After winning his third world championship in the decathlon last summer, Dan O’Brien decided he could approach the future only by confronting the past.
His next decathlon would be at the 1996 Olympic track and field trials in Atlanta.
At the 1992 trials, O’Brien had failed to clear a height in the pole vault, costing himself a spot on the Olympic team and a co-starring role in the clever “Dan and Dave” ad campaign sponsored by Reebok.
For three years, O’Brien tried to forget about that failed pole vault in New Orleans. Forgetting, of course, was impossible. Even if he never broached the subject, reporters always did. Last summer, O’Brien approached Jim Reardon, a psychologist affiliated with the U.S. track and field federation.
“When I think about the pole vault in Atlanta, I’m anxious, I feel my heart start to beat,” O’Brien told Reardon.
Reardon, who works with trauma victims in private practice, devised a plan to prepare for the 1996 Olympic trials. Instead of suppressing his anxiety, O’Brien would face it head-on, turning his fear into motivation. When the two-day decathlon opens today, O’Brien will again be favored to win. This is a different year and he is a different person. He even has a different shoe sponsor, having left Reebok and signed with Nike.
Since that shocking experience four years ago, O’Brien has won the second and third of his world championships and has set the world record in the decathlon. The pole vault has become one of his most reliable events.
The question asked by the Reebok ad campaign: “Who is the world’s greatest athlete?” has long been answered. It is O’Brien, unquestionably.
He will celebrate his 30th birthday on July 18, a day before the Summer Games begin. Dave Johnson, the other half of the Dan and Dave rivalry, won a bronze medal at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.
“I’m not here for redemption,” said O’Brien, who is 6-feet-2-1/2 and weighs 190 pounds. “I’m not here to make up for past mistakes. I’m here for one thing - to make the ‘96 Olympic team.”
No, he said, he cannot forget about what happened four years ago. He does not even try.
“There’s no way to block it out,” O’Brien said. “It was traumatic, heartbreaking and disappointing. But it has motivated me to try to eliminate my mistakes.”
When the Olympic trials were held at Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans four years ago, O’Brien had never vaulted at the site. Then he missed all three attempts at the opening height of 15-feet 9-inches. He has not made a similar mistake this year. Last month, O’Brien competed at a meet in the 83,000-seat Olympic Stadium, growing accustomed to its size and swirling winds on the vaulting runway.
Before the meet, Reardon spoke to him about the pole vault, getting him to imagine the buzz of the crowd and the whirring click of cameras around the landing pit, purposely trying to build anxiety. Then O’Brien went out and cleared 15-3 on his first attempt, advancing later to 16-8-3/4. They plan a similar motivating session before Saturday’s pole vault.
“We try to build anxiety, partly to desensitize him,” Reardon said Thursday. “The last thing I want is for him to get on the runway here and to experience anxiety for the first time since 1992. I want him to be sick of the whole thing. I want him to think, ‘This is just a vault, I’m going to clear the bar.’ “
As the point totals played out, it would have taken a jump of only 9-2-1/4 in New Orleans for O’Brien to have made the 1992 Olympic team, far short of his personal best of 17-2-3/4. Some have criticized him for not starting at a lower height than 15-9 in New Orleans.
His coaches, Rick Sloan and Mike Keller, believe O’Brien failed to warm up properly for the pole vault. O’Brien believes immaturity brought on overconfidence.
“I realize I can’t coast through a competition, ever,” said O’Brien.
After his crushing failure in 1992, O’Brien said he headed to Bourbon Street in New Orleans, danced and drank until 4 a.m., had himself “poured” into a taxi and headed home. “I almost went into a daze,” he said. A month after the 1992 Olympics, though, he had recovered to set the world record in the decathlon in Talence, France.
“That made up for past disappointments,” O’Brien said.
Since 1992, he has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Medication gave him headaches and insomnia, but he has helped focus his concentration with deep-breathing techniques and massage therapy.
A year or two ago, O’Brien said, he also realized that excessive drinking and the decathlon were incompatible. Now, he’s chasing the 9,000-point barrier, the decathlon equivalent of the 4-minute mile.
He plans to take fluids intravenously both days to cope with the heat and humidity of Atlanta. He will not say at what height he will open in the pole vault, only that he wants to use the failure of 1992 as motivation, not conversation.
“I like to go forward,” O’Brien said. “I don’t want to go back to ‘92. If I keep dwelling on ‘92, I’ll get stuck there. The same thing might happen.”