — runs (100-metre hurdles, 200 and 800 metres), jumps (high jump and long jump), and throws (shot put and javelin). Training for her gruelling 10-month season on the road to the Olympics begins Monday.
It’s a difficult event, and not just to explain to the uninitiated.
“The multi-event is really an exercise in failure,” says Harry Marra, Theisen-Eaton’s coach.
“You fail more than succeed every day in practice so you have to be somebody who isn’t going to get so far down in the dumps after stinking it up in the shot put or high jump that you can keep coming back,” he says.
“There are a lot of people who can do five or six events but very few people can put seven together in a pressure situation with a gun held to their head.”
Not literally. The gun, which is pointed at targets, is part of modern pentathlon, along with the horses.
With seven events over two days “nothing ever goes perfect,” Theisen-Eaton agrees.
“There’s always one where you’re like, ‘That sucked.’ You learn to deal with that failure,” she says. “Based on the world championships, I’m obviously still learning that.”
She’s talking about winning the silver medal — rather than the gold she was touted for — this past August at the 2015 worlds in Beijing. It was her mental game, she says, that knocked her off the top step of the podium.
“It still eats me alive. I look at the medal and I think, ‘This is a failure.’ ”
Making the Olympic team or just winning a medal might be good enough for some athletes — “I’m not judging,” she says — but it’s not what gets her out of bed in the morning.
Every waking hour of every day of the season is taken up competing in, training for, or thinking about the heptathlon.
It’s all to win Olympic gold in Rio — no other colour will do — in the track and field discipline that few Canadians can picture, let alone understand.
“I’m at the top of my game,” Theisen-Eaton says. “I’m not competing to win silver, I’m competing to win gold.”
Second-best is a feeling that’s already a little too familiar from her training days in Eugene, Oregon.
It’s a little tough to feel you’re the best at anything when your husband and training partner walks around with the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” for being the Olympic decathlon champion. American Ashton Eaton is also the world champion and world record holder in the men’s 10-event discipline.
“Sometimes training with Ashton is difficult because he’s the best athlete in the world and he catches on to things really quick and it makes me feel like I’m falling behind and then I get stressed out.”
At university, where they first dated, his achievements were always a year ahead of hers. At the London Olympics, she was introduced as Ashton Eaton’s fiancée.
“That just ate me up,” she recalls, rolling her eyes at the memory.
“You can’t follow in those footsteps,” she told herself after those Games, “or you’ll always be in the shadow.”
Finally, heading into the 2015 world championships she was just as much the favourite to win as he was. But it turned out that as much as she wanted to win with the world watching, she wasn’t ready to be thought of as the favourite.
“I felt like I was on this pedestal and everyone was trying to claw their way to the top and I’m trying to stay focused and not screw up and not fall off the pedestal and it just totally got to me,” she says.
“It was bad right from the start.”
Mentally, that is. She actually ran a personal best in the first event, the 100-metre hurdles, but she just couldn’t give herself a break from the oppressive desire to do better. And then things really did go off the rails.
Her next event, high jump, was bad — she was well below her regular heights and gave away points to her rivals. That’s where she needed to heed all those lessons from training about overcoming failure and not taking it to the next event.
But she couldn’t seem to do that and in the final event on the first day, the 200-metre sprint, she didn’t have her usual speed.
“That was probably the lowest point in the entire competition. I had a great warm-up, the weather was perfect, I wasn’t hurt, I wasn’t sick, I had a good lane, I honestly thought, ‘I’m going to run good,’ and I ran terrible. I remember asking Harry what happened and he said, ‘I don’t know,’ and that’s the worst thing to hear,” she says.
“My training was going good; there were no indicators. That’s still a question I have: Can your mind mess you that much?”
She’s spent the last two months writing down every thought she’s had about that competition, how she felt and how it affected her. Many people don’t like to be rehash painful memories but she can’t wait to sit down and go through it all with her sports psychologist.
She wants to make sure the fear of failure and pressure to win — it’ll be all the greater at the 2016 Olympics in Rio — never derails her again.
“We will have a comprehensive plan to attack that,” she says.
It’s that attitude that elevates Theisen-Eaton from being just a good athlete to being a real contender for gold, Marra says, thinking back to when he first met her in 2009.
“From an athletic point of view I could see that she could be pretty good but the biggest thing that I saw was her drive and determination,” Marra says.
“This is my 55th year in the sport and I still get fired up because you see a person like Brianne who says, ‘You know what, Coach, I’d like to win at the Olympics.”