Xander Steele may have been the person least surprised by Ashton Eaton’s world record earlier this summer.
Eaton broke the decathlon world record when he scored 9,039 points at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials on June 23.
Attentively following Eaton’s world-record pursuit was the Steele family in Cedar Falls, Iowa, especially Xander and his dad Dan, an EIU Hall of Fame track athlete.
“(Xander) always saw Ashton as a super hero,” Dan says of his 8-year-old son. “Ashton breaking a world record is exciting for him, but he always saw him that way anyways.”
Dan just finished his third year as Northern Iowa head track and field coach, but his previous job was Oregon Associate Director of Track and Field. It was during Steele’s seven years in Eugene, Ore., that he recruited and coached Eaton and Canadian Olympic heptathlete Brianne Theisen.
Eaton and Theisen are the first Olympic athletes that Steele has coached.
“I don’t really look at it that I’ve coached some Olympians,” says Steele, a 1992 EIU graduate. “I have a special relationship with all the kids that I work with. The better ones, I get to do more exciting things and get to spend more time with them, so you generally have a better relationship. But at some point, you start looking at them almost like they’re your kids. You want them to be as good as can be. You want their goals to be achieved. When they fail, it hurts you in the same way it hurts a parent seeing their kid strike out in Little League. You just want it so much for them. You know that this is a dream and something that’s attainable.”
Theisen’s heptathlon competition took place Friday and Saturday.
Eaton gets started Wednesday and will do 10 events in two days wrapping up Thursday.
Now that Eaton holds the decathlon world record, he is the favorite to win a gold medal in London.
“I’m going to be nervous for him just ‘cause I want him to be successful so badly,” Steele says. “The good news is he doesn’t have to set a world record to win a gold medal. He’s not going into it thinking he needs to set a world record. He needs 10 good events, and really, there is no one that can beat him if he does that.”
Steele has stayed in touch with both Eaton and Theisen, who are engaged to be married after the Olympics.
He talked to the pair between the trials and the Olympics.
Eaton was still in awe of setting the world record at that point.
“He said that he didn’t know how to feel about it because he knows that there is still so much he has to learn about the events,” Steele says. “He looks at all the great American decathletes that have been competing at a high level. He feels at the age of 24 he’s still not worthy of being the world record holder, so it’s hard to wrap his brain around that he just did it.”
Steele was Eaton’s coach for Eaton’s first three years at Oregon, and the constant for Eaton has always been that he exceeds Steele’s expectations.
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“We had no idea that he was sitting on such untapped potential,” Steele said of Eaton for the article “Can a Runner be the World’s Greatest Athlete?” in Runner’s World magazine. “I’ve never seen anybody get that good, that fast.”
Steele reiterated that sentiment in his recent interview with the JG-TC.
“I knew that Ashton had talent. I just didn’t think he was going to break a world record this soon in his career because he is still pretty new to the event,” Steele says. “But he’s the best kind of kid that you’ll ever see. He’s the kind of kid you want out there representing the United States. He’s a role model worthy of the accolades. He is one of those great sports figures that is not going to disappoint you down the road.”
Eaton showed his qualities as a role model at Oregon when he made Xander Steele his biggest fan.
“He knew Ashton even before Ashton was a star,” Dan says of Xander, the oldest of Dan and Dusky’s three kids. “When he was 3 years old, Ashton was a freshman. They had a special bond.”
Dan says that Ashton’s influence is a big reason that Xander “loves track.”
But it was not just Xander that developed a special bond with the current decathlon world record holder.
“I look at him almost like a son,” Dan says. “Just to watch him represent the United States is such a thrill. If he can pull off a gold medal, that will be one of the greatest thrills of my coaching career. Even though I’m not coaching him right now, I still feel very close to him.”
There were plenty of special moments during the three years Steele coached Eaton. It was highlighted by Eaton winning the 2008 and 2009 NCAA decathlon titles — Eaton added an NCAA decathlon title in 2010 as a senior. Theisen also captured an NCAA heptathlon title in 2009 during Steele’s final year at Oregon, which was the first time in NCAA history that both multi-event athletes came from the same school.
Coaching those NCAA champions came more than 15 years after Steele won the NCAA 400-hurdle title at EIU in 1992.
Steele could not make the trip to London, but he said for both Theisen’s heptathlon and Eaton’s decathlon that he plans “to see every second of it” by watching online.
He hopes both athletes make it on the medal stand, which is an experience Steele had when he won an Olympic bronze medal in the four-man bobsled at the 2002 Salt Lake City winter games.
Steele has bigger hopes than just a medal for both his former athletes.
“I’m so happy that they’re successful,” Steele says. “It wouldn’t matter if they had made the Olympic team or not. The point for me is, ‘Are they realizing their potential?’ and do they get to walk away some day knowing, ‘That’s as good as I was.’”
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