Looking Back On One of Our Favorites, Dan O’Brien, Olympic Gold Medalist

by John M. Cooper

Dan O’Brien is one of Klamath’s most famous sons, and still a huge personality both here and abroad.

Dan O’Brien

The 54-year-old is an Olympic gold medalist, and it is the Games which have come to define him and ensure he remains a household name across the US. However, he endured a challenging childhood and setbacks as an adult which he managed to overcome to become the hero he is today.

O’Brien was born in Portland, Oregon but grew up as an adopted child in Klamath Falls, with Jim and Virginia O’Brien. O’Brien was raised on a farm with seven brothers and sisters, five of them adopted. His talent at sports earned him a scholarship to the University of Idaho, but his college life was disrupted by poor behavior, and he flunked out of school. He fought to get his life back on track, finding an outlet in athletics.

He won his first World Championship in 1991 in Tokyo, which saw him enter 1992 as one of the great US hopes for the Barcelona Olympics. During the Olympic Trials, he looked on course to qualify with ease, but suffered a catastrophe in the eighth event, the pole vault. He entered the competition at 4.80m but did not clear the bar on any of his three attempts. He scored zero points, a result which saw him fall from first place to eleventh. He failed to make the Olympic team and, once again, faced a battle against adversity.

It was also a blow to Reebok, who had pumped $30 million into their ‘Dan and Dave’ advertising campaign, focused on the duel between O’Brien and fellow decathlete Dave Johnson for Olympic gold. Dan did not make it to Spain and Dave ended up with bronze as Robert Změlík of Czechoslovakia took gold.

O’Brien was back in 1993, winning the World Championships in Stuttgart, before repeating the feat two years later in Gothenburg. That set him up for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where the US decathlon hopes rested with him, Steve Fritz and Chris Huffins. It was O’Brien who finally claimed the gold he should have competed for in Barcelona, picking up 8824 points, with Frank Busemann of Germany behind him on 8706.

Sadly, O’Brien could not defend his title in 2000. He suffered an injury to his left foot shortly before the Olympic Trials for Sydney which caused his withdrawal. Injuries continued to plague his career and prevented his return to Athens in 2004.

However, he has continued to be an ambassador for both the summer and Winter Olympics, attending the 2010 Winter Olympics. He is certain to be kept busy in that role over the coming years, with events in back-to-back years. The Tokyo Games are now set to be hosted in 2021, with the US amongst the favorites for the highest haul of gold medals.

The Winter Games of 2022 will take place a year later in Beijing, with Bwin Sports placing the US as amongst the front runners for a strong medal haul once more. As a revered athlete and ambassador for the Games, O’Brien is sure to be attending both events representing his country proudly once again, hoping to see the next generation of US gold medalists rise to the occasion. In his later life, O’Brien released a book outlining his struggles and successes entitled: Clearing Hurdles: The Quest to Be the World’s Greatest Athlete.

He is still honored in Klamath Falls to this day, with the street name Dan O’Brien Way, which is approximately 1,500 meters long – the same length of the race that is reportedly his least favorite of the 10 decathlon events!

Dan O’Brien History:

  • 5 time US Champion Decathlon
  • 3 time World Champion Decathlon
  • 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist- Decathlon
  • 1992-1999 World Record-Decathlons (8891 pts.)
  • 1992-2010 World Record Indoor Heptathlon
  • USATF Hall of Fame-Inducted 2006
  • USOC Hall of Fame-Inducted 2012
  • IAAF Hall of Fame-Inducted 2012
  • Broadcast: CBS, NBC, ESPN, Yahoo Sports, & more

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