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Olympics 2012: Dan O’Brien finds new hurdles to clear
Competition in the decathlon begins Wednesday at the London Olympics. This time around, Dan O'Brien doesn't mind being a spectator.
O'Brien won gold in the Atlanta Games in 1996 and with the triumph, laid claim to the title of world's greatest athlete. Sixteen years later, O'Brien will watch with interest and lend his expertise as a commentator for Yahoo Sports, and no doubt remember some of the best and some of the worst moments of his career as a decathlete.
He got some reminders of that earlier this summer in Eugene, Ore., at the U.S. track and field trials. Now 46, looking as athletic as he did when he won Olympic gold, O'Brien went to the trials to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the inclusion of the decathlon in the modern Olympics.
Also there were past decathlon champions Bill Toomey, Milt Campbell, Rafer Johnson and Bruce Jenner, along with Great Britain's greatest decathlete, Daley Thompson.
"My hero was Jackie Joyner-Kersee," O'Brien said. "I wanted to be just like Jackie, and Carl Lewis, of course. But there came a point in my life when I said, 'I'm not going to be the next Carl Lewis, I'm not going to be the next Jackie, but if I work hard, I could be the next Bruce Jenner.'"
It was a revelation that came to O'Brien the first time he met the decathlon gold medalists back in 1988.
Now, he is among them.
Dave Johnson, O'Brien's friend and former rival, and the other half of one of sports' most famous ad campaigns, was there, too. It brought back memories of where it all went wrong for him 20 years ago.
Four years before the high of the gold, O'Brien experienced a very disappointing low.
The setting was Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans. At stake was a place on the 1992 Olympic team that would compete in Barcelona. O'Brien and Johnson were the top decathletes in the United States, and their rivalry for the gold medal was something even casual fans could get excited about.
Reebok, Team USA's sponsor in 1992, concocted an ad campaign featuring O'Brien and Johnson: "This summer, they'll battle it out in Barcelona for the title of world's greatest athlete."
In what still is considered one of the greatest meltdowns in sports history, O'Brien failed to qualify when he "no-heighted" in the pole vault, the eighth event of the decathlon.
O'Brien had passed on the lower heights, opting to qualify by clearing the bar at 15 feet, 9 inches. He missed on all three jumps.
"I was so upset for him," Johnson recalled. "I just wanted to support him as much as I could for the next month or two."
Reebok quickly pulled the Dan and Dave ads and scrambled to find a new angle, one with O'Brien cheering Johnson on.
"It was tough in Barcelona because I expected him to be there," Johnson said. "I trained with him, I was prepared to compete against him, and we were going to help each other through the experience. But I was more concerned with Dan. His hopes and dreams were on hold."
Gold was not in the offing for Johnson, either, but he managed to win bronze despite competing with a broken foot.
Picking up the pieces
O'Brien continued his quest to become the world's greatest athlete. Less than a month later, he received a small measure of redemption when he set the world record in the decathlon at a meet in Talence, France, scoring 8,891 points. O'Brien now knew he was the best athlete in the world — he just didn't have an Olympic gold medal to show for it.
Shaking off the disappointment of not making it to Barcelona, O'Brien continued to compete, winning gold medals at the 1993 and 1995 World Championships. He'd also won gold at the 1991 World Championships.
In 1996, at the Atlanta Games, O'Brien won the gold medal that had eluded him four years earlier. This time, Dan had to compete without Dave.
Johnson made it as far as the trials in 1996, but nagging foot injuries kept him from making the Olympic team. He retired in 1997. O'Brien also retired after winning Olympic gold — the goal he had set almost a decade earlier. It was just one of his many hurdles.
Clearing his first hurdle
Long before O'Brien became a household name, he was a young man with more obstacles than most.
Born in Portland, Ore., Daniel Dion O'Brien was an orphan. He never has met his biological parents. He knows only that his father was black, and his mother Scandinavian.
O'Brien was 2 when he was adopted by Jim and Virginia O'Brien, and moved to their Klamath Falls, Ore., home as one of eight children, six of whom were adopted.
O'Brien didn't show signs of his athletic gifts until his second year of high school, when he developed an interest in football and track. It was his high school coach who suggested he try the decathlon.
Within a year, O'Brien won the Oregon state championships in the 100 meters, 110-meter hurdles, long jump and high jump, along with a track scholarship to the University of Idaho. Ultimately, failing grades and a lack of discipline caused him to lose the scholarship.
Refusing to allow his career to end before it began, O'Brien sought the help of his former coach at Idaho and began the long climb back. He attended junior college, working to pay his way this time, raised his grades and wound up qualifying for the 1988 Olympic trials. O'Brien, however, withdrew after sustaining an injury in the long jump.
It was shortly after missing out on that Olympic team when O'Brien found himself back at Idaho and got a chance to meet the former decathlon champions for the first time.
"I said, 'I want what they have, and that's the title of the world's greatest athlete.'"
O'Brien had just cleared another hurdle.
Retirement, then back to work
A mischievous smile crosses O'Brien's face when he's asked about what he's been up to since he retired.
"Not a whole bunch," O'Brien joked.
"For about 10 years after I retired, from age 30 to 40, I lived in Scottsdale Ariz., played golf and drank a lot of beer," O'Brien said. "At the age of 40, my financial adviser said, 'You know what, you're going to run out of money. You'd better do some work.' So I recommitted myself to the sport that I love so much, track and field."
Calling upon the dedication he'd let slide while enjoying retirement, O'Brien didn't get just one job. He got several.
He worked as a broadcaster for NBC and became an assistant track coach at Arizona State. He serves in the U.S. Olympic Committee's ambassador program and works with USA Track & Field. In London, he'll be covering the decathlon for Yahoo.
Not one to hold back his opinions, O'Brien says he likes the makeup of this year's U.S. team.
"There are no huge surprises on the team," O'Brien said. "We're sending, in my opinion, the strongest people we can. I truly believe that the cream rises to the top, and you saw that in a lot of the races [at the trials]."
One of those athletes O'Brien called the "cream of the crop" is Ashton Eaton, whose 9,039 points at this year's trials broke O'Brien's 20-year-old American record and established a world record.
"He just didn't let down," O'Brien said. "I don't know if I had been in the same position I would have run my guts out in the 1,500. But he absolutely went for it. That's what separates him. With that mindset and that ability, no one will be able to touch him."
State of U.S. track
O'Brien likes where the U.S. is, but he thinks there are improvements that need to be made to keep track and field growing.
"We need some help at the development level," O'Brien said. "Not all of us who were former athletes or even coaches now can dedicate a life to training a high-level athlete on a daily basis for no compensation.
"So those guys who are out of college, and before they get established as a world-class decathlete, are kind of on their own, and that's really unfortunate."
O'Brien released a book this year, "Clearing Hurdles: The Quest to Be the World's Greatest Athlete." Johnson, who was recently named the athletic director at Corban University in Salem, Ore., has had his book, "Aim High -- An Olympic Decathlete's Inspiring Story," reprinted this year to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the Dan and Dave campaign.
"We see each other a couple times a year, and we're still good friends," Johnson said. "Reebok took a chance on us 20 years ago, and I think we helped kick-start some of the interest in track and field. We'll always be connected."
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