O'Brien clears heights in comeback bid

Phil Jackman

August 10, 1993|By Phil Jackman

Yesterday, Dan O'Brien went out and knocked off a few 200-meter --es in 21.5 seconds. And he's not even a sprinter, really. Then he did some jumping with a fiberglass pole, clearing 17 feet consistently. That's on a leg that's not 100 percent right now.

"I'm prepared mentally and physically, and that's got me worried," Dan says. "I usually need to be hurting to go into a competition and do well."

The competition is the World Championships of track and field Saturday through Aug. 22 in Stuttgart, Germany, and Dan O'Brien, in case you haven't been paying attention, is the uncrowned world's greatest athlete.

Uncrowned, because last year at the Olympics, when O'Brien had his chance to prove no one on the planet possessed his speed, power and thrust over the course of 10 athletic events known as the decathlon, he was a DNS (did not start).

Only tried and true fans of the punishing, two-day event would have noticed had it not been for the Dan-and-Dave greatest athlete ads abusing our senses via television for months before the Barcelona Games.

Recall, Dan, the world-record holder, flunked during our Olympic Trials rather ignominiously, failing to clear a height in the pole vault. "Total disbelief," was his description of that horrendous day in New Orleans. He thought about bagging it, but just for a moment. Among other things, Dan knows comebacks.

"Truthfully," he says, "I have no regrets about what happened. A good cry and I was ready to get on with it. I think there's a gold medal in my future, but I don't think I'm obsessed with it."

The 27-year-old native of Moscow, Idaho, realized sports and certainly life itself was no bed of roses when he sank to a level best described as shameful. Drugs and booze dropped him off at a point where he says he was too ashamed even to go home for the Christmas holidays.

Between practice sessions these days, Dan fills up what scant time is left by giving motivational talks in schools and to business groups. When he says, "so many people fail and just quit; it's OK to fail as long as you don't give up," listeners are aware he knows of what he speaks.

It was shortly after the Games last summer, where Dan served as a very visible cheerleader for the U.S. track team, that O'Brien cruised into France and set the current world mark for the decathlon. He didn't see it as vindication, but as yet another reason why he should press on.

"If he stays healthy and with his speed, strength and jumping ability, he can't be beat," says Fred Samara, U.S. decathlon coach. Speaking of people who know of what they speak, Samara qualifies after nearly two decades of competing on the ** international level.

"Rarely, if ever, is a guy 100 percent prepared for a decathlon," O'Brien says. "There's always some doubt in your mind because there's a feeling you could have done a little more in this event or that one. During the nationals in Eugene [Ore.], for instance, I was ready to drop out. I was hurting and felt I was short [training] in a couple of events. I'm glad I stuck."

The bad leg has been improving for a month, a prostate gland problem is under control and O'Brien is confident. "About as confident as you can be in an event where anything can happen anyway."

Like failing to clear 13-feet, 6-inches as his opening height at the trials last year.

"We've lowered my starting height, and I don't see it as a problem," he says. "The important thing is to get a good jump immediately and I've been making heights with my first jump consistently. My PB [personal best] in the vault is 17-2 and I think I'll be able to do at least that in Stuttgart."

If Dan sounds a little too confident, perhaps to the point of cockiness, there's a reason. "Decathlon is a mental game as much as anything else," he says, "and I've lost to just one guy in the last three years [old buddy and fellow Reebok spokesman Dave Johnson]. I think I have the other guys' numbers."

Another thing Dan O'Brien feels he has going is the element of mystery if not surprise.

"I've been doing the old hide-out trick in Idaho," he says, "and when I show up they'll be wondering what's been going on with this guy. I'm as confident as I was going into France last year [where he got the record] and, if things go well, I could set another record.

"Right now, I'm just trying to get as good as I can and let the other stuff take care of itself."

The down side of all this? Well, if O'Brien comes through big, expect them to dust off those Dan-and-Dave ads and for the barrage to begin.

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