PORTLAND — Born in Portland, raised in Bend and living in Eugene, Ashton Eaton has been the ideal ambassador for the IAAF World Indoor Track & Field Championships, which began its four-day run at the Oregon Convention Center on Thursday.
“I love this sport because you get to travel the world an experience different countries and I get to interact with fellow competitors from different countries, to just be more of a global enterprise,” Eaton said. “But you have a lot of pride when you bring someone to your home, and I think that’s what I’m doing here.”
The former Oregon star begins his quest for a third straight World Indoor heptathlon title at 11:30 a.m. Friday when the 60 meters are held.
His wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton also begins her competition in the pentathlon. All five events will be contested Friday, starting with the 60 hurdles at 11:15 a.m.
Theisen-Eaton, who will represent Canada, is still searching for her first gold medal but comes in has the favorite Friday.
“I’ve lived in Oregon now for almost nine years, so being able to drive up the road, it almost feels surreal that this is happening in our backyard,” the former Duck said. “It’s just really exciting for us.”
After winning five consecutive global championships and setting world records in the decathlon and heptathlon, Eaton was asked Thursday during a public event at Pioneer Courthouse Square how it could get better.
“By doing it in the place I was born,” he responded, drawing a big smile from IAAF president Sebastian Coe, who was seated next to Eaton.
“Ashton and Brianne are sort of the closest thing we get to athletic royalty,” Coe said. “I’m delighted that they’re here today. We could not have better ambassadors for this event.”
The World Indoor meet has returned to the United States for the first time since the inaugural meet was held in Indianapolis in 1987.
Coe said he’d like to see the popularity of the sport grow.
“The USA is historically the powerhouse of track and field when measured by overall participation and the extraordinary crop of medals your competitors have disappeared from championships with,” Coe said. “Yet, the United States, given its great economic power, is still a country where the general perception of track and field is low.
“It’s great that that regeneration can be taking place here in the state of Oregon and in this city of Portland.”
The meet certainly got off to a good start Thursday.
A crowd of 6,924 filled the 7,000-seat arena to watch a brief opening ceremony followed by the men’s and women’s pole competitions won by France’s Renaud Lavillenie and American Jenn Suhr, respectively.
Suhr capped an all-time great women’s competition with a championship meet record clearance of 16 feet, 3/4 inch.
The 2012 Olympic champion took — and made — four attempts, and then passed at the chance to go after her own world record of 16-6 because of tightness in her left calf.
“I wanted to but then I said ‘I’m going to kick myself if I hurt my calf,’” Suhr said. “I really wanted to jump it, especially in front of this crowd. When you get a crowd like this on U.S. soil, I wanted to give them something out there.”
The silver medal went to U.S. champion Sandi Morris (15-11) and the bronze winner was Ekaterini Stefanidi (15-9) of Greece, who, along with Switzerland’s Nicole Buchler, made it four women to clear at least 15-9 in the same competition for the first time.
“The pole vault is getting good,” Suhr said. “Women’s pole vault is being taken to another level and I’m glad that that I’m a part if it and I’m glad that I was able to come out on top.”
Unlike Suhr, Lavillenie cleared 19-9 to win the competition then missed on three chances at 20-2 3/4, which would have broken his world record of 20-2 1/2.
He also won World Indoor gold in 2012 and followed with a gold at the London Olympics.
“I came here to win a medal and I have the most important one, so it was a very good night,” Lavillenie said.
American Sam Kendricks won the silver medal with a mark of 19-1/4. Poland’s Piotr Lisek won bronze at 18-10 1/4.