PHOENIX — Dan O’Brien knows that 37 is ancient for a decathlete, that most grueling of track and field competitions — 10 events over two days with the Olympic winner earning the title “world’s greatest athlete.”
Even so, he is attempting yet another comeback, this one eight years after he won an Olympic gold medal and six years since he last completed a decathlon.
“I feel like I’ve still got something in this body,” said O’Brien, who lives with his wife just outside Phoenix but trains at Washington State University with longtime coach Rick Sloan.
Since winning the gold medal at the Goodwill Games in 1998, the former Idaho track star has been plagued by injuries to the plantar fascia on the bottom of the foot.
“I just couldn’t figure how to get over it,” he said. “When I wasn’t training hard, it wouldn’t bother me. Then all of a sudden I’d get halfway through the spring running in track shoes and, oh, it would kill me.”
He finally solved the problem with electric shock treatments.
In the meantime, though, O’Brien faded into the background, periodically announcing a comeback then succumbing to injuries. He made it through eight events at the 2002 U.S. championships, then withdrew, again citing foot problems.
O’Brien said he never gave up. Track and field, after all, had been his salvation after a troubled youth. He had been the best, and wasn’t ready to quit.
“I don’t know if everybody’s forgotten about me as much as they just don’t know what I’m doing,” O’Brien said. “Everybody says, `Oh, you’re coming out of retirement.’ Well, I never actually retired.”
He still has the highest five decathlon scores recorded by an American, topped by his 8,891 points in Talence, France, in September 1992. A world record at the time, it marked a major comeback after he failed to make the ‘92 Olympic team because he didn’t clear a height in the pole vault. Four years later, he earned gold in Atlanta.
Reigning U.S. and world champion Tom Pappas, has the No. 6 score on the U.S. list with 8,784 points at last year’s U.S. championships.
“You know, he’s the guy to beat,” O’Brien said. “I truly believe that if you beat Tom Pappas, you win the gold medal. Tom Pappas is a physical specimen. The guy can jump and he can throw, and that’s the key.”
Before he can think about the Athens Olympics, O’Brien has to get into the U.S. Olympic trials in July. He would like it if his past success would allow him in automatically, but John Chaplin, executive director of the elite division of U.S. men’s track and field, has indicated that his marks may be too old to get him in without qualifying this year.
Chaplin said O’Brien needs to make a written appeal, and the sooner the better, since the competition is less than two months away.
O’Brien has mixed feelings about having to qualify.
“I wish I didn’t, but I probably am going to have to do a full one,” he said. “And I’ll do that in the middle of June or the first part of June to get the qualifying score out of the way. And it would be good training as well.
“If they let me through, then I would thank them for it. I think I have earned it, but rules are rules.”
As always, the big concern is staying healthy.
“Handling the day-to-day grinding and pounding that takes place,” he said. “Can I manage the training enough to get the work in but not overdo it and hurt myself?”
For O’Brien, just training for a decathlon is reason enough to stay in the sport.
“I really, really love the training,” he said. “The decathlons are hard, they’re stressful, but the training I can’t really imagine doing anything else at this point.”
He realizes that his body is not capable of what it once was, but he said his knowledge of how to prepare can make up for that.
“It’s going to be hard work, and I think what’s going to get me on the Olympic team is my mind,” O’Brien said. “In ‘96, I did it with my body. This year I’ve got to do it with my mind.”
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