If you are old enough to remember the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, then you are old enough to remember Dan&Dave–said as all one word, as Reebok surely intended. Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson were, at that time, the two greatest athletes in the world, if you measure such things by performance in the decathlon. This is, of course, a brutal two-day competition where the athlete has to perform well in ten different events; in order, they are the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter dash, 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and 1,500-meter run. It’s a brutal competition, and given the diverse nature of the events, and the variety of athletic abilities one needs to excel in all of them, the title of “greatest athlete” might not be hyperbole for these men. [All men, by the way–the women’s comparative event is the heptathlon, with seven events over two days: the 100 meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200 meters, long jump, javelin and 800 meters. And, if you’re curious, Jackie Joyner-Kersee still has the right to call herself the greatest female athlete–again, if we’re using this standard. She set a record in this event at the 1988 Olympics, where she won gold, that still stands today.]
Anyway, I am old enough to remember Dan and Dave, and the ad campaign that Reebok launched during the Super Bowl in 1992–Dan and Dave, world’s greatest athletes, battling it out for the title in Barcelona. It was marketing genius, and they were everywhere, until they weren’t–until that moment when Dan failed to qualify for the US Olympic team with a no-points in the pole vault at the Olympic Trials in New Orleans. Who could forget it? But, here’s the question–do you remember what happened next?
I admit–I didn’t; and so it was with great interest that I listened to this new podcast that I already love, modeled on ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries. You can find this episode here: The Trials of Dan and Dave. What came before was interesting and exciting, but what came after was really riveting.
So, after that moment, Dave Johnson did qualified for the Olympics, and he went on to win a bronze medal–he had been struggling with a foot injury that worsened while he was there, and ended up competing on a broken foot. Dan, on the other hand, went on a scorching competitive tear, winning practically every competition for the several years immediately following 1992. And, he set his sights on the 1996 Olympics, which were going to be held on home turf, in Atlanta.
The podcast is very interesting, and gives revealing, intimate details from both men: they became friends in the course of that campaign, and even though their fortunes seemed to rise and fall in inversely parallel directions, they supported each other. The most poignant example of this, for me, came in Atlanta. Dave had failed to qualify–the injuries had just kept coming for him–but he was there to support Dan, who had placed first at the Trials and was the favorite to win gold. However, the competitor from Germany was having the event of his life, and Dan wasn’t sure he was going to be able to hold him off. He need a strong showing the javelin to give himself a cushion for the 1500 meters, but his first two throws weren’t great. Dan looked over and saw Dave–who counts the javelin as one of his best events–there with the US coaches, and Dan asked him which javelin he should use for this third and final throw. Dave knew right away which one would be the best, and it was; Dan got the throw he needed to keep his lead.
The bigger take-away for me, though, in the whole podcast, was how our lives can get reduced to one event, one moment in time, and it becomes so hard to move on/out/away from it. Frankly, I was embarrassed that all I remembered about Dan was his failure in the trials and not his subsequent Olympic gold medal. And, I was embarrassed and angry that at the US Trials in 1996, the commentators wouldn’t let him forget, either–he remembers when he walked out to start the 100 meter dash, he looked up and the pole vault debacle was playing on the jumbo-tron. In that moment he was glad that he had sought counseling in the months before the trials to help him mentally get over that moment. [I’m sure lots of us can relate….]
It can be like that for us, too, right? Some terrible event happens to us–or we make some bad mistake, error in judgment, whatever–and it becomes linked to our name, written deeply in our hearts as though this is who we are: the one who let everyone down and failed so spectacularly. At times like this, I am grateful to have my identity grounded in something other than my accomplishments, something other than my achievements, my “work.” That’s all so fleeting, and besides, I make so many mistakes–things I regret later, and wish I could take back. But–and here’s the upshot–grounded in God, radically and prodigiously freed and forgiven, there is always a second chance, always another possibility, always more to me than what I and others see in the moment. As people of God, we are not defined by the past, but by the future, and the hope that awaits with every dawn. I am so grateful for that promise.
Dan won, by the way–he finally got his Olympic gold medal; his story does have a happy ending, even in spite of the challenges along the way. Dan O’Brien is more than just one moment, in one event; so for us, too.