8 minute read
Elizabeth Gleick/Moscow, Idaho

By now Dan O’Brien understands the appeal of his story, its picaresque narrative spiked with trial and error, with mishap and misstep, with personal suffering and extraordinary triumph. He calls it his “rags-to-riches” tale, but having happily embarked on the riches phase, he politely wishes that everyone else would please just move on too. The decathlete is tired of what has become his 11th event, talking about his previous failings–the way he mysteriously flubbed the pole vault in the 1992 Olympic trials, thereby blowing his star turn in Barcelona; the way his college partying sometimes got the best of him. But O’Brien understands too that the past exerts a pull and the future has not quite arrived.

For O’Brien the chance to make a clean break with the past imperfect begins next week in Atlanta on July 31, the first of the decathlon’s grueling two days. It is an irony of Olympic fever that one can be, like O’Brien, a three-time world champion and the world record holder in an event and yet, minus that gold, still be only an athlete-in-waiting. But while it is unwise to be too cocksure, O’Brien, who turned 30 last week, is primed. He not only expects the gold but says, “I want to do it right. I want to do it in style, and that’s to break the world record.”

O’Brien first came to public attention as the Dan half of the catchy 1992 Reebok ad campaign, “Dan and Dave,” in which America’s two best and most photogenic decathletes, O’Brien and Dave Johnson, were pitted against each other in anticipation of an exciting Barcelona matchup. When, hobbled by poor preparation, O’Brien no-heighted in the pole vault during the Olympic trials, he became, perversely, even more famous. Johnson went on to take the bronze, while O’Brien was left to choke down his embarrassment on the sidelines and serve as a track-and-field commentator for NBC in Barcelona, a task he took on with characteristic good cheer. “It was heartbreaking and crushing,” he says now, “but the thing about it was, I would wake up and I could look at myself in the mirror and just go, ‘I had a great go at it.’ That was the cool thing about it.”

Just months after his ’92 upset, O’Brien set the world record in the decathlon with 8,891 points at a meet in Talence, France, but no amount of points could make people forget his zero at the Olympic trials. He and Reebok parted company, then he signed on with Nike. Even without the gold to his name, O’Brien is a sponsor’s delight, with his radiant good looks–coppery skin, sculpted 6-ft. 2-in., 185-lb. body with an unimaginable 3% of body fat–and affable nature. He already has deals to the tune of $600,000 with Foot Locker, Visa, Ray Ban, Xerox, Juice Bowl and Fuji Film, with bonuses that kick in if he wins the gold.

This time around, at the June Olympic trials, O’Brien had no problem with the pole vault, soaring to a height of 17 ft. 3/4 in., and despite less-than-par performances in the long jump and the 1,500 m, he finished first on the U.S. team, with 90 points to spare. This, say his coaches, is as it should be. “We don’t even talk about losing,” says Rick Sloan, who has coached O’Brien in the field events for the past six years. “People want him to get all excited about making the team, about getting that monkey off his back, but it was expected.”

Swerving between caution and optimism, his coaches do not want their charge to lose his focus. It is a sports truism that an athlete’s toughest competition is himself, but in O’Brien’s case, that is absolutely the case. University of Idaho track coach Mike Keller, who recruited him out of high school, worries that O’Brien does not have the killer instinct. Four times, says Keller, he has had a chance to crash through his own record; four times he has missed out by running a slow 1,500 m, the final event of the decathlon, and the one O’Brien simply hates. Keller keeps a story about the decathlon posted on his office door. It’s called “The Beast.” Says Keller: “The Beast is always stalking you, all the time, and if you let up, it’s going to capture you.”

For O’Brien, the Beast was not only the pole-vault blunder but also his tendency to get into what he now insists was merely youthful trouble. The son of an African-American father and a Finnish mother, O’Brien spent his first two years in foster homes before he was adopted by Jim and Virginia O’Brien, who eventually adopted five other children of various races. He was never a good student growing up in Klamath Falls, Oregon, but even at the age of 2, says Jim O’Brien, he was a phenomenal athlete, jumping off tables and running when other kids his age were “waddling.”

When Dan left home for the University of Idaho, in Moscow, he cut loose. His college days were, as Keller is fond of telling anyone who asks, marked by “a lot of stumbling blocks.” Says Keller, lapsing into the royal “we” favored by parents and coaches: “We did it the hard way, like flunking out of school, alcohol problems along the way.” By 1986 O’Brien had lost his athletic scholarship, run up $5,000 in debts, written bad checks and been arrested for drunken driving. Keller helped straighten him out, getting him enrolled at Spokane Community College, and then back to the university, from which he graduated in 1989.

O’Brien has never kept his difficulties hidden–ask what he majored in at Idaho, and he just laughs–but he says his drinking is under control and he has outgrown any self-destructive behavior. It now feels good, he says, to be the one with water at a party, the one who leaves early because he has a goal he takes seriously. It feels good because he takes himself seriously.

Living in Moscow helps. Life is simple there, with the sweet smell of wheat fields and the muted bustle of a small college town to lull the senses–and with, in theory, little to distract O’Brien, who suffers from attention-deficit disorder. His girlfriend of three years, Leilani Sing, 23, a former Miss Klamath County who teaches scuba diving, moved in with him in the early summer, and the two spend their spare time watching videos in the spacious home he built last year. Still, easygoing, accessible and sociable, O’Brien cannot help offering a piece of himself to all who come calling. His lawyer needs to talk to him about a Xerox deal and how to get tickets to the Games. A radio station wants to interview him, as does a reporter working on a story about O’Brien’s mom. His coaches, in the manner of tough-talking coaches everywhere, like to grumble about all the extra hurdles. As Sloan says when O’Brien blames a radio interview for his late arrival at Washington State University’s weight room, and then stops for a chat with every other jock in the joint, “No one’s gonna want to talk to his ass if he wins a silver.”

This overlooks, however, the grindingly hard work that O’Brien has put in over the years to perfect not his sport, but his 10 sports. There is, of course, the physical labor–the hours of running, jumping, throwing, hurdling each day that have helped him evolve, his coaches agree, from an athlete who needed to be told what to do into an athlete who not only does it but takes deep pleasure in it. “You run until you almost throw up three or four times a week, but you’re outside, you’re competing,” he explains. “And you get into this feeling that you could just run forever. You feel like a superman sometimes.”

Just as satisfying is the mental labor. A couple of years out of college he visited a sports psychologist to talk about his training. But the sessions turned into something more: discussions about how to integrate Dan O’Brien the athlete with Dan O’Brien the person. “It was really, really interesting for me,” he says now. “I was happy practicing, but I wasn’t happy all the time. I kept wondering what would it be like if I was just a normal person, if I had a normal job.” Now, he says, he no longer wonders. The “world’s greatest athlete” realizes there is nothing for him to do but keep competing until his body betrays him. The key, O’Brien has learned, is the number one, as in “one day at a time, one event at a time, one throw at a time, one jump at a time.” And when the past, present and future converge at Centennial Olympic Stadium, one gold medal for all time.

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