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The Meaning of Failure

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

Originally posted 3.16.17

Happy Thursday!

At the conference I attended a couple of years ago, Dan O’Brien was the keynote speaker. The thing to know about him was that there was MUCH HYPE about him prior to the 1992 Olympics where he was slated to medal. The shocking thing, however, was that for reasons beyond explanation, he failed to make his high-jump and therefore failed to make the Olympic team. Despite that, he finished the meet. He then went on to reflect on his lack of success that day, watching repeatedly his three failed attempts of the high bar that fateful day. From there he trained even harder over the next four grueling and long years to finally get to the Olympics. Not only did he make it to the Olympics, he won the gold medal.

The theme of his talk was overcoming adversity and failure. He said, “Failure gives you a blueprint for what you need to work on…sometimes failure is the best part of life.” He also said something that for me was even more thought-provoking… In jumping events in track and field you always finish on a failure.” That makes me really think about the growth mindset and the notion that we cannot let adversity stop us or our students. If we stay down when we fall down, what message does that send to our students who have so many challenges that we can’t even imagine. We would never want them to quit if they got an F on their homework, test, or report card. We don’t want them to quit or give up or feel defeated because they’re a Level 1 on the 3-8 Assessments, so why should we let that stop us ? The measure of success is not how many times we fall, but how many times we get back up!

Below is a history of Dan’s journey for those who are interested from the Team USA website. I hope it does for you what it did for me—gave me some encouragement to continuing rising. Please feel free to share with me the impact of this tale on you and/or to share your own inspiration.


Twenty years ago, during the buildup to the Barcelona Olympic Games and in the relative stone ages of sports marketing, the Reebok powers that be, in an effort to challenge Nike

for track and field supremacy, imagined an advertising campaign as ambitious in scale as it was in risk. Sparing no expense, they joined forces with the same New York ad agency that created the Energizer Bunny, dropping a cool, if not unprecedented, $25 million on a series of playful commercials pitting two virtually unknown decathletes against one another.

They called it: Dan vs. Dave.

If you’re too young to remember Dan and Dave, or if you spent the early 90s under a rock, the bullet points are simple. At the time, Dan O’Brien, as the reigning U.S. and world champion, was the best decathlete on the planet. Dave Johnson, a three-time U.S. champion himself, wasn’t far behind. That one of them would win the gold in Barcelona was considered a mere formality, and as such, Reebok fashioned its entire campaign around the almost mythical tagline, “Who is the world’s greatest athlete? Dan or Dave? To be settled in Barcelona.”

“I knew it was going to be big when they first told us what they were planning,” said Johnson, who’s now the athletic director at Corban University in Salem, Oregon. “But looking back, I don’t think anyone could’ve guessed how big.”

Featuring grainy, home-video footage of Dan and Dave as classic Americana schoolboys, and then, as the chiseled, sprinting specimens into which they’d evolved, the commercials, to Johnson’s point, were huge. They debuted during the Super Bowl. And just like that, in a matter of one 30-second clip, a craze unlike anything track and field had ever seen was set off. Dan and Dave were stars.

“It was crazy,” said O'Brien, who will serve as Yahoo! Sports’ track and field correspondent at this summer’s London Games. “One minute, hardly anyone outside the track world knew who we were, and the next minute people are swarming around us and snapping pictures and lining up a hundred deep for two straight hours to get an autograph. After those commercials came out, everywhere we went turned into a zoo.”

Plucked from the depths of decathlon obscurity and dropped into every living room in America, Dan and Dave were, in a sense, the first reality TV stars — as people who’d never seen or even heard of them, people who had no good reason to care one lick about them, were suddenly watching a part of their lives play out on television. And they were captivated. Johnson chuckles as he recalls walking onto the track for the 1992 Olympic Trials in New Orleans, where just about every one of the some 30,000 fans was shouting his allegiance by wearing either a red “Dan” shirt or a blue “Dave” shirt.

“We completely took the place over,” Johnson said.

And so we’ve rounded back to where this story started, with an advertising campaign as grand in scale as it was in risk. You see, for all the hype surrounding Dan and Dave, for all the presumptive promotion of their impending duel in Barcelona, neither of them had actually qualified for the Olympic team yet. It was unthinkable that such a disaster could happen, but of course, it did, with Dan O’Brien failing to clear any pole vault height in a fluke screw-up that has since been called the most shocking moment in U.S. Olympic history. In fact, to this day, given the impact of the commercials and the fact that Dan was by far the best decathlete in the world, ESPN still lists O’Brien’s not qualifying for the 1992 Olympics as one of the all-time sports busts.

“When I missed that bar, you could literally feel the air suck out of the stadium,” O’Brien said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Sadly, for some, this is where the story of Dan and Dave ends, with a veritable legend pulling a Bill Buckner and a multi-million dollar ad campaign going up in smoke. But nothing could be further from the truth. Later that summer, after securing his fourth U.S. championship with the highest second-day point total in history (4455), Johnson went to Barcelona and won the bronze medal on a broken foot. Meanwhile, over the next four years, O'Brien broke the world record, became the first decathlete in history to win three consecutive world championships, and in 1996 completed his tale of redemption by winning the Olympic gold medal in Atlanta. This year, O’Brien will be inducted into both the IAAF and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.


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