O'Brien hopes Olympic success still in his future He's not deterred by 1992 disaster

December 27, 1992|By Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES -- So tell us, Dan O'Brien. How did you feel the first time you competed in the pole vault after the stunning no-height debacle that kept you out of the Olympic decathlon competition?

4 Nervous, O'Brien says. How do you think he felt?

O'Brien felt especially nervous when, at an invitational decathlon meet in Talence, France, last September, he failed to clear his first vault at the opening height. Could it be happening again? Was he about to embarrass himself for the second straight time?

Well, no, as it turned out. O'Brien went on to vault 16-4 3/4 , to win the competition and to set a world record for the decathlon in the process.

Was this redemption for not getting to the Olympics? You bet. Did it wipe out the sting of that disappointment? If only he could state unequivocally that it did.

"Maybe a little bit," O'Brien allowed in a recent stopover in Los Angeles. "It's just that the Olympic Games are such a big deal and it didn't seem like anybody was watching the world-record attempts."

Thus did O'Brien expose his sport's raw nerve. If you want to be big in track and field in this country, you had better become an Olympic champion. Being the best in the world isn't nearly as important as being the best in the world on one specific day every fourth year.

"It's like planning for something your whole life and all of a sudden not getting to go," O'Brien said. "It changes your whole life."

O'Brien's frustration was made more acute by the fact that in the months leading up to the Olympics he was part of the most relentless promotional campaign track and field has ever seen. Dan and Dave. To be settled in Barcelona. A head-to-head competition with Dave Johnson that promised the winner a payoff beyond measure.

But there was no Olympic competition between them, and no winner, either. Johnson broke a bone in his foot during the decathlon and limped to a bronze medal. O'Brien went to the Games as a commentator for NBC.

In his spare time in Barcelona, O'Brien worked out on the same track outside the city where some of the Olympic decathletes were practicing. A word to describe the experience? Try bittersweet.

"I was a little down," he said, "but you can't go to a meet like that and not get excited. I didn't know if I was going to compete again, but being there and just watching contributed to the healing process. It made me want to go out and compete."

After several good practices once he came home, O'Brien called the promoters of the meet in France and told them he was ready to try again. It was the perfect event in many ways, a meet devoted strictly to the decathlon and heptathlon contested in a small stadium before enthusiastic fans. But at first, O'Brien wondered why he had come.

"Emotionally, it was kind of a struggle," O'Brien said. "It had been such a long year and I'm not used to competing in September. I just wanted to get it over with."

But when he broke out with a strong 100 meters, long jump and shot put for a best-ever first day of competition, O'Brien knew Daley Thompson's world record was in sight. His excellent pole vault (sigh) the following day made it all but academic.

"It was like the weight of the world is off your shoulders," said O'Brien, who was mobbed by the 10,000 fans at the meet. "I guess I still salvaged something out of a year that didn't have such great moments."

O'Brien figures he has plenty of decathlons left in him. Unlike Johnson, who has been wrestling with the grueling event for 10 years now, he didn't begin training seriously until 1989. Does he have his sights set on Atlanta? That and on extending his world record from 8,891 points to 9,250.

"That would be like a Beamon record," said O'Brien, whose two major events this year will be the TAC championships next June in Eugene, Ore., and the world championships a month later in Stuttgart, Germany.

O'Brien has some thoughts about that big promotional bonanza he let get away, too.

"I'm not sure what they're going to do with us," he said of the shoe company that started it all. "I hope they'll use us individually and when '96 rolls around, they'll go Dan and Dave crazy again."

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