Redemption is a huge word, much too big for what Dan O'Brien
will be seeking at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in
Atlanta this week. It is a sportswriter's word, inflating what
is merely dramatic into a moral struggle of cosmic proportions.
There may be athletes who need redemption, but few need it for
something they did during competition.
No, when O'Brien stands at the end of the pole vault runway in
Olympic Stadium on Saturday afternoon, he will be seeking simply
to master his emotions, overcome the weight of the past and earn
a place on the U.S. team--which are no small challenges. He will
have a 15-foot tube of white fiberglass resting on his right
shoulder, and as he stares down the runway, he will see the
ghosts he disturbed four years ago when, on a similar runway in
New Orleans at the 1992 trials, he took three vaults at his
opening height of 15'9" and missed them all. By failing to score
any points in the vault, O'Brien, then as now the world champion
and the strong favorite to win the Olympic gold medal in the
decathlon, guaranteed that he would not even make it to the
"Every pole vault competition since 1992 has been nerve-racking
for me," he admits. "I get an increased heart rate, sweaty
palms. I have to force myself to relax and do things correctly.
But in the end I've always been very competitive."
In the four years since Barcelona, O'Brien has won all eight
decathlons he has entered. He has earned his second and third
world championships, both by impressive margins. In 1992 he set
a world record (8,891 points) that none of his current rivals
have come within 156 points of reaching. Yet there is only one
way for O'Brien to put his '92 failure entirely behind him: by
getting through the pole vault, making the U.S. team and winning
the gold at the Atlanta Games. "Everywhere I go, people are so
nice and supportive," says O'Brien. "It's gotten a little out of
hand. People come up and say, 'I know you're going to make it
June 23, 1996
Not that they should feel too sorry for O'Brien. In the two
decades since Bruce Jenner, then training for the 1976 Olympic
decathlon, had to depend on his stewardess wife to support him,
the funding available to top U.S. decathletes has increased
markedly. Even without getting to the Olympics, O'Brien has been
making the kind of dollars Jenner was able to earn only after
winning the '76 gold and giving up his amateur eligibility.
O'Brien's endorsement contracts with VISA, Nike, Foot Locker,
Canon and Juice Bowl yield $300,000 a year, money he has used to
build a house, complete with cathedral ceiling, two decks and a
hot tub, in Moscow, Idaho. He drives a Mercedes and has a
live-in housekeeper-cook. But while he has not exactly suffered
between Olympics, O'Brien, who will turn 30 on July 18, one day
before the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Games, knows he
can't afford to wait another four years for a shot at a gold
If anything, the pressure on O'Brien is greater than it was in
'92, according to Jim Reardon, a psychologist who has worked
with him and other members of the elite U.S. decathlon team
since 1993. Reardon, who in his day-to-day practice in Columbus,
Ohio, works with trauma victims, seems uniquely equipped to
counsel O'Brien. "The same dynamics pertain," says Reardon.
"What Dan experienced in 1992 would clearly qualify as trauma
because it was so unexpected. For trauma victims, anniversaries
are always difficult. They trigger fear and anxiety."
Like it or not, the Olympic trials are an anniversary for
O'Brien. "You can't not think about something like that," says
Reardon. "The moment of highest tension at the trials will come
when Dan gets on the runway for the vault. Everyone will stop,
every camera in the stadium will focus on him, and everyone will
wonder: Will he get over?"
The self-doubt that was planted at the '92 trials never
tormented O'Brien more than at the following year's U.S.
nationals, which served as the qualifying meet for the '93 world
championships. Idaho coach Mike Keller, who works with O'Brien
in the running events, and Washington State track coach Rick
Sloan, who works with him in the field events, had to virtually
push O'Brien onto the track in Eugene, Ore., for the 100 and
then again for the high jump. "You could see the fear in his
eyes," says a friend of O'Brien's.
But if the first day of that decathlon revealed the depth of
O'Brien's fears, the second confirmed that he could overcome
those fears. After fouling as he spun into his first two throws
in the discus, O'Brien was down to his last attempt, one foul
away from another disaster. Without even a spin, O'Brien muscled
the discus out 143'10". That summer he went on to win the
national title and the world championship in Stuttgart.
When he describes the last four years, O'Brien sounds as much
like a 12-stepper as a 10-eventer. "The Olympics have come
quickly," he says. "Each year I've tried to concentrate on that
year's most important competition." O'Brien is trying to look at
the Atlanta Games as just another of those big meets. "Everybody
from Bruce Jenner to Rafer Johnson tells me that you can compete
in championships all over the world, but once you step on that
Olympic track, it's different," he says. "I can't imagine how it
can be that different. I think the Games are going to be an
experience for me, but I just need to be focused to compete like
I always do."
O'Brien characteristically radiates a breezy
confidence--whatever fears may lurk beneath it--and despite the
'92 setback, he has good reason to feel optimistic about his
chances at both the trials and the Games. It's true that he is
no longer able to string together as many days of hard
training as he could four years ago. His knees hurt in cold
weather, and he requires regular treatments from a chiropractor
for chronic back pain. But in many ways O'Brien is a better
decathlete than he was in '92.
"He's a much more confident athlete now," says one of O'Brien's
training partners and a former housemate, Michael Joubert, a
member of Australia's 4x400-meter Olympic relay team. "The guy's
broken the world record and won two world championships since
'92. Sure, when he gets on that runway for his first attempt,
he'll have to deal with [his failure at the trials]. But he's
improved that pole vault out of sight in the last four years."
