Feature14 Mar 2023

O'Brien and Kluft: The feeling of invincibility and being top of the world


Dan O'Brien at the 1993 World Indoors and Carolina Kluft at the 2003 World Indoors (© Getty Images)

For Dan O’Brien, 14 March 1993 was a day of redemption. His second in six months.

Having already claimed the decathlon world record in the wake of his heart-breaking failure to make the 1992 US Olympic team, the 25-year-old from Portland, Oregon, completed a world indoor record performance in the invitation men’s heptathlon at the World Indoor Championships in Toronto.

At the same time, across in Europe in the Swedish town of Vaxjo, 10-year-old Carolina Kluft was starting to dream about making a sporting mark of her own, possibly as a footballer.

Her father, Johnny Kluft, had been a striker with the Vaxjo club Osters IF. In 1973 he scored a goal against a Feyenoord team featuring Wim van Hanegem and Wim Jansen, members of the great Dutch side that reached the 1974 World Cup final, in a Uefa Cup first-round tie at the hallowed De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam.

Exactly a decade on from Dan O’Brien’s combined events tour de force in Toronto, on 14 March 2003, Kluft produced one of her own, breezing to pentathlon gold at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, just 58 points shy of a world record points tally.

In doing so, with her infectious joie de vivre, the 20-year-old Swedish golden girl brought a breath of fresh air to the global athletics stage. A lasting breath of fresh air.

She also brought a shield of invincibility. Throughout her entire combined events career as a senior athlete, Kluft was unbeaten in pentathlon indoors and in heptathlons outdoors.

By the time she lined up in Birmingham that day in 2003, her first year in the senior age group, she had already suffered the only two defeats she was to experience in the 30 combined events competitions she ever contested, from her junior days in 2000 to her early retirement in 2007.

As an U20 athlete competing in senior competition, Kluft placed seventh at the European Combined Events Cup First League heptathlon in Reid, Austria, in July 2001, and third in the pentathlon at the European Indoor Championships in Vienna in March 2002, taking bronze behind Russia’s outdoor world champion Yelena Prokhorova and Naide Gomes of Portugal.

Not so safe height

O’Brien lost just three of the 20 combined events competitions that he completed in his stellar career, although he did not manage to last the course in two US Olympic decathlon trials.

As a 21-year-old rookie in Indianapolis in 1988, he withdrew after suffering a hamstring injury in the second discipline, the long jump. Four years later, with the 1991 world title to his name, the Oregonian stormed through the opening seven disciplines in New Orleans with the glint of golden Olympic promise in his stride.

Dan O'Brien in the decathlon pole vault at the 1992 US Olympic Trials

Dan O'Brien in the decathlon pole vault at the 1992 US Olympic Trials (© AFP / Getty Images)

At that stage, not only was he 521 points clear of Dave Johnson, the teammate and rival who took gold ahead of O’Brien at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Seattle, but also 59 points ahead of the world record pace Daley Thompson set with his 8847 score at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

But then disaster struck in the pole vault. Opting to pass the first four heights, O’Brien registered three failures at 4.80m, plummeting from first to 12th in the standings. Though he bravely fought on in the javelin and 1500m, clawing his way up to 11th, his dream of Olympic gold in Barcelona was over.

“When I came to the track today, I felt invincible,” the stunned world champion reflected. “I felt it was impossible for Dave to beat me and that there was no way I wouldn’t be in the team.

“I come in at 4.80m in training every day. I believe that’s a safe height for me,” added O’Brien, who had a PB of 5.20m. “I believe I can go out and make it every day. Except today.”

Even in his pit of despair, O’Brien resolved to bounce back stronger. “I have pity on anyone who comes up against me in the next four years,” he defiantly declared.

Toronto redemption

O’Brien happens to be a natural-born fighter. Given up by his parents at birth, he spent his infant days in foster homes and was named Wesley and then Dion before being adopted at the age of two by Jim and Virginia O’Brien.

His athletic prowess earned him a scholarship to the University of Idaho but his grades were so poor he was not allowed to compete. For three years he didn’t even train and developed a serious alcohol problem. He was arrested for driving under the influence, and for cashing ‘bad cheques’.

