Ten-Speed American

updated 08/19/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/19/1991 01:00AM

DAN O'BRIEN HAS A WELL-THUMBED SCRAP OF PAPER that serves him as a sort of mantra. In a hotel room in April, after attending a motivational lecture, he scribbled on it, "I am going to be the greatest athlete that ever lived." Was this bravado? Even O'Brien had to wonder at his claim. "I looked at it and thought, 'Am I being stupid?' " he recalls. "Then I thought, 'No, I don't think so.' "

The folks who click stopwatches at track-and-field competitions don't think so either. At 25, O'Brien is considered the heir apparent to the title World's Greatest Athlete for his prowess in sport's most demanding medley, the decathlon. Two months ago he eclipsed Bruce Jenner's American record and came within a second in the 1,500-meter run of breaking Daley Thompson's world standard.

The athletic frontiers O'Brien is headed for should be at least as remarkable as the life he has already lived. Given up by his natural mother, a Finnish exchange student, and father, a black graduate student, he spent his first two years in an orphanage. In 1968 he was adopted by Jim and Virginia O'Brien of Klamath Falls, Ore., whose multihued brood would eventually grow to include two Koreans, a Native American, a Mexican American and another black child—in addition to two Caucasian children from Virginia's first marriage. Nonetheless, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Dan's childhood, and a tribute to the O'Briens' parenting skills, is that it seemed unremarkable. "I never felt like an outcast," says Dan.

O'Brien showed his athletic ability early. "The first tiling he did after we got him was jump off a picnic table and start running," says Jim. Adds Virginia: "We looked at him and said, 'He's going to be in the Olympics.' " A sports star throughout his school years, he became the nation's top high school decathlete in 1984. That earned him a scholarship to the University of Idaho—where, unfortunately, he entered a bleak period of personal turmoil that nearly ended his sports career.

Never an academic standout, O'Brien had trouble taking school-work seriously. "My attitude was, 'A seven-page paper? You're kidding,' " he says. And, away from home for the first time, he wallowed in teenage temptations: cutting class, smoking marijuana and drinking up to half a case of beer a day. "Sometimes I'd start drinking at 3 in the afternoon," he says. "Then I started writing bad checks and had to go to court." By late 1987 he was broke, had lost his scholarship and was too embarrassed to go home and face his parents. "It was the lowest point of his life," says Mike Keller, his coach at Idaho. "Danny had to hit rock bottom before he started climbing back up.

That December, O'Brien, who was living with friends, called Keller and asked to try again; the coach agreed to one more chance. Enrolled at a junior college, O'Brien raised his grades and began getting his 180-lb., 6'2" body back in trim. His return to form was so rapid, he managed to qualify for the 1988 Olympic trials. His psychological turnaround was equally startling. Says Keller, who got O'Brien readmitted to Idaho: "Kick Sloan [Dan's other coach] and I say to each other, 'We're watching this guy grow up right before our eyes.' "

The newly mature, revised and updated O'Brien lives alone in a small apartment in Moscow, Idaho, having recently split with his Swedish girlfriend, Monica Langfeld. The decathlon has become a grueling eight-hour-a-day job. "I realize this is what I do for a living," says O'Brien, who pays the bills with stipends from Nike and Visa. Many track experts, Britain's Daley Thompson included, have predicted that O'Brien will someday break the decathlon's 9,000-point barrier—the event's equivalent of the four-minute mile.

O'Brien, who is preparing for next month's World Championships in Tokyo, believes they may be right. "People used to say, I wonder if Dan is ever going to blossom.' I used to wonder myself. I don't anymore."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
DIRK MATHISON in Moscow

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