Five days ago, Dan O’Brien was the toast of Atlanta. Having just won an Olympic decathlon gold medal, “the world’s greatest athlete” started sleeping less and talking more.
Daily competition gave way to dealing with the media mob who stormed his hotel.
He muscled through that ordeal, then had to deal with his agent, hard at work planning visits for O’Brien with TV hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno.
And the Wheaties deal. In a few weeks, it’ll be Dan O’Brien’s face on the cereal boxes.
But on Monday, when he returned to the Northwest, O’Brien started returning to quiet anonymity. O’Brien and his girlfriend, Leilani Sang, found no crowds of fans or reporters waiting for them when they landed in Spokane.
“I’m glad I’m back here because it’s time for life to start over,” O’Brien said.
A number of passengers spotted the athlete, asking for autographs once they had gotten off the airplane.
Others, noticing the gold medal O’Brien was showing to a reporter, asked to take snapshots of him next to their children.
“I guess I’m a legend, which is hard for me to understand,” O’Brien said.
Mostly, O’Brien was just another passenger, getting his baggage and preparing to drive home to Moscow, Idaho.
Sang, who accompanied O’Brien to Atlanta, was the woman at the Olympic stadium who kissed him right after the race that sealed his decathlon victory.
“My job was to make sure he kept relaxed,” said Sang, who met O’Brien three years ago in Klamath Falls, Ore., where they lived.
For a brief time at least, O’Brien plans to savor the satisfaction that comes with attaining a goal he pursued for longer than a decade.
He missed the Olympics in 1992 by performing miserably in the pole vault at the trials, failing to qualify for the U.S. team.
Last Thursday was the culmination of thousands of hours of training, becoming the first American since Bruce Jenner to win the decathlon gold medal.
Jenner, of course, took advantage of his smile - splashing it on cereal boxes and plenty of billboards to cash in on his fame.
O’Brien doesn’t know where his new-found fame will take him. The question of what happens next produced a shrug of muscular shoulders beneath a gray Nike T-shirt.
“I guess I’ll get back into some running and weight work,” he said. “I felt odd not working out for a couple days after I won the medal. The need to continue was real strong.”
He can’t do much to train for Leno and Letterman, so he’ll just go and have fun.
What finally hit him, he said, was discovering the world hadn’t changed all that much in the past week.
“The day after I won, I felt odd. Nothing had changed and that surprised me. I thought something was wrong.”
O’Brien found himself getting advice from fellow decathlete Daley Thompson, who won the gold medal for Great Britain in 1984.
“He told me the same thing happened with him.” O’Brien said. “You don’t change at all.”
The glow of success is short-lived and the important thing is to realize that luck and timing play a key role, Thompson told him.
There’s talk of taking a small movie part later this year. His only other commitment comes Aug. 18. That’s when the city of Moscow salutes O’Brien in a downtown parade.
“Oh, one other thing,” he added. “I’ll do a few appearances at Sea World in San Diego.”
The way things work, the next time a shiny gold medal goes around O’Brien’s neck, there’ll be some guy holding a cue card several feet away.
It’ll read: “After this, I’m going to Disneyland.”
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