Twenty-two years ago, Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson were on first-name basis with America. As the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona neared, an aggressive $30 million Reebok ad campaign made stars of Dan and Dave, as they became known, by depicting the two U.S. decathletes as intranational rivals vying for the title of “world’s greatest athlete.” Unfortunately, reality didn’t quite adhere to the narrative: O’Brien shockingly failed to clear a height in the pole vault at the U.S. trials and was left off the Olympic team, rendering him a spectator while Johnson earned the bronze despite a stress fracture in his left foot. Though O’Brien would set a decathlon world record later that fall and win gold in the event at the ’96 Games in Atlanta, for many, the lasting legacy of Dan and Dave is of a much-hyped showdown failing to come off.
This weekend there should be no such problems. Despite being well removed from their days as world-class competitors—O’Brien, 47, is now a volunteer track coach at Arizona State, while the 51-year-old Johnson coaches women’s track at Oregon State—they will lace ’em up on Sunday at St. John’s University in New York City as special guests at the RBC Decathlon, an event created to determine the best athlete on Wall Street while raising funds for New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Founded in 2009 by Dave Maloney and Marc Hodulich, onetime Auburn track teammates turned financial analysts, the event has raised more than $3.5 million in its first five years, including $1.4 million a year ago.
O’Brien participated in the event last year, raising $100,000 from a sponsor by doing 17 pull-ups. As that stat might indicate, many of the event’s 10 disciplines differ from its Olympic counterpart—out with the javelin throw and shot put, in with the football throw and stationary row. But in a conversation with Edge this week, O’Brien and Johnson seemed less concerned with the event’s competition than its cause.
Edge: How did this come about?
Dan O’Brien: Last year I competed in the event and Dave Maloney and Marc Hodulich were definitely interested in getting past Olympians to take part. Since I did it last year, I thought it was natural to try to get Dave Johnson on board and kind of reignite the rivalry that we had.
Edge: Dave, did you agree to it right away?
Dave Johnson: I looked at it at first and I was going, ‘Oh, no.’ I’ve been working as an administrator and teacher at the collegiate level and sitting at a desk for quite a bit. But then I saw it as an opportunity to work a little bit harder than I normally would like to and get a little fitter than I normally would be—and raise money for pediatric cancer research and hang out with Dan and have some fun with the Wall Street boys.
Edge: Do you find your names are still linked? Do people bring up the ad campaign a lot?
DJ: Quite a bit. Kids are getting a lot younger. A lot of them weren’t born at the time Dan and I were doing our thing, so some of the kids I’ve been talking to don’t really know what it’s about, but their parents do. So you end up meeting parents of kids and working with other coaches and wherever you go, that’s the first thing they say: ‘You’re one of those Dan or Dave guys, aren’t you?’ You’ve gotta let them know which one you were. But it’s fun. It allows you to have a vehicle to tell a story to promote athletics and to promote the Olympic dreams.
DO: I’ll be walking through an airport and someone will look at me and go, ‘You look familiar—you’re that guy.’ They’ll call me Dave and I don’t usually even correct them because hey, it’s 50/50. But we’ve got those recognizable faces. People know us from somewhere but they’re just not sure.
Edge: What do you have to do to get ready to compete in an event like this?
DO: I try to stay fit throughout the year, but when you prepare for an event you need to look at the event and prepare for those particular events. Last year I came in just reasonably conditioned. I was surprised at the level of competition and how good a lot of the top guys were, but also how competitive everyone was. This year I’m about the same shape and I think Dave made a big effort the last three months to get in a lot better shape. He’s probably in the best shape I’ve seen him in in the last couple years.
DJ: That is true.
Edge: What did you do to get in that shape?
DJ: It’s like anything else: you set a goal and you make a life change and you begin what it takes to get ready. My daughter and I work out together a little bit, which has provided a way for me to spend some time with her. You develop this team of people that keep you going. If you do it by yourself, it’s gonna be tough.
Edge: Dan, having done it last year, was there a particularly challenging event?
DO: They’re all challenging because they’re best efforts—your max rep pull ups, your max reps bench press, you’re running as fast as you can. It’s just a really, really intense workout. If you’re going to the gym and say ‘I’m gonna do as many pull ups as I can,’ imagine what that feels like and then add three more on there. You’re burning up. They give you a lot of time between events to get ready for the next one, but when was the last time you ran a 40-yard dash all-out? I’ll run decent in the 40 but I don’t want to hurt myself doing it. And I don’t think anyone looks forward to running a timed 800 meters, no matter what shape you’re in.
Edge: Having been elite international athletes, how do you train differently now compared to when you were younger?
DO: When you’re training for the sport, it’s about function. I think as you train in your regular life, it’s more about form. You want to look a certain way, feel good. I’ve got some back issues and I do PT a couple days a week and I know if I’m not strong then my back’s gonna hurt. I train a lot now because I like to eat. I know if I eat more and I don’t train much, then I’m gonna get heavy.
DJ: Same for me. As an athlete, I was training at a level where I tried to train at the very edge, where I’d send my muscles to a level where they might get hurt. I’d always train right at that threshold. When I’d step into a competition I’d say, ‘That’s where I’ve been training but I’m going to compete at three or four levels above that.’ With this, you’ve gotta train where you’re at. You’ve gotta be careful to not hurt yourself. I’ve been training at a level where I’ll kind of push it to the edge, which is very different than it was 20 years ago. I’m just looking forward to the test. You just try to step into it and try to reach those other levels that you never thought you could, according to where your body is at this point in your life.
Edge: So, the million-dollar question: Who’s gonna win between you two?
DO: There was a time in our lives when you cared who won. It meant a lot to you. Later in life, I think my friends get mad at me because I don’t care if I win in golf or if I bowl a good game. The results of competing are kind of just out of my system. I probably won’t give a second thought. But I have the edge because I competed last year. [Laughs] Dave is doing it for the first time and he’s older than I am, so I might have the edge there.
DJ: Those are both true statements. I’ll get him in a couple events and hopefully push him. And there will be some events where I’ll be watching him from behind. But no matter what happens, we are there for a big reason and that’s to raise some money. The companies involved are really trying to make a difference and it’s huge.