Season 01 : Episode 05
Ashton Eaton is a former 2x Olympic gold medalist and world record holder in the men's decathlon and is approaching life after retirement as ambitiously as he did his sport. Ashton sat down with Erin and Kristin in the San Francisco Bay area where he is working in the Silicon Valley at a tech startup. They get into the making of an Olympic Champion, the thrill of sport, and how he never let his role as an athlete define him. Ashton's wisdom in approaching athlete transition as a true opportunity to pursue his next dream is inspiring, and his energy in everything he pursues is truly remarkable.
You can find Ashton on Twitter @ashtonjeaton.
[3:30] Ashton’s family growing up was just he and his mom in La Pine, Oregon, a small town in the woods. He believes his time spent exploring by himself taught him to introspective and independent. He played his first team sport, baseball, when he was five years old. Baseball was really big in his town, and a lot of the social life in his town growing up revolved around kids playing baseball. When he was playing T-ball, they played next to the minor league field, which really inspired him as a kid.
[6:15] Ashton got into martial arts after he played baseball at seven years old. He was a black belt in Taekwondo by age fourteen.
[6:45] Ashton would watch movies at his grandma’s house every Friday and Saturday night growing up. He was inspired to be the guy fighting for good, based on all of the movies he watched - Top Gun, Ninja Turtles mostly. This stoked his interest in martial arts to become the hero who was fighting the bad guys.
[7:45] Ashton’s Track + Field start: Ashton started his running in cross country, but it became clear very quickly that he was not a long distance runner. His cross country coach saw this too, and encouraged him to start sprinting, rather than long distance.
[8:40] Ashton’s Ted Talk: Aston had a number of mentors growing up, but they were all in different domains of his life. His godfather was a great mentor in many all-around life aspects. In the sports domain he didn’t really have one mentor - all of his coaches were his mentors. Ashton was the ultimate coachable athlete, and he insists that it was because he had really great coaches all along. One of his coaches pushed him hard as a young teenager. He was the first person on the sports front that he really respected, because he felt that the coach respected him enough to push him that hard.
[11:40] The role of coaches in athletes’ lives: Having a coach that believes in you when you are growing up can be important for kids. Ashton thinks it was important that his coach placed a lot of emphasis on the process required in order to win.
[12:35] The connection of martial arts to real life: Ashton thinks the main benefit of martial arts is the mental aspect. From day one in martial arts, you are asked to do things that you do not think you can do. When Ashton was training for his black belt, he had to do the ITC (Intensive Training Course) where they ran across rocks, etc. The whole experience was about learning how to try to do things that you likely can’t do…but trying them anyway.
[15:00] Ashton didn’t really realize the importance of his martial arts training until he got to college. He attributes his body control to martial arts.
[16:00] Ashton’s belief in non-specialization: He believes the benefit of being a non-specializer is by doing varied things, you start to find common themes and then you start to realize that everything is connected. Going into a new field, you can use your past experience as a frame of reference in order to be good at the new thing. For example, javelin and high jump. Fundamentally, the jumping/throwing position of your body is pretty much the exact same. So you can take a high jumper and put a javelin in their hand, and explain what to do.
[20:00] Erin talks about how this concept of non-specialization helped her when she entered the CrossFit world. She found a coach who was able to translate the movements of CrossFit to her rowing stroke, which ended up helping her in both realms.
[21:00] Ashton thinks there are trade-offs in being a specializer versus a generalizer. He thinks that specializers take their sport further.
[22:40] Ashton’s transition out of professional sport: He believes his approach to sport, to seek understanding, is how he has approached his transition.
[24:00] Between 2007 (when Ashton started college) and 2012, Ashton went from not having done the decathlon to having a world record and Gold Medal in it. Ashton wasn’t really popular in high school. He thought he was going to go into the military after high school - he was in the high school ROTC program. Junior year he started to get letters in the mail to play football in college. His mom really pushed college, but he wanted to be a fighter pilot (Top Gun was his favorite movie!).
[27:15] Ashton made it to the State Championships in Track + Field - second and third place as a junior. His coach, Tate Metcalf, was his track and field coach and mentor in high school. One day he brought in a Track and Field Magazine to Ashton and told him that if he could break into the Top 10 list for track and field, he could go to college for the sport. That year Ashton got tenth in the Magazine, and that was it. Senior year, Coach Tate and his high school long jump coach approached him and told him they thought he could go to a Division 1 college and get a scholarship if he tried Decathlon. Ashton had no idea what decathlon was, but he was willing to try it.
[29:45] In 2007 Ashton went to the University of Oregon and majored in Psychology. His biggest regret was not trying other academic subjects in college. He was afraid of not getting good grades. His advice to the younger generation is to try the classes that interest you, even if they’re not going to get good grades.
[31:55] Ashton’s road to becoming a professional athlete: It was not the plan…because he didn’t really have a plan. He just wanted to be a coachable athlete and not let his coach down.
[33:20] In 2008, Ashton was a sophomore in college. He went to the Olympic Trials and placed fifth. He felt he could get top three in four years (which is what you need in order to qualify to go to the Olympics).
