Redemption is a huge word, much too big for what Dan O'Brien will be seeking at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Atlanta this week. It is a sportswriter's word, inflating what is merely dramatic into a moral struggle of cosmic proportions. There may be athletes who need redemption, but few need it for something they did during competition.
No, when O'Brien stands at the end of the pole vault runway in Olympic Stadium on Saturday afternoon, he will be seeking simply to master his emotions, overcome the weight of the past and earn a place on the U.S. team—which are no small challenges. He will have a 15-foot tube of white fiberglass resting on his right shoulder, and as he stares down the runway, he will see the ghosts he disturbed four years ago when, on a similar runway in New Orleans at the 1992 trials, he took three vaults at his opening height of 15'9" and missed them all. By failing to score any points in the vault, O'Brien, then as now the world champion and the strong favorite to win the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon, guaranteed that he would not even make it to the Barcelona Games.
"Every pole vault competition since 1992 has been nerve-racking for me," he admits. "I get an increased heart rate, sweaty palms. I have to force myself to relax and do things correctly. But in the end I've always been very competitive."
In the four years since Barcelona, O'Brien has won all eight decathlons he has entered. He has earned his second and third world championships, both by impressive margins. In 1992 he set a world record (8,891 points) that none of his current rivals have come within 156 points of reaching. Yet there is only one way for O'Brien to put his '92 failure entirely behind him: by getting through the pole vault, making the U.S. team and winning the gold at the Atlanta Games. "Everywhere I go, people are so nice and supportive," says O'Brien. "It's gotten a little out of hand. People come up and say, 'I know you're going to make it this time.' "
Not that they should feel too sorry for O'Brien. In the two decades since Bruce Jenner, then training for the 1976 Olympic decathlon, had to depend on his stewardess wife to support him, the funding available to top U.S. decathletes has increased markedly. Even without getting to the Olympics, O'Brien has been making the kind of dollars Jenner was able to earn only after winning the '76 gold and giving up his amateur eligibility. O'Brien's endorsement contracts with VISA, Nike, Foot Locker, Canon and Juice Bowl yield $300,000 a year, money he has used to build a house, complete with cathedral ceiling, two decks and a hot tub, in Moscow, Idaho. He drives a Mercedes and has a live-in housekeeper-cook. But while he has not exactly suffered between Olympics, O'Brien, who will turn 30 on July 18, one day before the opening ceremonies of the Atlanta Games, knows he can't afford to wait another four years for a shot at a gold medal.
If anything, the pressure on O'Brien is greater than it was in '92, according to Jim Reardon, a psychologist who has worked with him and other members of the elite U.S. decathlon team since 1993. Rear-don, who in his day-to-day practice in Columbus, Ohio, works with trauma victims, seems uniquely equipped to counsel O'Brien. "The same dynamics pertain," says Reardon. "What Dan experienced in 1992 would clearly qualify as trauma because it was so unexpected. For trauma victims, anniversaries are always difficult. They trigger fear and anxiety."
Like it or not, the Olympic trials are an anniversary for O'Brien. "You can't not think about something like that," says Reardon. "The moment of highest tension at the trials will come when Dan gets on the runway for the vault. Everyone will stop, every camera in the stadium will focus on him, and everyone will wonder: Will he get over?"
The self-doubt that was planted at the '92 trials never tormented O'Brien more than at the following year's U.S. nationals, which served as the qualifying meet for the '93 world championships. Idaho coach Mike Keller, who works with O'Brien in the running events, and Washington State track coach Rick Sloan, who works with him in the field events, had to virtually push O'Brien onto the track in Eugene, Ore., for the 100 and then again for the high jump. "You could see the fear in his eyes," says a friend of O'Brien's.
But if the first day of that decathlon revealed the depth of O'Brien's fears, the second confirmed that he could overcome those fears. After fouling as he spun into his first two throws in the discus, O'Brien was down to his last attempt, one foul away from another disaster. Without even a spin, O'Brien muscled the discus out 143'10". That summer he went on to win the national title and the world championship in Stuttgart.
When he describes the last four years, O'Brien sounds as much like a 12-stepper as a 10-eventer. "The Olympics have come quickly," he says. "Each year I've tried to concentrate on that year's most important competition." O'Brien is trying to look at the Atlanta Games as just another of those big meets. "Everybody from Bruce Jenner to Rafer Johnson tells me that you can compete in championships all over the world, but once you step on that Olympic track, it's different," he says. "I can't imagine how it can be that different. I think the Games are going to be an experience for me, but I just need to be focused to compete like I always do."