Brianne Theisen Eaton
Season 01 : Episode 02
Brianne Theisen Eaton is a former 2x Olympic Heptathlete Bronze Medalist from Canada, a girlboss in the Silicon Valley and a wonderfully honest human. Brianne sits down with Erin and Kristin to talk about the value of sport in her life, being married to another professional athlete, and how retirement from sport doesn’t always go according to plan. Brianne gives some great insight into what has worked and what has not worked so well during her transition to the next phase of her adult life [Note: do not go to a strip mall gym!].
Brianne’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/briannetheiseneaton/
University of Oregon Track and Field: https://goducks.com/index.aspx?path=track
[1:50] Brianne’s childhood in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, Canada - A very small town, everybody knew each other's business, but it was great because she had so much freedom. Her parents let her go out and make mistakes (and reminded her they would hear about it in the morning!). The community was supportive and she always played sports. In 7th grade she started playing team sports- volleyball, basketball, soccer. Track and field season was the last sport of the season in the school year. Never done it before, but she could tell right away that it was something that came very easily. She was recruited to a club team in a bigger city in Canada and drive over an hour to get to practice.
[4:30] The beginning of training for the heptathlon - After a year of club track, the coach called her dad and said she wasn’t elite or world level at any of the events, but pretty good at everything. He suggested the heptathlon. Brianne was pissed at being underestimated, until the coach told her she had a shot at making the junior world championship team in Morocco. She was in.
[5:53] The value of sport - Everyone in Brianne’s town played sports. If you played sports and were good at sports, then you were in the popular group. Her town rallied around the hockey team. Both of her parents played sports in high school.
[6:54] From a young age Brianne was aggressive and stubborn. Brianne’s younger sister was the polar opposite of her. As kids they played traveling soccer together; Brianne was the type of kid who would come home after losing a game and be angry and in a bad mood - her sister was always upbeat after a game no matter how it went.
[7:47] Erin and Brianne discuss if your birth order has anything to do with whether you become an elite athlete or not.
[9:15] Kristin talks about her own sister, who was also a heptathlete, and how differently they approached the aftermath of competition not going well. Kristin thinks that maybe how you dealt with things going badly in athletics affects how you deal with life after you leave sport.
[10:25] Brianne’s road to the University of Oregon - Brianne liked U of O because it had a good balance of everything she wanted. She felt like, when she was an athlete at Oregon, she wasn’t as serious about the sport as her teammates. She didn’t know much about the history of the school and track and field when she decided to attend, but she quickly realized how historically rooted the track and field culture was there. Attending U of O shaped her athletic career because even at a small track meet, there would be thousands of spectators, just like a college football game.
[12:30] Brianne finished her freshman year of college in 2008, and that summer the Olympic track and field trials for the Beijing Olympics were in Eugene. As she watched the trials and Olympics later that summer, she was inspired. Being around so many teammates who also wanted to go the Olympics influenced her future Olympic ambitions, and she thinks being at the University of Oregon made a big impact on her interest in going to the Olympics.
[14:30] Brianne reflects on being younger and the benefit of not overthinking your decisions. She thinks that is why she continued to pursue professional athletics. She used her gut a lot more when she was younger, she made decisions based on how she felt, rather than writing out a pro and con list. Brianne feels like she overcomplicates things now. For example, moving the Bay Area after retiring was a huge decision for her, and that she sometimes forgets that she can change her mind later if something doesn’t work out.
[16:45] Erin and Brianne talk about becoming really good at something is at least a ten year process. The older you get, the more daunting that time frame seems.
[17:26] Brianne did not know what she would do next after college, if not track and field. Her original plan was to go to school and get a scholarship through athletics, then go into business (her undergrad major). Brianne loved her business classes and was really inspired to start her business. But, plans changed after watching the Olympic trials in 2008. Her last year of college is when she really knew she could become a professional athlete.
[20:00] Brianne and Ashton’s adventures in getting an agent and sponsorship - Ashton graduated and chose an agent in his first year of his professional track and field career. Brianne likens shopping around for a shoe company sponsorship to selling your worth. Ashton signed with Nike in 2010. For better or worse, this affected Brianne’s professional sponsorship path because she and Ashton were married. They were also training at the University of Oregon, a Nike school. Brianne had very little bargaining power to sign with another company unless they left Eugene. As a result, Nike didn’t pay her a salary, just gave her a clothes sponsorship. It all worked out okay, and she has made peace with it.
[23:00] Brianne talks about her own identity being married to Ashton Eaton (2x Olympic Gold Medalist and World Record Holder). They fortunately/unfortunately would achieve great athletic feats at the same time. She would accomplish a huge PR and break school records, and then Ashton would break world records and her accomplishment would get shadowed. Ashton would get invited to events and Brianne felt like she would get invited as an afterthought.
[26:45] She no longer feels the need or the pressure from others to compare herself and her accomplishments to his. She is a badass in her own right. Brianne has had an incredible athletic career- four world championship medals, three silver and one gold, and a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics.
