Decathlon 2000 › Biographies › Dan O’Brien’s biography
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Dan O’Brien’s biography (2)

July 30, 2008

Dan O'Brien was born on July 18, 1966, in Portland, Oregon, and lived in an orphanage until he was adopted into a large, multiethnic family in 1968. He excelled in football and basketball during high school and won numerous state track and field titles. Although he earned a scholarship to the University of Idaho, academic ineligibility kept him sidelined for several seasons. After some time at a community college in Spokane, Washington, a more mature O'Brien returned to Idaho and was expected to win the national collegiate title in the decathlon in 1989, but an injury prevented him from competing.

O'Brien placed second in his first international meet, the 1990 Goodwill Games. He won the decathlon at the national track and field championships for the first time in 1991 and went on to capture the world title. In 1993 he successfully defended his world decathlon title and became the world indoor heptathlon champion by scoring a world-record 6476 points. He continued with decathlon victories at the 1994 Goodwill Games and the 1995 world championships.

Despite these accomplishments, Olympic success eluded O'Brien. He led after two events at the 1988 Olympic trials, but a long-jump injury forced him to withdraw. In 1992, after becoming a celebrity by starring with fellow U.S. decathlete Dave Johnson in a series of popular pre-Olympic advertisements, O'Brien never made it to the competition in Barcelona, Spain; he missed all three pole vault attempts at the Olympic trials and finished 11th overall. He managed to redeem himself somewhat at a meet later in the year at Talence, France, by setting a world record of 8891 points, outscoring Olympic champion Robert Zmelik by more than 500 points.

Between the 1992 and 1996 Olympics O'Brien had to overcome various obstacles, including physical injuries, a drinking problem, and mental barriers. A sports psychologist helped him improve his attitude toward the 1500-meter race, the last event of the decathlon and the one he disliked the most. Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, he learned techniques to improve his focus. The efforts paid off—O'Brien scored 8824 points at the Atlanta games to win the gold medal.

Comments (2)

Michael Keller wrote on Dec 02, 2010
The ability of OB to run a quality 1500 meters forced him to pass at least three attempts to a new WR. His first decathlon 1500 meter in 1990 in Santa Barbara CA was his pr. It hurt he remembered every time he ran a dog that gets hit with a switch..every time the dog remembers. Not that OB didn't have the physical ability, but yes he lacked the killer instinct in the 1500. It was survival of the event. He never lost a single major deca due to his inability to run a 1500m. With all his baggage he still was a fantastic deca athlete and now is a wonderful person helping out at Arizona State University.
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Mike barry wrote on May 18, 2020
Ed Brown and I paced him to that PR in Santa Barbara in 1990. Dan was such a raw and incredible talent, he needed to break 4:30 to qualify for nationals but had never broke 5 minutes before. We boxed him in and convinced him to run at our pace and he did it, he was hurting afterwards but he was physically capable. We trained with Sam Adams and used the Rob Baker method of training your brain and body to run first three laps at a fixed pace and then sprint out the last 300 with whatever you got left. (Rob is still the Deca WR holder in the 1500 and trained with Sam Adams for many years.) Typically, we would run 6 to 8 x 400's at 65 - 70 second intervals on a 3 minute cycle after our Saturday workouts. This conditioned us to pace the first 3 laps and not go out to fast (just stay in the zone), speed interval was depending on the athlete. A 70 second pace gets you to the final 300m mark at 3:30 (65 gets you to the mark at 3:15, etc.) Even if you can't run the last 300 faster than 70 pace, you still finish 4:20 - 4:25. If you have enough gas in tank to increase speed, 4:10 to 4:15 is very doable. In Dan's case, we paced him at 71ish, he followed Ed and I ran right behind him and would yell at him if he broke stride with Ed's pace. We pushed him through it and it was a rewarding thing for us to see him do it. I wrote down the workout for him after the meet and he was going to start doing it, but after following his career, it was obvious he did not. I ran into Dan in Scottsdale about 15 years ago and we reminisced about that race. He even admitted he wished he had embraced the Baker method - I think he'd still be the WR holder today if he had. Mike Barry
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