[34:05] Ashton never thought about what he was going to do if he didn’t pursue his sport. He said the reason athletes struggle after retiring is because the path in sport is fairly straight forward, you don’t have to struggle to figure out what’s next. You know exactly what you’re doing every day, and you have a schedule and a goal.
[35:00] Kristin asks Ashton if he thinks having a conversation earlier on in an athlete’s career about preparing for retirement would have been helpful in planning from the transition. Ashton doesn’t think it would have been helpful if someone had told him to prepare for retirement earlier on in his athletic career. If someone had approached him and tried to prepare him for retirement, he wouldn’t have understood why it was such a big deal to talk about it. He would leave the conversation without doing anything differently moving forward. He thinks he may have been in a more receptive place in 2016, leading up to his final Olympics.
[37:30] Ashton on his athlete identity: He never has identified as an athlete. To other people, he is “Ashton the Olympian”. He has never attached himself to the title like others have. Instead, he asks himself, “what am I capable of?”. In order to answer that question, he has to test his limits. He likens it to when he was little playing in the woods by himself, testing how far he could jump by moving a stick to his furthest jump. When he couldn’t get the stick to go any further away, he knew he had found his limit. He approaches his transition from sport in the same way.
[40:15] The hardest part after retiring has been being his own coach for how to approach this next phase. When he was an athlete, the limits and goals were very straight forward (time, shots, nets, points, gold medal percentages.) In this phase, he has to create his own metrics and goals, which he believes is the hardest part for athletes. The gold medal is no longer defined.
[42:00] Ashton post-retirement: In 2012, Ashton was 24 and had achieved everything he wanted to do in Decathlon, but still wanted to keep going. In 2014, between his two Olympics, he didn’t compete in decathlon, but did other events. He also started to look around outside of sport, at what else he may be interested in. He thought about what his role in sport and how he contributed to the world as an athlete. Ashton realized he was inspiring other people and his contribution was in bringing entertainment and inspiration to others. It made him feel good to make others feel good.
[45:50] Ashton doesn’t see the work to achieve something big as “sacrifices”, he sees them as “choices”.
[47:00] In 2014, Ashton became very interested in space travel and advancements and its connection to making the world a better place. Engineering seemed to play a prominent role in advancing the world, so he decided that would be his next venture. The next year he broke the indoor heptathlon world record.
[49:00] Ashton had trouble keeping up his motivation at the 2016 Olympics. He had to really push himself and dig really deep to do well. He believes it was good for him to have the experience of fighting through to keep going. During the 2016 Olympics he wanted to quit several times, which he had never experienced before.
[51:15] In 2012, after Brianne, his wife, got 11th place at the Olympics, she walked into their coach’s office and said that she was going to quit unless he thought she had the potential to place higher than 11th. She was willing to do what it would take to medal at the Olympics. So, their coach (Harry Mara) decided to completely change her training approach. She started incorporating psychology, nutrition, and a whole new training approach to being successful at her sport. This was inspiring to Ashton and he wanted to support her.
[52:00] Ashton’s retirement: Ashton knew he wanted to get involved with engineering for sustainable energy and space, because he thought that was how he could help the most people. Software was particularly interesting to him and he realized he wanted to be in Silicon Valley, the hub of tech people who are influencing the future.
[54:20] Ashton and Brianne eventually decided to move to the San Francisco Bay area. They first thought about moving to a remote spot, but he decided he couldn’t do it - he wanted to be more connected. They didn’t know anyone in San Francisco, but he was traveled around the country meeting people. He got a note from Kara Linse-Buckley, and she introduced him to South Park Commons - a community for driven people trying to figure out what to do next. His mission when he got to San Francisco was to start something, but he realized he didn’t have enough knowledge to start something from scratch. He joined a startup, called Ruist, who had just sold their last company. He felt like this was a great place for him to learn.
[57:50] Ashton does not think his transition has been that hard, but he’s had many times where he doesn’t know where he wants to go next, and that is frustrating. He hates the feeling of uncertainty of what is next. One of his core tenets is to be comfortable being uncomfortable. In order to do what is great, it will always require being uncomfortable.
[1:00:45] In retrospect, Ashton would have talked to more people about his ideas for what to do next to get more feedback. He thinks this would have been efficient and helpful to him. That would have resulted in people asking questions and encouraging him to think critically about his skills.
[1:03:00] The importance of networking after sport: Who you know is dramatically important, and is something that athletes should leverage. Building up your network is important. Ashton was frustrated by not having a well defined skillset after sport, which he sees as his biggest barrier.
[1:04:10] Ashton believes athletes should remember that a lot of people in their network really believe in you and want you to do well, and you should use them. To think about it in the reverse- if someone approached you asking for advice and networking help, wouldn’t you want to help them? That’s how other people feel about helping athletes transitioning to what’s next, and athletes should use that support.
[1:05:55] Everybody’s biggest asset is also often their biggest liability. For example, you’re so fast that you injure yourself. Ashton likes to stay home and think and read, but he thinks there’s a more tangible way for him to contribute to society. What he’s learned at his current job is if you gather people with ideas and the same energy to build something, you are likely going to create something great.