[27:50] Brianne’s retirement from professional sport - Brianne knew after the 2012 Olympics in London, when she got 11th, that she wanted to make a run for the 2016 Olympics. That was her chance to win a medal. She knew that it would likely be her final Olympic run, because she’d be about 28 then, and it’s unlikely after the age of 30 to make it to the podium.
[28:56] In 2015 she felt like there was no way she’d want to retire after the 2016 Olympics, so she and Ashton decided they would do one more year after the Olympics and maintain their sponsorships. The plan was for 2018 to be a down year, and they could retire and walk away from it all. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, she never felt like she was in her final race or event. During the 800m run (an event that all heptathletes hate), she would always ask herself why she was competing because it was such a hard and stressful event. But after each race she’d do the lap around the stadium and love the energy and feeling at the end. When she crossed the line in 2016, she did not have that feeling. She knew she was done. Even though she had just won a bronze medal in that moment, she had no desire to race again. Brianne thought it was just stress and the pressure from competing and and went into a three month break expecting to feel fine afterwards.
[31:32] A month after the 2016 Olympics, Ashton started talking about wanting to be done, to retire from professional sport, and Brianne didn’t want to talk about it. Their coach Harry sent them both a text about starting up training again. Brianne went out for a run and had a gut feeling that she didn’t want to train anymore. She came home, didn’t say anything, let the feeling sink in, and that night at dinner, Ashton said, “I’m done.” Brianne wasn’t shocked that he wanted to be done, because he had been pushing and trying to stay on top for so long. For herself, she had an internal fire to keep going for so long because she hadn’t accomplished her goals (until 2016). Brianne started doing some deeper thinking for two more months, talking to her friends and family, and then finally decided to retire in January 2017. Others immediately asked her how she was going to feel, what she was going to do, how she was going to structure her life.
[35:25] Five days after retiring, Brianne packed up her gym bag and went to a strip mall gym to go to a spin class (which Ashton tried to warn her was a bad idea) and she walked in and remembers thinking, “no no, I’m an Olympic athlete, I shouldn’t be here.” She was used to going to world class facilities with all these athletes lifting and doing amazing inspiring things. She ran out into the strip mall area and cried, and thought she couldn’t do this for the rest of her life. (By the way, she ended up going back in to do the spin class, but didn’t join the gym.)
[38:30] Brianne’s sense of her own athlete identity while she was an athlete - Brianne said a lot of her self identity was wrapped up being an athlete, but she wasn’t the type of person to tell people that she was an elite athlete. She would instead tell people she was self-employed. She felt like she didn’t have to explain to anyone what she did because she was so comfortable in her own identity as an athlete. She loved the community that her athlete life gave her: they all had a purpose, a mission. Brianne found that once she decided to retire, she felt like she needed to start explaining herself and what she was doing to others, instead of just saying “oh, I’m going through a transition phase.”
[41:45] Helpful athlete transition advice: Don’t go to a strip mall gym! Brianne took a year where she didn’t take a job, worked out once or twice a day, and took some certification courses. She started a blog with her recipes and created content for their website (weareeaton.com), which gave her structure to her day. She felt like she had freedom and could take a day off if she wanted. They got a dog! Erin thinks all recovering Olympians should get dogs. The dog gave Brianne a routine that was regimented, which was very helpful because on the days when she woke up without a schedule she struggled, felt like she had no community, no purpose. She summarized this period as creating recipes, blog posts, and training her dog. Her only regret is she wishes she and Ashton had travelled more.
[45:30] The decision to move to San Francisco - Ashton led the decision to come to the Bay Area to pursue tech and startups. Brianne was told by so many people that ‘it would work out’ if she came down there, and it did. She had a consultation with her now boss, and he pitched her his idea. She was caught off guard when he offered her a job. She made sure he knew she didn’t have much work experience, and that she would ask a lot of questions. He appreciated the sentiment but assured her she would do well.
[47:41] The role of movement or exercise in Brianne’s life now - It depends on the day. Brianne said she is lucky because everyone around her at work prioritizes exercise and they do group workouts together frequently. She sometimes ends up cramming workouts in when she doesn’t want to, but as of now she still works out out six days a week.
[48:49] Brianne’s thoughts and feelings on social media - She has never really gotten into social media-it’s always felt like a to-do or work item. She doesn’t feel like what she’s doing now is very interesting, particularly because a lot of her followers are track athletes or enthusiasts. Despite how big a role social media plays in the world now, she doesn’t feel pressure to post more. She feels like a regular person now who doesn’t need to share with the world everything she is doing.
[51:10] Brianne’s final thoughts on how she feels her transition has gone, or is going - Brianne feels lucky because it’s gone well so far. However, when she goes back and hangs out at a track meet or with her athlete community, she starts to miss it. She does not wish she was still competing, but she still misses it. Most of the time she feels very content. Having Ashton, someone going through the transition at the same time, helps. Moving to the Bay Area was a positive. She believes that having a full understanding of what she was getting into when she retired (by having all those conversations with her family, friends and support community) and having a plan was extremely helpful in her transition.