After splitting with Ashton's father, Roslyn took her son to live with her family in La Pine, a town of about 5,700 in central Oregon. They stayed until Ashton reached fifth grade. "At that point," says Roslyn, "Ashton was showing some potential in athletics. I wanted to give him more of an opportunity." They moved 30 miles north to the larger city of Bend.
Always Roslyn emphasized finding strong male role models for her son, men who reminded her of her father, James Eaton, who played running back at Michigan State. One of those men was Tate Metcalf, track coach at Mountain View High in Bend, who came across the Eatons during their first summer in town, when Ashton was participating in Metcalf's summer track program. "You could see he was going to be a complete stud," says Metcalf. "He was very close to his mother, and she wanted to do everything right for him."
Eaton played football and wrestled at Mountain View. On the track he won the state championship in the 400 meters (he gave the medal to Metcalf "as if he knew there would be more," says the coach) and the long jump as a senior. But recruiting was sparse. Eaton considered Division III football, but one day in the spring of his senior year Metcalf stopped him outside the high school locker room and said, "How would you like to try the decathlon?"
Eaton said, "Sure." Then, after a long pause, "What's the decathlon?"
Metcalf worked on selling Eaton to recruiters, even though Eaton had done none of the throws—shot put, discus, javelin—and had never pole-vaulted. Oregon assistant Dan Steele was the one coach willing to take a chance: He came to a meet in Salem, watched Eaton long-jump and run, and soon afterward offered him a partial scholarship as a decathlete. It was an exciting time to be a Duck; Vin Lananna was just taking over as director, and distance runner Galen Rupp was leading a rebirth of the program Prefontaine made famous.
Eaton had much to learn, but it came quickly. Steele has posted a video on YouTube showing Eaton comically pole-vaulting 10'6" as an Oregon freshman, clinging to the pole and then awkwardly somersaulting over the bar. But in the second part of the clip, from the 2008 Olympic trials just 17 months later, Eaton clears 16'9", with sound technique. "He doesn't have a lot of the personal demons most alpha-male college athletes have," says Steele, now the coach at Northern Iowa. "He didn't chase girls until 3 a.m., he didn't get drunk every weekend, he didn't skip classes. A lot of talented guys sabotage themselves with bad behavior. Ashton never did that."
Eaton's contribution to Oregon would be three national titles in the decathlon. (One of its contributions to him is that it's where he met heptathlete Brianne Theisen; they will be married in 2013.) He started with a small scholarship, and Steele says every time he tried to increase Eaton's money, Ashton and his mother would ask, "Are you sure?" Eaton's personal record has climbed steadily, by 967, 119, 216 and 272 points, respectively, in the last four years. "And he never gets injured," says Pappas.
The top stand in London beckons. "It's important not to make the gold medal bigger than it is," says Eaton. "But nobody ever says that about things that aren't big. There's an edge in the air this year. I can feel it."
On the patio of an Austin Tex-Mex restaurant, Trey Hardee recommends the stuffed avocado. He is sitting in a booth next to his longtime girlfriend, Chelsea Johnson, the pole vault silver medalist at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. Hardee has an easy confidence that seems natural but in truth has been hard won.
His goal at Vestavia Hills High near Birmingham was to be a basketball star, but he was cut from the team as a junior, one day before the start of the season. The 6'5" Hardee threw his energies into track—he was a pole vaulter—and earned a scholarship to Mississippi State. But in 2003, after his freshman year, the school deemphasized track and field by dropping its indoor program, and his coach, assistant Keith Powell, left a year later.