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Married, with medals

Track and field superstars tie knot in Oregon

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Brianne THEISEN can run the race of her life, and the next day her fianc© will perform an almost inconceivable feat of athletic strength and make headlines around the world.

Such is life as one half of a track and field super couple.

The 24-year-old from Humboldt, Sask., married American Ashton Eaton on Saturday in Eugene, Ore., the latest chapter in an Olympic-sized love story that began when the two met as teenagers at the University of Oregon.

Eaton is the world-record holder in the decathlon and the London Olympic gold medallist. Theisen won the heptathlon at the prestigious Hypo Meeting this season in Gotzis, Austria, which is considered the unofficial world championships for multi-events.

They are training partners, life partners, and each other's biggest supporters. Still...

"Sometimes it can get a little bit difficult just because Ashton is so good. Sometimes I feel like what I do can get overlooked or just overseen," Theisen said in a phone interview from her home in Eugene. "I'll (set a personal record) in a meet, and then the next day he breaks the world record.

"It's not that I'm mad at him or anything, I get so excited for him. But sometimes that part of it can get a little bit frustrating."

Despite the odd bit of frustration, theirs is a partnership forged from the time they met during Theisen's recruiting visit to the University of Oregon, when Eaton was a freshman. The two talked for 15 minutes in the kitchen at a party, a conversation Eaton has described as "the coolest he's ever had with a girl."

"I remember thinking 'This guy's really cool.' But I didn't really remember what he looked like, and I didn't remember his name," said Thiesen.

The two would meet again at the Pan American junior championships that summer in Brazil.

"My dad was on the (Oregon) visit with me and he had remembered Ashton, and said 'Oh that Ashton kid, the decathlete that we met at the U of O is going to be at this Pan Am thing in Brazil,"' Theisen said. "I remember thinking, there were so many decathletes, I can't picture which one it is, I didn't know his name. But as soon as I saw him in Brazil, it was 'Oh, he's the kid I was talking to in the kitchen."

Their friendship continued from the day Theisen moved to Eugene. They went on their first official date on Valentine's Day of Theisen's freshman season. The two who were named one of Shape magazine's "10 Hottest Fit Couples" got engaged in 2011. They knew that 2012 -- with the London Olympics -- would be too crazy, so planned the wedding for 2013.

Their plans almost took a tragic turn a couple of months ago when Theisen nearly speared her fianc© with a javelin. The two were practising with coach Larry Mara. Eaton had walked out to retrieve his javelin while Theisen was still throwing. Her toss took a wild turn to the left, Eaton made like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix and bent his body out of harm's way, the eight-foot metal missile grazing his upper lip.

"It was a freaky thing," Mara said. "I shouldn't have allowed that, he shouldn't have been there, and Brianne shouldn't have thrown. It was a three-way strikeout, luckily he ducked."

Theisen won back-to-back NCAA titles for the Ducks, and was 11th at the London Olympics. Eaton won three consecutive NCAA titles, and then at the U.S. Olympic trials last summer, in lousy weather in Eugene, he broke Dan O'Brien's 17-year-old world record by 23 points. Theisen and Eaton's mom Roslyn rushed to the finish line of the 1,500 metres -- the final competition of the gruelling 10-event decathlon. The three hugged and sobbed.

"Being there to see him break the world record and then win the Olympic Games is the best experience I've ever had because I know how hard he works. I see him at practice every day, and see him doing all this stuff, and to see that come true is so cool," Theisen said. "You think, I can't even imagine how that would feel like."

The world record launched Eaton into U.S. sporting stardom. He was an answer in a newspaper crossword puzzle. Annie Leibovitz photographed him hurdling over a supermodel for Vogue. He posed nude for ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue.

"He was so funny. He said 'I don't think I want to do this, it's just too revealing. I wouldn't want you to do Playboy,' " Theisen said. "I laughed, 'This is nothing like Playboy Ashton, I wouldn't want to do Playboy either."'

After his victory in London, Eaton appeared on Late Show with David Letterman.

"He was nervous at first, he was like, 'Some of these people are really witty, I can't come up with really quick jokes.' But I thought he did a really good job."

Theisen said despite Eaton's profile, she never feels she has to share him.

"Sometimes he gets busy and I don't see him a lot, but I have him for the rest of my life," she said.

While they're both self-motivated, it helps sometimes to have a sympathetic partner in their corner.

"There are times when he'll have a bad practice, or I'll have a bad practice and the other one will try to help," Theisen said. "When we get home he'll say, 'Hey Bri, come watch this video, this is what you should look like doing high jump.' And there are times when I'll say, 'Ashton, this is what it should feel like. Do you feel like this?' We help each other."

Theisen laughs at people who believe world records and Olympic gold medals only come with strict diets and good sleep habits.

"I live with Ashton and I see what he eats -- Kraft Dinner, hot dogs... he plays video games until 2 in the morning," Theisen said. "It's so funny. Overall we're pretty low-key, normal people."

Mara has coached the couple since "Nov. 3, 2009." He can recite the date, because "They're two special people," he said.

"They're actually very good athletes, but they're better human beings than they are athletes," the coach said. "That's saying a lot because they're excellent athletes."

Their strengths, Mara said, are similar. They can deal with the chaos and uncertainty of the two-day multi-events.

"Ashton and Brianne consistently show the ability to rise to the next level on the day of competition. A lot of people wet their pants, plain and simple. Ashton and Brianne are extremely well-grounded people, and I have no worries concerning whether will they be up to compete really well."

While Theisen didn't exactly wet her pants last summer in London, she calls the Olympics a big learning experience.

The athlete who's largely competed in the shadow of Canadian-record holder Jessica Zelinka, was in the same heat as English star Jessica Ennis in the hurdles, the first event of the heptathlon. The noise in London's jam-packed Olympic Stadium was deafening.

"When I walked out for the hurdles, it blew my mind, I completely lost all my focus. I was just like 'Holy crap,"' Theisen said. "It was so loud, the place was vibrating, and it was so scary. At first I started laughing, thinking 'I can't believe this happening,' and then my whole body was shaking, which was so stupid because it's just another meet, you shouldn't do or feel or be any more nervous than you normally are.

"But it's something I think you just have to experience, so that you know what to expect next time."

She was prepared the next time, which was the Hypo Meeting in May, scoring 6,376 points to win. Zelinka's Canadian record is 6,599.

With Eaton out of Gotzis with a hamstring injury, Damian Warner of London, Ont., won the decathlon. It was the first time since 1988 that the two winners -- two of a group of strong young Canadian track and field athletes -- were from the same country. It was also the first time a Canadian had won since Michael Smith in 1996.

"We knew going into it that Damian probably had a pretty good shot to win, and after the first day and how it played out, I knew that I had a really good shot to win," Theisen said. "So we were playing off each other a little bit, every time we saw each other, we asked how the other one was doing and we both were pretty aware of the fact that we could both win.

"It's a pretty big thing for Canadian multi-events and Canadian athletics in general. It sucks that Ashton wasn't there, but I guess it made it up for it that Damian won."

Now Theisen, Eaton and Warner are headed for Moscow for the world track and field championships, Aug. 10-18.

But first, there was a wedding.

The two were wed in front of 200 family members and friends in Eugene. About 50 guests made the trip from Saskatchewan. The the newlyweds will now pack their bags for Estonia, for their final preparations for Moscow.

The honeymoon will have to wait.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2013 B7

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