No-height to new lows, O'Brien on way back Focuses on Olympics after failure of '92

June 22, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- You probably haven't seen his face in a while. You probably haven't heard his name mentioned by anyone but those connoisseurs of the decathlon who follow the results from faraway places. You probably didn't notice that he has changed from Reebok to Nike.

Dan O'Brien is back, ready to obliterate the memory of what happened at the U.S. Olympic trials four years ago, ready to rewrite the record books that he has helped author, and add an Olympic gold medal to his three consecutive world championships. But first there is the little matter of today's pole vault.

"I'll never forget what happened in '92," O'Brien said. "And it's something that motivates me every time I step on the pole vault runway in a major competition. I've got anxieties there, but I think it's a thing that motivates me to have successful jumps. And that's all I really want to say about it."

What happened in New Orleans is part of Olympic lore. For O'Brien, it was his personal Olympic gore. After setting a first-day record through five events, O'Brien came into the pole vault comfortably ahead and seemingly on his way to Barcelona. The $25 million "Dan and Dave" advertising campaign Reebok had waged was ready to cash in on O'Brien and fellow decathlete Dave Johnson.

Then O'Brien no-heighted in the pole vault, missing his last attempt at 15 feet, 9 inches, when it turned out he needed only 9-2 1/4 to qualify.

"I came in at a height that I make every day in practice," said O'Brien.

In the press box that day, Frank Zarnowski was sitting next to a Reebok executive as they watched O'Brien miss on the pole vault and finish 11th overall.

"He told them to cancel the spot and go with the Rockets [Roger Clemens and Rocket Ismail]," recalled Zarnowski, a professor of economics at Mount St. Mary's and the country's foremost authority on the history of the decathlon.

As things turned out, the spot wasn't canceled. A new one was made, with O'Brien watching Johnson compete at the Olympics. And after drowning his crushing disappointment with a three-day binge on Bourbon Street -- "I was in a daze," said O'Brien, who admitted to having a problem with alcohol two years later -- the world's greatest athlete went about reclaiming his title. And his self-respect.

The first step came that fall at a low-level meet in Talence, France, where O'Brien broke the world record of 8,891 by 44 points. The next step came the following year in Stuttgart, Germany, when O'Brien won his second world title. Then came another world championship last year in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Now O'Brien is ready to overcome his biggest obstacle: getting past the pole vault in the decathlon competition of this year's Olympic trials.

"I haven't determined what my opening height will be," said O'Brien, who ran his second-best 400 meters (46.81 seconds) and comes into the second half of the decathlon in second place with 4,615 points, trailing first-day leader Chris Huffins by 72.

But it is apparent that the pressure is nowhere near what it was in New Orleans. O'Brien left Reebok after later learning about what he considered to be a major discrepancy between his contract and Johnson's. He has gone for treatment to help his alcohol problem, but said this week that he still has a taste for microbrewed beer.

"I'm a lot more relaxed than I was," said O'Brien, who will turn 30 the night before the opening ceremonies. "I think what happened led me on the path to where I am today."

Those around him get the same sense about O'Brien. They admire the courage it took to admit a drinking problem as much as the strength he had to rebound from blowing a chance to go to the Olympics.

"It says something about his mental strength," said Johnson, who wound up with a bronze medal in Barcelona but stands 17th going into today's events. "I think being at the Olympics [as an analyst for NBC] gave him energy. I think it made him an angry man. But he channeled that anger into his competition."

Said O'Brien: "In Barcelona I recaptured the Olympic spirit. One of the most inspiring things I ever saw was the Kevin Young world record [in the 400-meter hurdles]. He came off the last turn and it was so exhilarating to watch."

Though he split with Reebok, he remains friends with Johnson. And winning a gold here next month would put O'Brien in a stronger negotiating position with Nike than he ever was with Reebok. He is represented by Brad Hunt, also agent to superstars such as Michael Johnson and Gwen Torrence.

"There's a lot at stake [financially], but I can't think about it," he said.

O'Brien came to these trials with a different mind-set than he had four years ago. He no longer feels bulletproof or unbeatable. He sees athletes like Huffins, 26, coming up and trying to push him aside as he did with Johnson a few years back. But what pushes him more is the memory of that steamy afternoon in New Orleans.

"In '92, I was a good example of an athlete who thought he could just show up and make it to the Olympics," he said. "When I didn't, it was a harsh reality."

(Results, 9C)

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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