It was 12:25 on a suffocating Saturday afternoon when time stood still. The air temperature was 106, the temperature on the track of Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium was 111, and at the end of a brick-red runway, decathlete Dan O’Brien cradled his pole and settled himself for his first attempt in the pole vault.
Four years ago, at the Olympic track and field trials in New Orleans, he had failed to clear a height in this event, and with that received no points, lost his spot on the U.S. team and authored one of those dramatic moments of failure that is forever remembered.
That is why time was standing still at these trials, and why it would remain that way for the 14 seconds it took him to sprint down the runway, clear a modest 14 feet, 9 inches and exorcise the demons that had haunted him since that failure in New Orleans.
Then both he and time were on the move again, O’Brien popping from the pit, waving toward the fans, finally exchanging a melancholy hug with Dave Johnson, his co-star four years ago in a $25 million ad campaign his failure had torpedoed. Now he walked toward the stands for a talk with Rick Sloan and as he neared him, he balled his right fist and cut the air with swift and symbolic uppercuts.
Mike Keller, O’Brien’s other coach, had foreseen these uppercuts 50 minutes earlier. He had predicted, “You might see some showmanship from him today. Deep in his mind he’ll be saying” - and Keller threw an uppercut - “to all you guys (who had questioned him). I think he’ll boom a big one for you.”
Now, to Sloan, O’Brien said, “I want to get aggressive.”
“You’ve got to get aggressive,” said Sloan. “Put this one out of your mind. That was a make-the-team jump. Now start fresh.”
“All right,” said O’Brien. “Time to win now.”
O’Brien would do much more than merely win; he would threaten his world record of 8,891 points before the sweltering weather forced him to settle for 8,726.
But neither heat nor wind could now truly stop O’Brien, who produced the boomer promised by Keller with a personal-best vault of 17 feet, inches. He followed that with another personal best, a 214-foot throw in the javelin. “Four years ago,” O’Brien said, “I was feeling horrible. This is a great feeling, but it has never been beyond my imagination. I dreamed it all last year, I dreamed it all this year, and since I’ve had that dream, it feels normal for me to be sitting here the winner.”
But his journey to that moment, to the position of Olympic gold medal favorite, was inextricably tied to Saturday’s noon hour and his performance in the pole vault before a crowd of 26,871. In New Orleans he had failed at 15-9, a height he clears regularly in practice, and in the wake of that disaster, he and his will had been roundly analyzed and criticized.
That had been his reality since that moment four years ago, and it accompanied him as he wandered under the sun and along the pole vault runway. “All eyes’ll be on him. He knows that,” Keller said.
How does he feel about that?
“A lot of times,” said Keller, “I’ve seen fear in his eyes in the past. You know when someone’s in terror. After two jumps (in New Orleans) I saw it. But he’s got none of that here. This is the most focused I’ve seen him since way back in Tokyo (when he won his first world championship in 1991). He’s very confident today.”
“I was relaxed, I was calm,” O’Brien said of this moment. He had just received an IV injection to combat the heat, and at 11:50 a.m., just 25 minutes before the vault’s scheduled start, he walked over to the stands to talk with Sloan. They talked again at 12:01, a third time at 12:10, yet one more time at 12:14, and 11 minutes later time stood still and O’Brien cradled his pole.
Just 14 seconds later, the drama was over. Dan O’Brien had not missed, had instead stared down his moment of truth, and in the stands Sloan jumped to his feet and Keller turned toward friends and flashed a thumbs up.
“I was pretty happy right then. I knew I made it to the Olympic team,” O’Brien said, but he had surely done much more than that.
He had, at last, set himself free, and allowed time to finally move on.
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