Friday, August 10, 2012

"World's Greatest Athlete"

In his post-decathlon interview, I felt Ashton Eaton displayed a tremendous amount of awareness and respect for the history of the Olympic games, especially the tag of "world's greatest athlete", in referencing Jim Thorpe. The debates rage as to who is the greatest Olympian, or the greatest athlete, but few can argue that whoever comes out on top of the decathlon deserves some serious consideration.

Eaton is a great story, and hopefully one that continues for a long time. All-around athleticism is something that is tragically missing these days. I'll often ask a recruit what other sports they play, and without hesitation and almost with a sense of pride they state they've been focusing on the one particular sport they are being recruited for since they were 12. All I can think about is 'disaster' waiting to happen. Now granted there are always exceptions, but these are rare because I can speak from some experience now to say that often this is all going to end in a physical train wreck.

Reading a little about Ashton Eaton's background, and his humility for those who have come before, I just couldn't help but be excited to see him mentioning Jim Thorpe on national television after completing his impressive run from the trials to the Olympics. It's just unfortunate that most probably don't know who Jim Thorpe was... but among him and Eaton and other multi-sport stars, I hope young athletes take note.

Ashton Eaton chases glory, not fame

"Just look at what Eaton has done, and how he's done it. Eaton was born in Portland, and by the age of 2, his father and mother split up. Roslyn Eaton moved her only child to rural central Oregon, to La Pine, a town of 5,000, and Eaton didn't see much of his father, Terrance Wilson. Five-year-old Ashton wanted to be a Ninja Turtle -- who didn't in those heady days of the early '90s? -- and took up tae kwon do. The would-be Donatello learned Roslyn's first rule of sports: If you start it, finish it. Roslyn's other rule: Do whatever you're doing 100 percent. Eaton went on to become a black belt."

... and...

"Eaton tried every sport, even ones his lanky body wasn't particularly suited for, like wrestling, which he did for two years in high school but gave up after tearing a meniscus in his knee as a sophomore. He excelled as a shortstop and center fielder on travel baseball teams before high school, and as a football player at Mountain View High, he was great covering ground at safety, and outstanding getting to the edge as a running back -- even when the play called for him to go up the middle.

Such variety of experience is growing hard to find in youth sports these days, which increasingly insist and subsist on one-sport specialization. Bend resists that. Mountain View athletic director Dave Hood makes it a point to honor three-sport athletes every year, because he and his coaching staffs see each sport helping the others. Besides that, Hood says, "We want kids to be kids. We want them to have fun." Though Oregon high schools don't hold the decathlon, Bend turned out to be an ideal incubator for a multievent athlete." 

Why Are Jim Thorpe's Olympic Records Still Not Recognized

"Carlisle’s piano teacher, Verna Whistler, described Thorpe as guileless. “He had an open face, an honest look, eyes wide apart, a picture of frankness but not brilliance. He would trust anybody.” Moore was an unconventional young Bryn Mawr graduate when she went to work as a teacher at Carlisle. She taught typing, stenography and bookkeeping, basic courses designed to help students conduct their business in the white man’s world. She recalled Thorpe as “liked by all rather than venerated or idolized....[His] modesty, with top performance, was characteristic of him, and no back talk, I never saw him irascible, sour or primed for vengeance.” Moore noted that Thorpe “wrote a fine, even clerical hand—every character legible; every terminal curving up—consistent and generous.” His appearance on the gridiron, she said, was the “epitome of concentration, wary, with an effect of plenty in reserve.

With students from 6 to college age, at its height Carlisle had an enrollment of no more than 1,000 pupils, yet on the collegiate playing fields it was the equal of the Ivy League powers, one of the more remarkable stories in American sports. This was partly thanks to Thorpe, who won renown in football, baseball, track and lacrosse, and also competed in hockey, handball, tennis, boxing and ballroom dancing. At track meets, Warner signed him up for six and seven events. Once, Thorpe single-handedly won a dual meet against Lafayette, taking first in the high hurdles, low hurdles, high jump, long jump, shot put and discus throw. 

The result of all this varied activity was that he became highly practiced in two methods modern athletes now recognize as building blocks of performance: imitation and visualization. Thorpe studied other athletes as closely as he had once studied horses, borrowing their techniques. He was “always watching for a new motion which will benefit him,” Warner said."

I highly, highly recommend giving both articles a read, especially the Smithsonian article about Thorpe because I don't feel he gets enough recognition in the specialized culture we live in.