Talk Of the Town

Despite his failure at the Olympic trials, Dan O'Brien remains a hero at home
July 12, 1992

In the years to come, the good people of Moscow, Idaho, will remember exactly where they were when they heard the awful news: Dan O'Brien had no-heighted in the pole vault at the Olympic trials. Dan O'Brien would not be going to Barcelona.

Chuck Labine, a University of Idaho administrator, was on the 7th hole of the Moscow Elks Golf Club. His wife, Debbie, a secretary at the university, who had been watching the trials on TV, raced out to the course to tell him the news. Chuck went numb with disbelief.

So did Doug Flansburg, who was playing in a doubles tennis tournament. Flansburg, a farmer, doesn't know O'Brien; he just knows what a tremendous athlete he is. "Is there any chance an exception might be made?" said Flansburg. "Is there a mechanism for it?"

There isn't. O'Brien finally grasped that cold, numbing fact as he flew home from New Orleans on June 29. "I realized it was over," he says.

He has borne up bravely. For a month O'Brien has been dating Tanya Hughes, a high jumper who was warming up for the final in her event at the trials while the decathlon pole vault was under way. After watching O'Brien miss what she thought was his second attempt, Hughes turned away to concentrate on her own task. She won and will be going to the Olympics. Not until the middle of the decathlon's last event, the 1,500, did Hughes discover that the miss she had witnessed was actually O'Brien's final attempt. The next morning O'Brien was with Hughes when she picked up her Olympic uniform.

"He's been holding up under all the strain," says Hughes, "but I worry about the other half of him, the part he's not showing. You know how you just want to cover someone up and protect him?"

O'Brien was lucky to come home to a delightful little place like Moscow (pop. 18,519), where pine trees stand all over town and tussocks of soft green grass tumble right on down to the foot of Main Street. O'Brien moved to Moscow in 1984 for his freshman year at Idaho. He is 25 now, and the people who have known him watched at first with delight and then with amazement as he grew from a sweet but forgetful party animal into the world decathlon champion. Last week, in a column headed O'BRIEN LOST THE GOLD, BUT NOT HIS CLASS, Moscow-Pullman Daily News sports reporter Tim Sullivan wrote: "We cheer for O'Brien because he is just that normal guy on the street. His athletic talent surpasses just about everyone in the world of sport, yet he's still the same guy who walks down Main Street in Moscow. The guy you say 'hi' to and end up talking to for 20 minutes."

What happened in New Orleans revealed a side of O'Brien that even his friends had not seen. "I didn't realize he was such a gracious loser," said Labine, "because I had never seen him lose."

That explains much of the shock. Last year O'Brien looked invincible. At the TAC championships he came within a whisper of Daley Thompson's world record, and in August he won the world championship by a staggering 263 points.

"Some people waited four days to come around and talk to me," says Mike Keller, who has coached O'Brien since he arrived at Idaho. "It's like a death in the family. What do you say?"

Above all, Keller and Rick Sloan, a Washington State assistant who coaches O'Brien in the field events, are fed up with being second-guessed. From the moment O'Brien missed his third attempt, people questioned the decision to have him start vaulting at 15'9" when a lower height would have given him enough points to qualify for the team. One woman left a threatening message on Keller's answering machine, accusing him of "ruining that boy's life" and telling him to "get out of town."

"Listen," says Sloan. "For the last year and a half, Dan has not vaulted at lower than 15'9" in practice, and he's never missed it. He looked so good warming up—he cleared 16'1" easily—we thought 15'9" was a conservative jump."

O'Brien took last week off. That meant golf. On Tuesday, O'Brien, who has a 12 handicap, played 18 holes on the university course. Then on Wednesday he played 27 more. And on Thursday he flew to Los Angeles to appear with Dave Johnson on The Arsenio Hall Show.

On Saturday morning he had his first workout since the trials, driving to nearby Pullman to work with Sloan in the Washington State weight room. "That's when the real healing begins," says Sloan. "When you take that first step toward your next goal."

O'Brien spent Saturday afternoon at the Elks Golf Club, watching the Fourth of July tournament. One of the golfers, Joe McGurkin, was wearing one of Reebok's DAN hats. So was towheaded Mitchell Walker, who is five years old and thinks O'Brien's picture is on a penny. O'Brien got a big hug from a gray-haired lady named Lee Mills, who admitted that as she watched the trials on TV, "my heart just dropped."

O'Brien admits to thinking of the money he has probably lost by not making the team. "I had the opportunity to set myself up, I guess," he says. "But I can't be bummed about money I never had." None of O'Brien's sponsors, including Reebok, has dropped him, and NBC has hired him to do color commentary in Barcelona.

Sloan has always said that along with his 100-meter speed—his 10.23 is the fastest ever in a decathlon—O'Brien's greatest asset as a decathlete is his ability to forget. That ability will be tested in the months ahead, as O'Brien prepares for his next meet, in Talence, France, on Sept. 4 and 5. Indeed, his confidence seemed undiminished last week as he looked ahead. "I know," he said, "I can break the world record."

TWO PHOTOSRICH FRISHMANMills is one of many Muscovites who had a kind word for O'Brien when he got home. ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)