Forget throwing the javelin and putting the shot. Decathlete Dan O'Brien's toughest event has always been boosting his own confidence. Despite his astonishing talent—a talent that spawned one of the most talked-about ad campaigns in years ("Dan or Dave...to be settled in Barcelona") before he no-heighted at the '92 Olympic trials, and a talent that later in '92 would produce a world decathlon record of 8,891 points—O'Brien has often been paralyzed by anxiety and self-doubt. At last summer's U.S. nationals in Eugene, Ore., he literally had to be pushed onto the track for the first of his 10 events, the 100 meters. "He had a look of absolute terror in his eyes," says Fred Samara, decathlon coach of the U.S. team.
So no one was sure what to expect from O'Brien at the USA/Mobil Track & Field Championships last week in Knoxville, Tenn., especially because he had also been nursing a sore toe for months. But O'Brien started furiously, running 10.31 in the 100, a time only he and Britain's Daley .Thompson have bettered in a decathlon. He then high-jumped 7'1½", his best ever. At the end of nine events he was 12 points ahead of his world-record pace. That left only the 1,500. Needing a time of 4:43.97 to break the decathlon world record, he ran a slow 5:16.42. That gave him 8,707 points, 159 more than runner-up Steve Fritz. "Sure, I'm disappointed," said O'Brien, sounding breezy. "I let this one slide a bit."
That's vintage O'Brien. He's disarmingly candid and has a childlike charm. He once had a kid's attention span, too. One minute he'd be talking to you, the next he'd be off playing video games or swinging a stick. "I couldn't read an article to the end," he says. "I couldn't sit in one place for five minutes."
O'Brien's coach, Mike Keller, recognized these symptoms. He had seen them in his own son, Travis, now 16, who after years of struggling in school was recently determined to have Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (ADHD). "I was reading a book about it," says Keller. "On even' page I was writing Dan-Travis, Travis-Dan in the margin."
In addition to ADHD, O'Brien had also grappled a bit with behavior problems, specifically as they related to alcohol. He didn't drink every day, but he drank to excess when he did. In January, O'Brien was scheduled to go from his hometown of Moscow, Idaho, to New York City for a press conference. The night before leaving he bumped into friends, and as he puts it. "One drink led to another, and I got wasted. I was too sick for days to travel anywhere. I knew it was time to do something."
He called Jim Reardon, a discus thrower turned counseling psychologist, whom he had met last year. Reardon ran tests on O'Brien and came to the conclusion that, as he says, "Dan is hyperdistractible." Reardon also concluded that O'Brien might have ADHD and sent him to a physician, who put O'Brien on a medication called Wellbutrin. "We've seen a big change in him," says Keller.
"I can think so clearly," says O'Brien, who has become much more focused—and thus more self-confident—both in competition and in his daily life.
He will need to keep his wits about him. O'Brien will soon face stiff competition, primarily from a big Belorussian named Eduard H‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üm‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ül‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üinen, who in May scored 8,735 points, best in the world this year. O'Brien expects to face him at a meet in September in Talence, France, site of O'Brien's world record. O'Brien might need 9,000 points to win, but he and his coaches are confident. "The only guy we ever really compete against is this O'Brien kid," says Rick Sloan, his field-event coach.
It seems they might have him licked too.
The world-record holder in the decathlon seems to have finally cleared some personal barriers.