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Influential Athletes: Dan O'Brien

In 1990, when Track and Field was probably at its most popular, a young man from Klamath Falls named Dan O’Brien burst onto the national stage by winning the Decathlon at the Goodwill Games. Nearly immediately and from that point forward, Dan O’Brien became one half of the Reebok marketing juggernaut that was “Dan and Dave”.

Until 1992, nobody had actually cared about a decathlete since Bruce Jenner. This was primarily because even though the USA had dominated the decathlon since its introduction to the Olympics in 1912, Bruce Jenner had been the only American decathlete to medal in over a 35 years. But in 1992, after three decades it was all but a lock for the Americans, with Dave Johnson and Dan O’Brien competing, it was thought the rest of the world was competing for the bronze. The excitement was palpable, Reebok ran ads featuring Dan and Dave non-stop. And there, on every channel, was Dan O’Brien from Klamath Falls, Oregon. Later that summer, during the US Olympic trials, the Dan and Dave bandwagon came to an abrupt halt as Dan O’Brien missed on the pole vault and came up short qualifying for the 1992 Games in Barcelona. There is was, three bad vaults and Dan O’Brien’s Olympic hopes and the hopes of the Klamath Basin all dashed in one fell swoop.

Two months later, my father read a story in the Herald and News about a fun run that was to be followed by a speed and agility camp, hosted by Dan O’Brien. For an 11-year-old kid, it was pretty much the coolest thing ever. Growing up in the Klamath Basin in the 80’s and 90’s, I was never easily afforded many of the opportunities that athletes from the larger metro areas benefit from today. If you wanted to work with world class coaches or athletes, it was expensive. Parents had to travel, pay for lodging, pay for access, pay for coaching, the opportunity to learn the finer points was almost always cost prohibitive. Now here was the hometown hero Dan O’Brien, coming home to give back to the community he grew up in, and I was going to learn the trade secrets from the best. (Pictured above; my grandmother, my father, a very excited little sister, and myself).

During the clinic I learned a lot of great things, some of which I still use when I coach today, but one of the most transformative things I learned came years later when I reflected back on the opportunity. Dan O’Brien had just come up short on achieving his dreams, and instead of crawling in to a hole or feeling sorry for himself, he took a pause and dedicated time to better his community. By offering young boys and girls an opportunity that they might never otherwise have had, he exemplified the spirit of sport in his actions. The experience still motivates me to bring cutting edge sports performance camps and clinics to rural and underserved communities. Click here to find one of our youth sports performance clinics.

Three months after Dan O’Brien taught his clinic, he set the world record for most points in a decathlon in Talance, France, a record that would stand for nearly 20 years. By the end of his career he was a 3x world champion and the gold medalist of the 1996 Olympic Games. Dan now resides in Scottsdale, AZ where in addition to coaching at Arizona State University, he is an active host and participant of the USA Track & Field “Win With Integrity” program, a community out-reach program that allows Dan and USA Track & Field athletes, past and present, to reach at risk children in communities across the country. Click here for more info about Dan O'Brien.

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