After waking up hungover and alone on Christmas Day in 1987, he decided to take control of his life. He returned to training and two and a half years later he was on the Goodwill Games podium.

A month after watching the Barcelona Olympics from afar, O’Brien broke Thompson’s decathlon world record, racking up 8891 points at the Decastar meeting at Talence in France in September 1992. Robert Zmelik, the newly-crowned Olympic champion from the Czech Republic, finished second with 8344.

Six months after that, the new world record-holder was tempted indoors for the first and only time in his combined events career. The men’s heptathlon at the World Indoor Championships might have been an invitational non-championship affair, but O’Brien treated it as an opportunity to take on the world: Frenchman Christian Plaziat’s 13-month-old world indoor record, 6418, if nothing else.

Dan O'Brien in the heptathlon shot put at the 1993 World Indoor Championships

Dan O'Brien in the heptathlon shot put at the 1993 World Indoor Championships (© Getty Images)

With a blizzard raging outside the Toronto SkyDrome, O’Brien got off to a whirlwind start with a 0.104 reaction time en route to a 6.67 clocking in the 60m. He followed up with a 7.84m long jump, a 16.02m throw in the shot and a 2.13m high jump clearance to finish the opening day 215 points up on Plaziat’s world record schedule with 3800 points.

He opened day two with his fifth win out of five, clocking 7.85 in the 60m hurdles, before a 5.20m pole vault virtually assured him the world record, which he duly claimed with a score of 6476 after completing the 1000m in 2:57.96.

Thereafter, the O’Brien redemption mission continued to gain momentum, with a second decathlon world title in Stuttgart in 1993, a third in Gothenburg in 1995 and – finally, fittingly – an Olympic gold on home ground in Atlanta in 1996.

18 nil

For Kluft, the deeds of March – of 14 March 2003 – proved to be the launchpad for a senior career as the undisputed queen of the global combined events game.

Just five weeks past her 20th birthday, when she lined up for her first senior global championship, the Swede was already a rising star in the combined events firmament, having retained her world U20 heptathlon crown with a world U20 record at the 2002 World U20 Championships in Kingston and broken it again when winning the senior European title in Munich two weeks later.

Carollina Kluft in the pentathlon high jump at the 2003 World Indoor Championships

Carolina Kluft in the pentathlon high jump at the 2003 World Indoor Championships (© Getty Images)

At those 2003 World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, she notched PBs in the 60m hurdles (8.19), high jump (1.89m), shot put (14.48m) and long jump (6.61m) on her way to a championship record tally of 4933. An 800m time of 2:11.45 or quicker would have taken her inside Irina Belova’s world indoor record but, after blasting through the opening lap in 31.87, she slowed to a 2:15.58 finish, missing the global mark by 83 points.

“It’s just a dream to be world champion,” she said. “I came here to get good results and I got four PBs. It was great fun.”

It was a taste of great things to come.

Outdoors, at the World Championships in Paris five months later, Kluft struck gold with 7001, moving to third on the world all-time list. She won Olympic gold in Athens in 2004 and two more outdoor world titles, in Helsinki in 2005 and Osaka in 2007, before deciding to retire from combined events and concentrate on long jump for the last five years of her career.

She was only 24 when she bade farewell to the heptathlon, having set a European record of 7032 with that third world outdoor victory in Osaka.

Carolina Kluft at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka

Carolina Kluft at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka (© Getty Images)

In addition to the natural radiance she shone on the global athletics scene, the engagingly-grounded Swede became one of the great Invincibles of the sport – like Herb Elliott, the Australian master of middle distance, who was unbeaten in 44 races at 1500m and the mile as a senior, and Bob Matthias, the US all-rounder who won all 11 decathlons that he contested.

As a fully-fledged senior, from her flying start in Birmingham in 2003 to her golden flourish in Osaka in 2007, Kluft contested 18 combined events competitions. She won all 18 of them.

Simon Turnbull for World Athletics Heritage

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