- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
The best decathlons end like the worst disasters: Bodies are strewn everywhere. In the Goodwill Games decathlon last week, moments after the eight survivors—out of the original 10-man field—staggered across the finish line of the 1,500 meters, Seattle's Husky Stadium came to resemble a MASH unit. The Soviet Union's Roman Terekhov, who had won the 1,500, lay dazed on the ground on his back, rocking like a boat. A few yards away one of his teammates, Soviet champion Mikhail Medved, was curled in a fetal position. And Dave Johnson of Montclair, Calif., was draped heavily around the neck and shoulders of his U.S. compatriot Dan O'Brien of Moscow, Idaho. Johnson had won the gold medal with 8,403 points, 45 more than O'Brien, who finished second. As the pair congratulated and consoled and supported each other, they seemed a single, exotic, eight-limbed creature.
The Americans' weary bonhomie was entirely fitting. It was the most significant victory by a U.S. athlete in a major international decathlon since Bruce Jenner's Olympic victory in 1976 and the first time the U.S. has finished one-two in a premier world competition since 1975. It was the highest three-man total—Sheldon Block-burger of Eugene, Ore., finished sixth with 8,002 points—in decathlon history, suggesting that for the U.S. a renaissance has finally begun.
This event was meaningful in another way: If camaraderie is the real aim of the Goodwill Games, no event succeeded in fulfilling it like the decathlon. "There's an unwritten law among decathletes that you help each other out," explained O'Brien. In Seattle the common enemy was sullen weather. Swirling winds buffeted the athletes, and the temperature, which never rose above the mid-60's, turned muscles stiff. "You had to battle the conditions as well as the events," said Johnson. "It was 10 athletes fighting against the elements."
So they helped each other from the beginning. In the 100, they took turns making false starts in hopes of catching a moment of calm between headwinds. "Even the Russians were in on it," laughed Johnson later. "We were all talking in the set position. 'Is it too windy?' 'Yeah.' 'Quick, false start.' "
But after six false starts they gave in. It made no sense to procrastinate. There would be no records in Seattle anyway. In the first section of the 100, Johnson ran 11.18 into a two-mile-per-hour headwind. O'Brien, facing a five-mile-per-hour headwind in the second section, ran 10.99. After long-jumping 25'11�"—a remarkable distance on such a day-O'Brien held a lead he would not relinquish until the last event.
"Dan paced the whole field," said Johnson, admiringly. "He kept us going, kept us alive." On that first day O'Brien also put the shot 49'9", high-jumped 6'9�" and ran the 400 in 48.38. His first-day total of 4,470 points led the then runner-up Blockburger by 280 points and Johnson by 293.
That was to be expected. O'Brien rates behind only world-record holder Daley Thompson of Great Britain—who is past his prime and did not participate in these Games—as the discipline's finest first-day performer. "He's definitely in the Daley mold," says Frank Zarnowski, author of The Decathlon, the event's definitive history. "But where he has it on Daley is that he's a better thrower."
The source of his magnificent powers is a mystery to O'Brien. He was adopted, at age two, by Jim and Virginia O'Brien of Klamath Falls, Ore. The adoption agency in Portland gave them very little information about his natural parents. Says Larry Hunt, who coached O'Brien in high school and now is the president of the Dan O'Brien fan club, "[The agency] told them that his father was black, 6'3" and very athletic; that his mother was at least part Finnish; and that one or both of them were college professors."
O'Brien showed little athletic promise until his sophomore year at Klamath Falls's Henley High, when he grew six inches. "He grew so much his bones hurt," recalls Jim O'Brien. By his senior year the younger O'Brien had also grown into the state champion in the 100, the long jump and both hurdles.
O'Brien's specialties came early in the decathlon's two-day schedule, so he was forced to act as front-runner. "We've got a neat thing going," said Johnson. "Dan's got a great first day, I've got a great second day."