O'Brien is not only consistently clearing 17 feet in the vault,
but he is also stronger in every second-day event except the
1,500. This past winter he twice beat Roger Kingdom, the bronze
medalist in the 110-meter hurdles at last summer's worlds, in
indoor races, and he finished fourth in the 60-meter hurdles at
the U.S. indoor championships. "In 1992 I threw 199 feet for a
personal best in the javelin," says O'Brien. "Since then, I've
thrown 208, 209. But I see 220, 225 this year. The javelin is
one of those events where I just kind of figured it out one day
O'Brien and his coaches also believe they have figured out the
reasons for his pole vault failure in New Orleans, though they
disagree on the importance of those reasons. O'Brien points to a
quirk of fate: He alone of all the participants in a three-day
clinic for elite decathletes in New Orleans's Tad Gormley
Stadium two months before the trials did not get to practice
vaulting into the stadium's eccentrically configured pit because
he had to leave the clinic to make an appearance at an
elementary school. According to O'Brien, the landing pads
extended past the front of the pit so far that they threw off
his depth perception as he planted the pole.
"Yeah, that's true," says Keller, "but that's really not the
main reason he missed. Three or four other guys no-heighted that
day, and I can still see him sitting in a chair on the infield
watching them and not getting up and warming up properly."
To combat O'Brien's fears about the vault, Reardon and O'Brien's
coaches have taken some extraordinary steps. Last September they
flew Frank Zarnowski, who will serve as public address announcer
for the Olympic decathlon, to Pullman, Wash., to do the P.A.
duties at a meet O'Brien was competing in; their goal was to
make even that small aspect of the Games familiar and reassuring
to the world champion. O'Brien had never watched his vaults from
the '92 trials until last December, when Reardon obtained a
videotape of them. Reardon wanted O'Brien to view the tape not
to analyze technical mistakes but to demystify the awful
experience. O'Brien has watched it repeatedly. Finally, O'Brien
made sure he got to pole-vault in Atlanta's Olympic Stadium well
in advance of the trials by entering the mini-decathlon (which
included the pole vault) competition at a May 18 Grand Prix meet
that was held there. "He was on the same runway, in the same
stadium, in front of a large crowd," says Reardon. O'Brien
cleared 16'8 3/4", which would be worth 941 points in a decathlon.
But if you ask Keller or Sloan where O'Brien has improved the
most, they'll tell you it's between the ears. "The decathlon is
not such a mystery to him as it was before," says Keller. "The
decathlon tests 10 different skills, and because Dan started as
a hurdler and long jumper, in some events--javelin, discus, pole
vault--he was just a babe in the woods at the time. He's four
years further down the road now. He understands the demands of
each event better."
Indeed, they are perhaps all a little wiser than they were four
years ago. O'Brien has lowered his opening vault height from
15'9" to 15'1". "I can practically sit over that," he says.
Let's hope it doesn't come down to that, for the sake of
everyone watching as much as for O'Brien. "The way Dan handled
not making the team in 1992 endeared him to people around the
world," says Sloan. "When he gets over that first height in the
vault, I think there will be a huge collective sigh."
WHAT'S UP WITH DAVE?
Thanks to their decathlon talent and the alliterative one-two
punch of their all-American names, they became the stars of
track and field's catchiest ad campaign: Dan and Dave--To Be
Settled in Barcelona. But in the end, despite the $25 million
that Reebok spent on the campaign, neither Dan O'Brien nor Dave
Johnson won the decathlon at the 1992 Olympics. The gold went to
Robert Zmelik, a Czech whose cause was helped by two strokes of
fortune: first, O'Brien's no-heighting in the pole vault at the
U.S. Olympic Trials, and second, Johnson's developing a stress
fracture in his right ankle just weeks before the Games.
Johnson won the bronze in Barcelona with a score of 8,309
points, far below his trials-winning total of 8,649 but an
astonishing performance considering the courage it took to
hurdle on a bone that could crack open on any landing. "It hurts
so much I can't even feel it," Johnson allowed when his ordeal
was finally over.
Johnson never complained during the competition and hasn't
complained in the four years that have followed. "I learned so
much from getting that bronze," he says. "I'm not sure a gold
would have taught me as much."
Johnson, who lives in Pomona, Calif., has continued to train for
the decathlon, though he has learned that his body cannot
recover as fast at age 33 as it did at age 29. His ankle was set
in 1992 with two titanium screws, which frequently make it sore,
and a painful pulled muscle in his foot kept him from sprinting
for about three months beginning last December. He has a good
second career in the javelin, finishing sixth at the 1993 U.S.
Mostly, though, Dave has been a dad. The first event of his day
is neither lifting nor sprinting but making breakfast for his
daughters, 3 1/2-year-old Alexandra, whom he and his wife,
Sheri, adopted in 1992, and Makenzie, aged 14 months. He then
spends five hours at the Azusa Pacific track, training under his
longtime coach, Terry Franson. Johnson has found time to write
an autobiography, Aim High, which was published in 1994, and he
plans to start a master's degree in marriage and family
counseling after the Olympics.
Johnson will try this week to become the first American to make
three Olympic teams in the decathlon. He has decided against
also attempting to make the team in the javelin, preferring to
save his arm for the decathlon. He firmly believes that a medal
is within his reach.
Johnson is looking forward to a reunion at the trials with his
old pal O'Brien, whom he sees a few times a year at meets and
clinics. "I'm looking forward to giving him all the support I
can," says Johnson. "If I can sit next to him, I think I can
help him relax and score his best."