US Olympic Track & Field 2012: Q & A with Hall of Famer Dan O'Brien
On Thursday, a select group of Chicago-area kids will take part in what can best be described as field day on hyperdrive.
Born from a collaboration between the Allstate Insurance Company and World Sport Chicago, the "Paving the Way" event brings nearly 100 kids to historic Pulaski Park for a sports clinic conducted by the 2012 class of U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame inductees.
Go ahead, let your jealousy run wild.
This year's class includes women's soccer icon Kristine Lilly, Paralympian extraordinaire Jean Driscoll, three members of the vaunted 2004 U.S. women's softball team and legendary decathlete Dan O'Brien.
On the eve of his induction, O'Brien stopped by with B/R to reflect on his career and talk about what drove him to take on the decathlon.
B/R: Back when you held the title of World’s Greatest Athlete, did you ever have people challenging you to weird physical feats just so they could say that they beat the World’s Greatest Athlete in something?
O'Brien: [Laughs] All the time.
My buddies wanted to beat me in golf. They wanted to be serious when it came to bowling. I would do a lot of school speeches, and kids would say, “How high can you jump? How fast can you run?”
I remember I took my shoes off at a school in Kapa’a, Hawaii, and raced the two fastest kids in school in the 100 yards and ended up beating ‘em. Just fun stuff like that. Because of the title, people want to challenge you.
B/R: What was the worst pain you ever experienced on a track?
O'Brien: Some of the worst pain you ever experience is in the early part of the season when you’re not in your best shape, when you’re just trying to get your conditioning up: repeat 300-meter runs, 500s, 600s, 700s with timed rest—things like that.
That kind of conditioning nobody really understands. It’s just so hard on you. When you run so hard that you fall to your knees and it takes you two minutes to just even get up and walk around, that’s some serious, serious conditioning.
B/R: What would you compare that pain to?
O'Brien: Your muscles fail first, and then your breathing goes. [It's] when you get so tired you have to sit down, when you get so tired you have to lean down and put your hands on your knees.
Even NFL and NBA players, if you ask them, “Have you ran all-out? When’s the last time you sprinted all-out as far as you could until you couldn’t run anymore?” That’s what a track and field athlete does every single day.
B/R: They say decathletes form a kind of fraternity, in part because you have to be a little bit crazy to try the sport. Honestly, do you think you’re crazy?
O'Brien: Yeah. Sure.
Definitely up for a challenge. I think that’s maybe a little bit more of a precise definition of a decathlete. Decathletes have to be up for a challenge....
A lot of it is about pride, and when you get to a certain level you actually do look around and say, “You know what? I’m the baddest dude on the track right now.”
And it’s a nice feeling.
B/R: Were you always like that as a kid? If someone said you couldn’t do something, did you have to prove them wrong?
O'Brien: No, not really. I really wasn’t. I wasn’t great at things, but I was always really willing to learn.
If someone could just spend some time with me and show me some things and work with me, that was kinda my attitude.
But I did figure, “You know what? If anybody gives me time to learn this, I’ll figure out how to do it better than anybody else.”
B/R: Fellow decathlete Bruce Jenner has had a wonderful second career on reality television. If there was a reality show about your life, what would be the title and the basic plot?
O'Brien: I think it would be… Can Dan Do It?
I love trying all kinds of different things. I actually did a little web series on TeamUSA.org where I tried different events, and I have really struggled making the transition from being an athlete to being a non-athlete.
I’ve always considered myself an athlete, so as my back starts to ache and my knees and feet hurt a little bit, I’ve taken on more of just a coaching role and broadcasting and different things.
In my second part of my career, I’m up for anything. I really want to try some different things…
Question is: What am I up for? What can I prepare myself to do?
B/R: Are you like that in other aspects of your life? You want to try different types of food or whatever?
O'Brien: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
As a college kid I partied my ass off. And then as a professional athlete I dedicated myself to something. Now it’s about balance and nutrition and living a healthy lifestyle.
I’ve tried a lot of different ways to live, and I’m still trying to figure out what suits me best.
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