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Merrell Noden
June 25, 1990
Carl Lewis and two unlikely decathletes starred at the troubled TAC championships
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June 25, 1990

Shining Amid The Struggle And Strife

Carl Lewis and two unlikely decathletes starred at the troubled TAC championships

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One thing Cassell needs to do is promote his sport. "You have so much talent in the U.S., but this meet feels like a British League Division Two match," said John Rodda of the London newspaper The Guardian as he surveyed Falcon Stadium last Friday night. "Where are all the banners for advertising?"

Partly because of the lack of promotion, only a handful of people were on hand for the decathlon early in the week, but those lucky few were treated to the finest decathlon in U.S. history. Day One belonged to a 23-year-old from Klamath Falls, Ore., named Dan O'Brien. After running 100 meters in a wind-aided 10.40, O'Brien sailed 26'4�" in the long jump, the longest legal jump ever in a decathlon. He then put the shot 50'4�" and high jumped 6'11�". Despite a disappointing 49.25 in the 400, O'Brien finished the first day with 4,656 points, 130 more than the U.S. record set 22 years ago by Bill Toomey in the Mexico City Olympics. O'Brien led defending TAC champion Dave Johnson by 297 points.

The two rivals share more than athletic talent. Both have used track to cope with personal problems. "I was drowning in alcohol and drugs," says O'Brien of his not-so-distant past. In 1988, after three academically unproductive years, O'Brien's coach at Idaho, Mike Keller, packed him off to Spokane Community College, where he straightened out.

The 27-year-old Johnson grew up in Missoula, Mont., where he often broke into houses to steal alcohol. "There's a lot of alcohol in my past," admits Johnson, who was arrested several times as a teenager before his family moved to Corvallis, Ore., where he discovered football and track. "Throwing rocks at cars kept my arm in shape," says Johnson, who is now a devout Christian. "Running from the police made me fast."

Johnson offered no explanation for his prowess in the pole vault and javelin. Yet it was those two events that carried him past his precocious rival. On Wednesday he vaulted 16'4�" to O'Brien's 14'1�" and threw the javelin 222'5", more than 30 feet farther than O'Brien. After 10 events, Johnson prevailed, 8,600 points to 8,483.

Never before had two Americans topped 8,400 in the same decathlon. And the field was deep. Seven Americans topped 8,000 points, three more than had ever done so in a single meet. "This event is back in the U.S.," said Johnson, "and we're going to see some big scores by '92."

In the reemergence of the decathlon may lie an important message for U.S. track and field as a whole. Fred Samara, a 1976 Olympic decathlete who is TAC's national coordinator for multi-events, had been distressed by the fact that from 1981 to '88, no American ranked higher than ninth in the world. So he asked Visa to invest in the decathlon, and the credit card company came through with generous funding for clinics and stipends. "There's no reason why we can't do this in every event," Samara said.

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