Conversation with Olympic decathlete Dan O’Brien

In July and August 1996, the world sent its finest athletes to Atlanta. Some athletes came as familiar names from familiar nations. Others had toiled in obscurity. Each came proudly to Atlanta, and Atlanta received them in the same manner. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of those Summer Games, the AJC offers 20 memorable athletes and performances.

The 16th in the series: Dan O’Brien recalls his gold-medal success in the decathlon.

In 1992, Dan O’Brien was the track and field equivalent of Icarus, the character of myth whose ambition and ego led him to fly to closely to the sun and suffer a fatal fall. Only O’Brien did not quite fly high enough.

That year, as the presumptive Olympic decathlon champion, O’Brien engaged in an elaborate Reebok advertising campaign with fellow competitor Dave Johnson before even the U.S. team was set. Such commercial overconfidence turned to embarrassment when O’Brien “no-heighted” in the pole-vault portion of the 10-event discipline — failing to clear the bar once — at the Olympic Trials and was bounced from the U.S. team bound for Barcelona.

His return to the arena in 1996 was wrapped in the context of that great, most public pratfall. O’Brien’s trek through the Trials and the Olympic Games, both in Atlanta, was fraught with tension, much of it his own.

When he won gold, holding off Germany’s Frank Busemann, the medal represented a wiping clean the stain of 1992. It was a triumph four years in the making, a victory of substance over fluff.

And when it was done, O’Brien saw the value in it all, and how the failure in a way helped feed the fame.

“A lot of people don’t remember the decathletes who won gold medals after me,” O’Brien said. “People ask me are you the last American to win? No, absolutely not. We have a great history in the decathlon (including current Olympic favorite Ashton Eaton).

“The failure in ’92, the Dan and Dave, coming back and winning in ’96 — it kind of burned a spot in people’s memories who Dan O’Brien was.”

Today, living in Arizona, married since 2002, he said, “I’ve taken the multi-event into the real world as well.” He has sold fitness equipment, owned a gym, done personal training and volunteer coaching at Arizona State. Currently, O’Brien holds multiple positions with USA Track and Field, is involved in the planned construction of a large athletic facility in Phoenix and is an active public speaker.

He spoke in mid-June on the events 20 years ago, as well as on the ordeal that preceded them.

Q: I hear you were in Atlanta just last month. And you visited Turner Field (formerly the Olympic Stadium) for the first time since 1996.

A: Yeah, I tore the No. 63 down at the Braves game (the countdown to games remaining in the stadium before the move to Cobb).

It was interesting being in the stadium, trying to figure out which way did the 100 meters go, where was I when I won the gold, which direction did I ran my victory lap, that sort of stuff.

Looking back it looks so much different now, like such a blur. It was nice to be back, it seemed like it had been 20 years.

Q: What was your sense of anticipation for the Atlanta Games, having four years to dream about that moment? It has been written that you referred to the 1996 decathlon as the hardest two days of your life.

A: It was not just four years. I had dreamt about that Olympic gold medal years before even 1992.

It’s the kind of thing you think about when you’re in the weight room and you’re on the long runs, you’re lying in bed at night. I think what an Olympic athlete does is dream about the moment you’re going to get the gold medal.

For me, it was stressful because I was just trying to not make a mistake. I needed to perform at a high level, but I had made mistakes in 1992. I had gone in as the overwhelming favorite. This time it was: Just get through it; don’t make any mistakes; let your averages win out.

Q: How did you mentally get over the obstacle that the pole vault must have represented?

A: In 1992 what everybody always asks me is, ‘What happened?’ What happened was I was a young athlete in a situation I had never experienced before in a very difficult event. A number of different things can go wrong in the pole vault. Coaches in college and even pros will tell you, look, it’s the most nerve-wracking time in a decathlon seeing your athlete get over an opening bar.

After I didn’t make a height, my coaches and I talked. They said, look, this can’t happen. You’re so much better an athlete in all the other events, we can’t leave to chance whether you’re going to have a good day or a bad day in the decathlon in the pole vault. It’s time to become a very proficient pole vaulter.

I vaulted almost every single day the following season. It wasn’t like we had pole-vaulting sessions. It was like, you know what, we just got done with hurdle practice, now take three or four pole-vault runs down the runway. We tried to get more comfortable with the event, any condition — high wind, rain, whatever. We tested ourselves constantly in that particular event so that when we got there in ’96, I knew I could do it under any circumstance and any condition.

Q: You’ve spoken about how much energy you drew from the Olympic environment in Atlanta. What was that like?

A: I did that the entire Olympics. I got to go see swimming, got to see gymnastics, see them win the Olympic gold. I was inspired all through the Olympic Games.

So, when it was my turn to compete, the night I got the gold, Michael Johnson broke the world record (in the 200 meters), and the stadium was just alive. For me, it was a lot of emotion, a lot of inspiration throughout.”

(During the two-day decathlon competition, O’Brien wore down the field with his consistency, building a fairly comfortable lead. Pushed by the young German Busemann, O’Brien scored a personal best in the javelin, the penultimate of the 10 events. For the final event, the 1,500 meters — his least favorite — he was required to just keep the leaders in sight and the gold was his.)

Q: What was the feeling going into that final event?

A: I remember coming out, walking clear around to the start of the 1,500 meters, and the encouragement I got from the crowd and the connection that I got with the people in the crowd. So many people were there rooting for me and after my failure in ’92. That was really the sense I got from the American public — we’re with you, we know what happened in ’92, we want to see you win here in Atlanta. It felt great.

That night it was almost a victory lap on my final lap.

Q: And then you finally make the podium, vindicated after four long years. What were your emotions?

A: The awards ceremony was really magical for me because when I crossed the finish line after the 1,500 I was overcome with emotion. I broke down and cried. Why did that happen? It was because of everything I had gone through in four years.

I thought since we were the last event (of that night), that the place was going to be empty in 20 minutes. Everybody leaves after a track meet. I borrowed Michael Johnson’s pants and Carl Lewis’ ceremonial top. They marched us out there (for the medal ceremony). Nobody had left. It was phenomenal, 100,000 people, wow. You got a feeling that everybody stayed to see me get the gold medal.

When the national anthem was playing all I can remember is being so tired, just exhausted physically and mentally. Just being up and into that decathlon for two days absolutely drained me.

I can also remember I was sad as well. Because for years that goal kept me going forward. That goal got me up in the morning, it put me to bed at night and now I had it and that goal was gone. So, I knew my life was going to be a little bit different tomorrow. I was almost a little lost without it.

Q: So, how do you define your goals today?

A: My goals today are do what it takes to be successful. In the decathlon you knew exactly what that was. Been able to adopt an attitude of investing in myself, investing in learning how to do new things.

I had to work on some other skills. My goals as a coach were to help those athletes achieve their goals. I think in the end I’m a teacher, a coach, a mentor, that’s what I thrive on.

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