The heroes of most young athletes hang - permanently frozen in two dimensions - on a picture poster thumb-tacked to a bedroom wall.
The young aspirant can only make assumptions about his role model, only make vague guesses at what are his methods of training, what paths he strides to greatness.
For Leo Slack, though, it’s as if the exalted master of his sport has sprung full-grown from that poster and joined him in his daily training sessions.
“I would say that it’s the equivalent of getting to play basketball with Michael Jordan every day,” said Slack, a Washington State sophomore decathlete who is coached/ befriended/counseled by world champion Dan O’Brien.
“It just doesn’t get any better than this.”
Slack not only works out with O’Brien - the world-record holder who lives in Moscow - but actually competes against him.
“We have competitions all the time where I’ll spot him 5 or 6 feet in the shot or 20 feet in the discus,” said O’Brien, a WSU volunteer coach. “I think it’s making him better, and I know it’s making me better.”
Would Jordan compliment a college sophomore for improving his jumper? Don’t think so.
“I really enjoy working with Leo because I’ve kind of been on my own and it’s so nice to have somebody to train with every day,” O’Brien said.
Surely, Slack’s best of 7,544 points comes nowhere near threatening O’Brien’s world record of 8,891, but the 20-year-old has competed in just five decathlons.
His mark leads the Pacific-10 Conference heading into this weekend’s conference multi-event championships at UCLA, and is ranks 10th in the NCAA this spring.
The influence of O’Brien can’t be overstated. The response of many observers, in fact, is that Slack could easily pass for O’Brien’s little brother.
“Dan is an obvious measuring stick for him,” said Rick Sloan, WSU coach and himself a former Olympic decathlete. “The closer he gets to what Dan is doing, the more he’s reaching the level he wants to be.
“We made Dan a volunteer assistant so he can train right next to our people. Dan is where Leo would like to be; of course, Dan is where every decathlete in the world would like to be.”
The competition between the two is by design, and can become intense.
“I try to build some competitive anxieties into it,” Sloan said. “So we get a little trash talking going on between them, too.”
Hey, Jordan, is that the best you can dunk it?
The fact that Slack has hit the 25-foot mark in the long jump and cleared 6-10-3/4 in the high jump hints of tremendous potential in one of sport’s most difficult disciplines.
“He’s got in him a top-three finish in the (NCAA) meet this year if he really gets it together,” O’Brien said. “And before he’s done with college, Leo really has a chance to get over 8,000 points and maybe push Mike Ramos’ national (college) record (8,322).
“That’s because his field events are so good. I can see Leo jumping 7 feet and clearing 17 in the pole vault before he’s out of college.”
Slack’s weaknesses lie in the 1,500 meters (perhaps another measure of O’Brien’s influence), and also the sprints.
Since Slack has yet to crack 11 seconds in the 100, Sloan does not see him becoming “Mr. Lightning.”
Although Slack does not possess that fifth gear, decathletes can go a long way by “honing the four gears they’ve got,” O’Brien said. “Look at Dave Johnson and Kip Janvrin; they’ve done pretty well without (great sprint speed).”
Slack was good enough at football at Kennewick High to draw recruiting interest from the likes of Montana, but he preferred the “individual competitive aspect of track,” he said.
Sloan, in fact, was almost immediately jolted by Slack’s competitiveness. The coach recalled Slack’s first decathlon for WSU at the Tri-City Sports Festival.
“He was telling me what he was going to do in this event and in that one, and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, right, kid, this ain’t gonna happen,”’ Sloan said. “And he went out and did almost every one of them.”
That wild disdain for expectations continued as Slack notched eight PRs at the Pac-10 championships and four more at the NCAAs, where he finished eighth.
“He’s really everything we want: a tough competitor, a good student-athlete who works hard in the classroom and out there on the track trying to improve himself,” Sloan said.
Slack brings other elements to the daily workouts: the capacity to keep them lively.
“He’s really hungry, that’s the thing I notice about Leo,” O’Brien said. “He’s excited and energetic every day in practice. And the key for him is that he’s not afraid of anything. He’s not scared to run that 1,500 or that quarter. When I was young, those events worried me.”
Slack’s high confidence level, it appears, is not just a product of his own self-assured nature.
It’s also borne of the comforting knowledge that he may be at the perfect place at the perfect time to develop his craft.
“There’s one thing that feels really good to know,” Slack said. “That I’ve got people around me who can really help me get to where I want to go.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos (2 color)