By the time he arrived at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, Dan O’Brien’s track and field career had been defined by his missteps. The star decathlete had flunked out of college, later returned, and competed in the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials before withdrawing because of an injury.
“When I went home from those Olympic trials — I didn’t make it past the second event; I had a strained hamstring going in — but I remember going home and deciding in that moment, I’m going to do the decathlon,” O’Brien said. “I’m going to be the next Bruce Jenner. And literally that’s the point my life turned.
Three years later, in 1991, O’Brien narrowly missed setting a world record in the U.S. National Championships and went on to win the first of three World Championships. Ramping up to the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, O’Brien was considered a gold medal favorite. Reebok made O’Brien and fellow decathlete Dave Johnson the subject of a $30 million marketing campaign.
“I’ve always had to have some kind of failure before I was successful,” O’Brien said.
But disaster struck at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the pole vault. O’Brien passed on early heights and then failed in three consecutive attempts; previously in the lead after seven events, he plummeted to out of the running for a place on the Olympic team.
“For the first time in my life, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” O’Brien said a few years later.
O’Brien did make it to Barcelona – as a broadcaster for NBC. But he did continued training and finally turned the corner. At a meet following The Olympics, he set a new world record.
“I would love to have got the gold medal,” he said, “but this world record says that I’m worthy of the title of world’s greatest athlete.”
O’Brien subsequently won World Championships in 1993 and 1995 and – at last — at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games again stood atop the podium with a gold medal draped around his neck. He was the first American since Jenner at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games to win Olympic gold in the decathlon.
“What I thought about every single day for the last four years was being up here after winning the gold,” O’Brien said. “Perseverance does pay off. I’m very glad I stuck it out.”