BY KAREN ROSEN
Before Dan O’Brien officially became the World’s Greatest Athlete, he was known as the world’s greatest athlete who didn’t go to the 1992 Olympic Games.
“I had to overcome maybe the biggest track and field or Olympic Trials failure ever,” O’Brien said.
His induction into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame presented by Allstate, which will be broadcast Aug. 23 by NBC Sports Network, and the IAAF (international track and field) Hall of Fame on Nov. 24 are proof he redeemed himself as a decathlete — with extra points for being a good sport about it.
O’Brien, 46, was the Dan in “Dan and Dave,” the series of Reebok commercials 20 years ago that comprised one of the most successful ad campaigns in history. But in the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials decathlon, O’Brien failed to clear a height in the pole vault on three tries, earning zero points and eliminating any chance of making the team.
“I think I became kind of a poster child for people that failed,” O’Brien said, adding that parents and coaches sought him out to talk to young athletes who had suffered setbacks and were hurting, “because they saw me handle failure very, very well.”
He would tell them “what it means to get back up and keep trying… that it’s not the end of the world.”
While Dave Johnson went on to Barcelona, where he earned the bronze medal despite a fractured foot, O’Brien was part of NBC’s broadcast crew. Watching the decathlon, he was “reinvigorated” and began plotting his path to the Olympic gold medal four years later in Atlanta.
“I saw some fantastic events and just fell in love with the Olympics,” O’Brien said, “and got excited, and started training over there.”
A month after the ’92 Olympic competition, he set the world record of 8,891 points in Talence, France. That mark lasted almost seven years and stood as the American record until Ashton Eaton scored 9, 039 points in June at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.
Prior to the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, O’Brien won 10 consecutive decathlon competitions – adding two world championships titles to the one he captured in 1991 and four more U.S. titles for a total of five.
But even while piling victory upon victory, people wouldn’t let him forget his blunder in New Orleans at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“As an athlete, you want to be remembered for the competition that you just had,” O’Brien said, “and so ‘92 happened and everybody talked about it. And then I broke the world record and everybody still talked about ‘92, and I won a world championships and everybody still talked about ’92, and that’s unfortunate.
“It’s like, ‘Hey guys, I’m rolling here, something that no American or decathlete has ever done, and that’s win three world titles in a row,’ but that wasn’t a story. It could be a little bit boring. The story was, ‘Don’t forget about ’92. You know he failed in ’92.’ So I had to change my story, and say, ‘Hey, look this is all leading up to ‘96 where I will be vindicated, where I will do what I wasn’t able to do four years ago.’ ”
At the ’92 Trials in New Orleans, O’Brien was on world-record pace after the first day in the decathlon, but was undone by the pole vault, the eighth of the 10 events. He could have come in as low as 8 feet, needing only 300-400 points.
Instead, O’Brien started at 15-feet-9 inches.
“I jumped poorly, and I didn’t know why I jumped poorly,” he said.
Looking at the tape later, O’Brien realized that equipment modifications, which he was seeing for the first time, had affected his depth perception. The pad surrounding the pole vault pit was extended in the front, influencing the position of his takeoff foot and his hands.
“But I didn’t know it at the time and we didn’t know it for months after,” O’Brien said. “Had I jumped at that facility prior to the meet I think that would have been the most important thing.”
When O’Brien missed his third attempt, the shock reverberated around the stadium.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Johnson said. “I knew we were there just to make the team. I came in at lower heights, I made sure I had fair throws, I was backing off. He came in at a height he’s cleared before. He could have come in a little lower just to make sure he had that one in … He was thinking of conserving energy.
“It was one of those mistakes you hope you never make, and for him one of those learning experiences.”
“It was heartbreaking,” O’Brien said, “and I think the worst feeling that any young athlete can have is that feeling of being left out, and that was tenfold right there.”
Leading into Atlanta, he made sure to compete in the Olympic Stadium three times before the Trials.
With a chance to finally show what he could do on the world’s biggest stage, he was ready physically and – thanks to a lot of psychology — mentally, O’Brien took the lead after the third event and beat German Frank Busemann by more than 100 points, 8,824 to 8,706.
“It was my consistency that got me through,” said O’Brien. “You go to the Olympics and odds are you’re not going to compete above where your abilities are because it’s in the highest pressure cooker in the world.
“I remember it was so stressful, you can hardly wait for it to be over. When it was done, I looked back at my decathlon and went, ‘Good, solid, average score,’ and it was a feeling of relief, absolute relief that I won that gold medal — not a feeling of jubilation or exhilaration. It was just relief.”
The victory was more memorable because of his decathlon debacle four years earlier.
“It was something to watch for -— the people are waiting for me to not make a bar and half the people are rooting for me to make a bar,” O’Brien said.
When he won, he joined a list of U.S. Olympic decathlon champions that have become part of American history, starting with Jim Thorpe and including Bob Mathias, Rafer Johnson and Bruce Jenner.
When Eaton broke his 20-year-old American record, O’Brien was in Eugene, Ore., as the onfield emcee at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
He was also the track and field expert analyst for Yahoo! Sports at the U.S. Olympic Trials and the London Games and is a volunteer assistant coach at Arizona State.
O’Brien lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife Leilani, who works for the Phoenix Zoo. His autobiography “Clearing Hurdles: A Quest to be the World’s Greatest Athlete,” came out in June.
“I thought I missed my window,” O'Brien said of the book. “I hooked up with a sportswriter (Brad Botkin) who was really interested in the story years later. It’s the 20-year anniversary of Dan and Dave, so that was why we did it now.”
In his book, O’Brien, who was adopted at age 2 by Jim and Virginia O’Brien of Klamath Fall, Ore., tells of being introduced to the decathlon by his pottery teacher in the 10th grade.
“I didn’t want to be a decathlete,” he said. “It was pretty hard, and I wanted to be Carl Lewis — I wanted to be 100-meter champ and long jump champ, and just do those two things, but the decathlon finds us all. It can weed us out and move us to another event or it’ll find us and bring us in.”
While the decathlon tested him, O’Brien wasn’t pushed academically. “I kind of was just left to my own devices as far as what kind of grades I wanted to get,” he said.
He developed problems with both academics and alcohol.
“I kind of had to overcome myself; all the mistakes I made were self-imposed,” said O’Brien. “I was this kid that just made tons of bad decisions and the fact is they were all my bad decisions. I had to learn by trial and error.”
With the help of his coaches, he turned his life around through his commitment to the decathlon.
“There’s nothing more exhilarating than a nice sunny day with a little tailwind in the pole vault, or 90 degrees with your shirt off and you’re high jumping,” he said. “I’m just a born sprinter and a jumper, so the only (decathlon event) I ever had any complaints about was the 1,500.”
O’Brien’s only regret is not reaching 9,000 points, but he said the weather didn’t cooperate. “I can’t tell you how many times I was ready to roll and boom, thundershowers in the pole vault, or boom, record lows in Sacramento at the U.S. Championships and I’d come up short.”
O’Brien tore his plantar fasciitis two weeks before the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials, although he didn’t retire until 2002.
While competing in the U.S. Championships that year, he “just didn’t have any pop," he said. "Your body gives out after a little while, and your back hurts, your knees ache a little.
“I was just tired all the time, just beat up every day. And that’s what the decathlon does to you.”
It also put him in the U.S. Olympic and international track and field Hall of Fames and launched him on a book tour.
“The easiest way to describe it,” O’Brien said, “for a guy who’s not competing any more, I’ve had a helluva year.”
Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.