Arrow-right Camera

O’Brien: Atlanta, At Last Decathlete Makes U.S. Olympic Team, Burying ‘92

Dan O’Brien cleared a psychological barrier in the pole vault before challenging his own record in the decathlon.

Michael Johnson came within a breeze of the world record in the 200.

In a scintillating 75 minutes of track and field excellence that also included the fourth-fastest time in the men’s 110-meter hurdles, American athletes gave a preview Saturday of the Atlanta Olympics.

On the same track that will be used for this summer’s Games, O’Brien and Johnson were among the heroes on a sweltering day in the U.S. track and field trials.

Johnson won his 200 semifinal heat in 19.70 seconds, which would have broken the 17-year-old world record if not for a tailwind over the allowable limit. Jack Pierce ran 12.94 in the semifinals of the hurdles, the fastest in the U.S.

O’Brien used the pole vault, the event that destroyed him four years ago, as a springboard to the decathlon title and his first Olympic berth. He was on pace after nine events to break his own world record, but wilted in the 108-degree heat in the 1,500 meters. His total was 8,726.

Also included in the glorious 75 minutes that began with Pierce’s run and ended with O’Brien huffing and puffing through the 1,500:

Gwen Torrence reached the final of the women’s 200 despite a thigh injury that her husband said has left her “running on one leg.”

Carlette Guidry ran a 22.29 in the semifinals of the women’s 200, fastest in the world this year.

Carl Lewis, saying he “felt incredible,” joined Johnson in the 200 final with a semifinal time of 20.29. Also advancing were 1992 Olympic champion Mike Marsh (20.20) and 1995 world champion bronze medalist Jeff Williams (20.02).

The finals in those events are today.

O’Brien came into the trials as the strong favorite to win the decathlon and go on to capture an Olympic gold medal - just as the former University of Idaho standout went into the trials four years ago.

In 1992, O’Brien held a comfortable lead after seven events and decided to make his first pole vault attempt at his usual opening height of 15 feet, 9 inches. But then he missed all three of his jumps. That failure haunted him for years.

On Saturday, he set his opening height at 14-9. He easily cleared his first attempt, bounding out of the pit and pumping both fists in triumph. He ran over to an opponent for a high-five.

The three-time world champion easily went over at 15-1 and 15-9, grinning broadly after clearing the height that tormented him in 1992.

“I was thinking: ‘Do it right, be aggressive and don’t think about the outcome. Don’t think about missing, because you can’t,”’ he said.

He kept clearing the bar until he had succeeded at 17-0-3/4. He nudged the bar at that height, but it didn’t fall. That put him ahead in the decathlon, and he added a career best in the javelin to take command.

Had O’Brien run 29 seconds faster in the 1,500, he would have broken his 1992 world record of 8,891 points. “I almost broke the world record and I still just had an average performance,” O’Brien said. “It was very difficult. It was very, very hot.”

Steve Fritz placed second and Chris Huffins, who was first after the first day, finished third to earn berths on the U.S. team. Huffins fell from second to third after finishing last in the 1,500.

Johnson, who led comfortably halfway through, looked to his right with 50 meters left and eased at the end. He punched the air four times with his right hand when he saw the time. But the wind registered 2.7 meters per second, over the limit of 2.0, so the record of 19.72 set by Pietro Mennea in 1979 stands.

“This is very encouraging. It’s further indication that I can run 19.6, which is something I’ve felt all along that I could do,” Johnson said. “The track is definitely fast.”

In the men’s hurdles, two-time Olympic gold medalist Roger Kingdom, world champion Allen Johnson and Mark Crear joined Pierce in today’s final.

In the women’s 200, Torrence showed little sign of her injury while running her semifinal in 22.35.

Two-time world champion Gail Devers stumbled before the fifth hurdle in the semifinals of the women’s 100 hurdles, but still finished third in her heat in 12.93 and advanced to today’s final.