In the years to come, the good people of Moscow, Idaho, will remember exactly where they were when they heard the awful news: Dan O'Brien had no-heighted in the pole vault at the Olympic trials. Dan O'Brien would not be going to Barcelona.
Chuck Labine, a University of Idaho administrator, was on the 7th hole of the Moscow Elks Golf Club. His wife, Debbie, a secretary at the university, who had been watching the trials on TV, raced out to the course to tell him the news. Chuck went numb with disbelief.
So did Doug Flansburg, who was playing in a doubles tennis tournament. Flansburg, a farmer, doesn't know O'Brien; he just knows what a tremendous athlete he is. "Is there any chance an exception might be made?" said Flansburg. "Is there a mechanism for it?"
There isn't. O'Brien finally grasped that cold, numbing fact as he flew home from New Orleans on June 29. "I realized it was over," he says.
He has borne up bravely. For a month O'Brien has been dating Tanya Hughes, a high jumper who was warming up for the final in her event at the trials while the decathlon pole vault was under way. After watching O'Brien miss what she thought was his second attempt, Hughes turned away to concentrate on her own task. She won and will be going to the Olympics. Not until the middle of the decathlon's last event, the 1,500, did Hughes discover that the miss she had witnessed was actually O'Brien's final attempt. The next morning O'Brien was with Hughes when she picked up her Olympic uniform.
"He's been holding up under all the strain," says Hughes, "but I worry about the other half of him, the part he's not showing. You know how you just want to cover someone up and protect him?"
O'Brien was lucky to come home to a delightful little place like Moscow (pop. 18,519), where pine trees stand all over town and tussocks of soft green grass tumble right on down to the foot of Main Street. O'Brien moved to Moscow in 1984 for his freshman year at Idaho. He is 25 now, and the people who have known him watched at first with delight and then with amazement as he grew from a sweet but forgetful party animal into the world decathlon champion. Last week, in a column headed O'BRIEN LOST THE GOLD, BUT NOT HIS CLASS, Moscow-Pullman Daily News sports reporter Tim Sullivan wrote: "We cheer for O'Brien because he is just that normal guy on the street. His athletic talent surpasses just about everyone in the world of sport, yet he's still the same guy who walks down Main Street in Moscow. The guy you say 'hi' to and end up talking to for 20 minutes."
What happened in New Orleans revealed a side of O'Brien that even his friends had not seen. "I didn't realize he was such a gracious loser," said Labine, "because I had never seen him lose."
That explains much of the shock. Last year O'Brien looked invincible. At the TAC championships he came within a whisper of Daley Thompson's world record, and in August he won the world championship by a staggering 263 points.
"Some people waited four days to come around and talk to me," says Mike Keller, who has coached O'Brien since he arrived at Idaho. "It's like a death in the family. What do you say?"