November 14, 1995 in City

Drinking Got Him Off Track World-Famous Decathlete Dan O’Brien Tells Pullman High Schoolers He Almost Lost Everything To Alcohol

Eric Sorensen Staff writer

The message wasn’t “just say no” to drugs, but it wasn’t “just do it” either.

Instead, world champion decathlete Dan O’Brien talked Monday about how his slow slide into alcohol abuse helped ruin his college grades and threatened to stall his dream of becoming the world’s greatest athlete.

“You learn the hard way,” he told about 500 students packed into the bleachers of the Pullman High School gym. “And I was definitely one of those people that learned the hard way.”

With the 1996 Olympics approaching, O’Brien is closing in on his goals of a gold medal and a 9,000-point score, decathlon’s holy grail. But in his appearance Monday, as in the dozens of talks he has given other youth groups in recent years, he showed the less-disciplined side of his past.

Casually pacing the parquet floor in black-and-white Nikes, he offered a lesson in alcohol abuse that was subdued for the genre of anti-drug pep talks.

“I’m not telling you guys that you can’t drink and go have fun,” he said. “But you can’t let it affect any other parts of your life. At all.

“And if you guys are in high school now and drinking on the weekends, you can’t let it get any further. When you get into college, you can’t let it get into the Mondays and the Wednesdays and the Thursdays and the over-the-hump days.”

By way of example, O’Brien told of his early years on a full-ride track scholarship at the University of Idaho. He was a high school all-American in track and field, but his freshman grades at UI bombed, barring him from competition. His sophomore and junior years were no better.

His life was a pattern of hanging out with loyal but dissolute friends and, as he put it, “partying all the time.”

“I just thought I can handle the drinking if I want and have all the fun I want and still get good grades if I dedicated myself, still be a good runner if I dedicated myself,” he said. “But it catches up with you after awhile. Two or three years down the road I looked back and I had nothing.”

In the winter of 1987, he spent Christmas in his dorm instead of going home to Klamath Falls, Ore.

“The main reason I didn’t go home is I was embarrassed,” he said. “I think you could have characterized me as a semi-potential loser.”

He improved his grades taking classes at Spokane Community College, but back at UI he drove into the back of a parked car and was arrested for driving under the influence.

He finally competed for the UI track team his senior year. He was ranked fourth in the world in the decathlon after the 1990 Goodwill Games, then broke the world decathlon record with 8,891 points in Talence, France, in 1992.

But the refrain of friends and partying continued until the friends moved on and O’Brien, of his own resolve, quit partying. He did not go through a rehabilitation program, relying instead on the help of non-partying friends. He encouraged others in need of help to have the courage to ask for it rather than hide their problems.

“If you can be strong,” he said, “then you will ask somebody for help.”

Toward that end, the high school Monday started a Peer Helpers Program in which students and adults talk with other students about their problems and help them find ways to cope.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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