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How Ashton Eaton won gold in the decathlon at the London Olympics

LONDON — The YouTube footage is humorous, the inexperienced subject half-somersaulting, half-back-flipping over a relatively low bar into the pole-vault pit with accompanying laughter from onlookers five years ago.

Little did the videographer know he was shooting a future Olympic champion.

Ashton Eaton was a college freshman at the time, no clue his future held a trip to London, not to mention the gold medal he won Thursday in the decathlon on a warm, memorable night at Olympic Stadium.

His quadriceps was threatening to hinder him the last two events, but Eaton ignored it long enough to finish ahead of U.S. teammate Trey Hardee.

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He won the 100-meter dash, the long jump and the 400, finishing with 8,869 points. Then he was asked if he was the greatest athlete in the world, seeing how Jamaica sprinter Usain Bolt proclaimed himself the carrier of that title earlier in the evening.

“Usain is clearly awesome in his own right,” Eaton said. “I think that titles are for books and stuff. I just like doing what I’m doing.”

Bolt later relented a bit, nodding his approval of Eaton as the best on the planet.

“I’ve got to give it to him,” he said, citing the stress of the 1,500 meters as making the difference.

Eaton’s gold was the 13th for the U.S. in the event. Hardee had 8,671 points, giving the U.S. its fifth one-two finish in decathlon history.

Eaton, 24, entered the second and last day of competition with a 220-point lead over Hardee, but it dropped to 99 points after Hardee’s discus throw of 158 feet 4 inches was almost 19 inches longer than Eaton’s best.

The next event presented some nice symmetry for Eaton, not that he ever reflected on his awkward early college days.

He cleared 17-1 in the pole vault, well ahead of Hardee’s 15-9, establishing another comfortable lead of 222 points, although he was injured slightly on his last attempt.

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“My quad was talking to me,” he said.

Eaton wasn’t listening.

He threw a personal-best 203-3 on his third and final javelin throw. In the 1,500, the only real race was whether he would break the Olympic record.

He didn’t. Like it mattered.

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He was also cognizant, if not appreciative, of winning on the 100th anniversary of Jim Thorpe’s gold-medal effort in the Olympic decathlon in Stockholm.

That the U.S. won the decathlon was not surprising. But the fact that it was Eaton, not Bryan Clay, could not have been predicted a few months ago.

Clay won the Olympic gold medal four years ago but never made it to the Olympic Stadium floor after finishing a distant 12th in the U.S. trials this year. All Eaton did that weekend was set a world record with 9,039 points, the first time a U.S. athlete held the mark since Dan O’Brien in 1992.

Hardee, 28, had reconstructive surgery on his right elbow last year but maintained a strong hold on second place after finishing second in the javelin throw.

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“It’s something that Ashton and I, when we’re 80 and 90 years old, our grandkids are going to puff out their chests a little bit,” he said.

Cuba’sLeonel Suarez won the bronze medal with 8,523 points.

mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

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