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Atlanta 1996 Olympics | MIKE DOWNEY

The Countdown: 26 Days to the Games : There's No Height Like Olympic Team for Dan as Solo Act

June 23, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

ATLANTA — A $25-million advertising campaign, "Dan or Dave?" "Dave or Dan?" got flushed into the Madison Avenue sewers four years ago when Dan O'Brien, unable to clear the bar once in the pole-vault portion of the decathlon, did not qualify with Dave Johnson for the Barcelona Olympics. Somewhere in shoe world, Reebok wept.

By succeeding on his first jump here Saturday and beginning an ascent higher and higher, O'Brien could feel his 15 minutes of fame getting an extension. This time, it is Dan who's going and Dave who isn't, with O'Brien as pumped as an old gym shoe to join Jim Thorpe, Rafer Johnson, Bill Toomey, Bruce Jenner and the elite born-in-the-USA decathletes of the century.

"Welcome to Mt. Olympus," O'Brien was greeted by Toomey as he came off the track.

He had vaulted his way right into the Olympics.

"I wasn't out there thinking, 'Wow, this is ironic,' " O'Brien said, but he recognized the twist right away. Once the pole vault was out of the way in the oppressive noonday sun, O'Brien felt so rejuvenated that he hurled a javelin as far as he knows how, then made a literal run at his own world record before replenishing his bodily fluids with four intravenous feedings.

Later he said, "I think I broke the world record for IVs today."

Four years late and millions of dollars short, O'Brien, 29, had to live with his 1992 agony of defeat through an entire Olympiad, with a little help from his friends. His sports psychologist made his life miserable, reviving bad memories on purpose, wanting O'Brien to experience again an acute anxiety level while simulating the conditions of the Olympic trials in practice.

Fairly isolated at the Washington State track in the vicinity of his Moscow, Idaho, home, an uncertain O'Brien put his trust in his doctors and coaches. The psychologist, Jim Reardon, specializes in trauma management. That's how serious O'Brien felt this was. He berated O'Brien at times between events.

For further psyche-up babble, Frank Zarnowski, a decathlon guru, was summoned to Pullman, Wash., to provide background announcements over a loudspeaker, just as he would at the Atlanta trials and Olympics. As soon as O'Brien cleared his first jump in Saturday's pole vault, Zarnowski dramatically announced that O'Brien had just "exorcised his no-height demons."

In second place--unusual for him--to Chris Huffins beginning the decathlon's second day, O'Brien openly declared his intentions.

"No more tricks," he said.

No mind games, no saving his strength, no outguessing himself, he meant. An official listing of "no height" in 1992 was what had put O'Brien on the Demon Team in the first place. For the next four years, O'Brien swore he would do nothing different, but Saturday he did not scoff at easy heights, clearing one a foot lower than he tried in New Orleans.

Dan was back.

Not versus Dave. Versus Chris.

"If you keep playing with the dragon," Huffins noted, "eventually he's going to wake up."

As the bar gradually elevated from 14-9 to 17-0 3/4, over the top O'Brien went. By the time the 10th and final event, the 1,500-meter run, came along, the three-time world champion was in position to erase his world record, but in summertime in Georgia, the record-breakin' isn't easy. O'Brien said he was so heat stricken, "I didn't know where I was."

Done before dusk, O'Brien took comfort that come the Olympics, the decathlon won't end until 9 o'clock at night.

"I told myself no matter what it takes, no matter what the marks, I am going to make this team," he said. "Going back to four years ago, I was feeling pretty horrible at this time. When you actually do get here, it feels pretty normal.

"I was thinking, 'Do it right. Be aggressive. Don't worry about the outcome. Don't worry about what you're going to say at the end of the day. Be yourself.' In a decathlon you're always worried because you can always be more prepared. I've had opportunities in my life where I could coast, but this wasn't one of them."

Steve Fritz finished second, Huffins third, Dave Johnson a distant sixth in his last decathlon. Dave never mentioned Dan. Dan never mentioned Dave.

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