THE THIRD IN A SERIES of event-focus articles on the U.S. men’s 110 hurdles, a loaded discipline for Team USA and decidedly one to watch when competition resumes.
HURDLING IS HARD. Hurdling for a living is even harder. Jarret Eaton doesn’t hesitate in admitting: “Yeah, I seriously considered quitting.”
More than once.
In ’15, when his coach moved across the country and left him behind; in ’18, when another coach had a heart attack.
“There was another time too,” he says, “I thought, ‘I’m done with this financially.’ It just weighs a lot on you and it’s mentally tough. You just keep getting beat up and going through all those things. It takes a lot, but that’s when your support team steps in and helps you evaluate what you’re actually feeling. And if you still have that fire, that desire, then it’ll happen.”
Now in his eighth year of running as a pro, at 30 Eaton still has that fire. And he can look back on a career of reaching to the next level when other athletes might have bowed out.
At Abington High in ’07, he set bests of 14.11/14.03w and 37.28 and won both events at the Pennsylvania 3A meet. Not bluechip material, but solid enough to go on to nearby West Chester University, where he played football and in track placed 3rd in Div. II indoors and out.
That caught the attention of coach Dave Hegland at Syracuse. “He drove down to Philly and we sat down at a Starbucks,” recalls Eaton of his decision to transfer. “He said, ‘I believe you can be an NCAA champion.’ And I believed in him. We worked every year toward that.”
Eaton gave up football. “It was really hard for me,” he says. “It was like choosing, ‘Which lung do you want to lose?’” But he improved, in ’10 winning the Big East title. After a redshirt year, he came back big in ’12, fulfilling the prophecy by becoming the first Orange athlete ever to win an NCAA individual title, hurdling 7.54 indoors. Outdoors he improved to 13.44 and finished 6th.
It would take him several years as a pro to start breaking through, which happened in the ’15 campaign, when he placed 2nd at the USATF Indoor and ran a best of 13.41 out. The next year solidified his credentials, as he won the USA Indoor and placing 4th at the World Indoor. Outdoors, he improved to 13.25. “It was a huge relief to see that I was able to go through some mental barriers I had at the time and walk out of a track meet with a PR,” he says. “It was a motivating year.” A few weeks later, he placed 6th at the Olympic Trials in 13.30.
In ’18, his indoor successes continued with another national title and a World silver. “It was the culmination of hard work and grit. There’s a little bit of disappointment that I couldn’t get gold, but I was just satisfied to put it all on the line and let the world know who I am: I’m still here, I’m still alive and I’m still kickin’.”
For Eaton, do indoor titles translate to outdoor success? “It’s true, I’ve had more success indoors than I have outdoors. I’m a guy who loves to race and I love the atmosphere of indoors. It’s really personal. But I don’t think it’s a physical thing where my limit is indoors. I just require a little bit of extra fine tuning to get to the outdoor season.
“Historically there have been some athletes who are indoor specialists and I hate for that term to be applied to my name. I just haven’t figured out that last piece of the puzzle.”
The puzzle is what brought Eaton to Phoenix in February, where he now rooms with fellow Syracuse grad Freddie Crittenden and trains with coach Tim O’Neil. “Freddie sent the invite to me and I looked at it and said, this is probably the best move that I could make if I’m really trying to give myself an honest go at making this Olympic team.
“He’s had good success with all of his athletes really finishing strong at the end of the race,” says Eaton of O’Neil. “I think everybody’s going to be in for a huge surprise next year. We’re going to shock the world in some sense.”
For most of his pro career, Eaton has not had a major sponsor. “You have to be more creative in finding support for your whole journey,” he explains. “You have an extra hurdle to overcome and it’s definitely possible to do it.”
The ongoing cancellation of this outdoor season, says Eaton, “Definitely puts a monkey wrench into things.” He had his finances planned around earning some money from racing. “I really wasn’t planning on not having income for the entire summer. It’s kind of hard to get a job right now with everything kind of shutting down. I definitely need to be getting a job in the summer and save up so that I can focus on track.”
He laughs when he notes the financial disparities he sees in the track world. “It’s weird to watch other athletes build their own home gyms in their garages and their houses that they own, and I’m trying to get by in a swimming pool and a grass field at my apartment complex. It seems like a disadvantage, but it’s something that I’m used to. It’s something that I know I’m going to have to overcome. It just comes with the territory.”
As for the postponed Olympic year, Eaton says, “Personally, it’s a blessing in disguise. It was going to be a very difficult task getting ready for the Olympic Trials if they were to happen this June. Having it all pushed back means that I have more time with my coach and more time under his system and that’s a good thing.”
He knows it won’t come easily, but he plans to be ready: “I’ve learned about perseverance and staying the course and it’s more than just being patient. It’s also actively working towards something while being patient. Some doors won’t open for you. You have to literally create a door to go through.”