Olympic Legend Dan O’Brien Analyzes NCAA Meet, Talks Olympic Trials, & Who Could Be a Future Champion

Dan O’Brien, the 1996 Olympican decathlon champion and one of the announcers on the ESPN broadcast of this week’s NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, was the guest on this week’s LetsRun.com Track Talk podcast. O’Brien broke down this week’s NCAA meet, sharing his insights and expertise on the athletes and events to watch out for, and also shared some thoughts on the upcoming Olympic Trials and Olympics.

The full talk with Dan was 51 minutes long and you can listen to it here on your favorite podcast app or in the player below. (Dan joins at 71:08)

Textual highlights below have been condensed and rearranged.

LetsRun.com: When you look at the sprints and hurdles going to this meet, what do you see as sort of the big storylines, the big future stars who could be born here?

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Dan O’Brien: Well, I think maybe the biggest sprint story of the year is Chris Johnson taking over the Arkansas women’s program and the immediate impact that he has had at that program. And you saw it developing last season, him just creating great 400-meter runners. And this year he’s got four of the best 400-meter runners in the country…Nickisha Pryce, Kaylyn Brown, Rosey Effiong and Amber Anning … Three of the four have run under 50 seconds flat…Kaylyn Brown, just a freshman, she’s number two in the country right now, number four all time. Nickisha Pryce number three all-time. And Amber Anning, of course, we saw her win an NCAA indoor title, she’s number five all time. … But what we’re seeing is…Arkansas developing more into this sprint power … In his first year, it’s just like, wow, 400–Meter U is happening at the University of Arkansas on the women’s side.

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Q: The men’s 100 it’s always one of the crown jewel events at any track meet. And I’m trying to make sense of it. I feel like there’s like half a dozen guys who could win this. Houston just had two guys run the 9.8s wind-aided at regionals. LSU’s Godson Oghenebrume, he was the runner-up last year, he won SECs. Do you have a favorite out of the guys entered in this race? Who would be your pick for the win right now?

Dan O’Brien: This is a tough one. I think if Favour Ashe (of Auburn) is healthy, he’s a favorite because in my opinion, he’s a pro guy who’s still running in college… They had big winds at Arkansas, so all the West times were extremely fast. But what’s fun is to see some of these guys, Louie Hinchcliffe (of Houston), he never ran close to that fast when he was at Washington State University, now all of a sudden he goes to Houston (and coach Carl Lewis) and he’s doing it for Speed City. I’d say keep an eye on the Houston guys. But honestly, I don’t have a favorite. I’m going to be keeping an eye on Oghenebrume, he’s peaking late. He did that last season as well, but it’s one of the events that’s going to be really open.

You can look at the 400 meters and 400 meter hurdles and pick a couple of guys, but the men’s 100, if you get to the finals, anything can happen.

Olympic Stars from the NCAAs

LetsRun.com: It seems to me that Christopher Morales-Williams from Georgia who runs for Canada, he should be the clear favorite [in the 400]. He’s the world leader right now at 44.05. I’m thinking not just NCAA’s, but you look at the Olympics, we’ve seen collegians win the Olympic title, like Quincy Watts, Jeremy Wariner.

I’m wondering do you think that’s possible? What do you make of him?

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Dan O’Brien: I think he’s having a great season. you know, what’s interesting about CMW, Christopher Morales-Williams is we didn’t even hardly call his name last season. He was on some relays, he certainly got overshadowed by Elija Godwin and Matthew Boling.

But all of a sudden he shows up indoors, he runs some really fast times and then he backs it up with a tremendous time at the NCAA championships, the unofficial world record, which is crazy. I know you guys had a lot of discussions about that and the reasons why, but I talked to his coach, Coach Caryl [Smith Gilbert] there at Georgia, she just dotes on this guy as the hardest-working guy. He’s doing everything absolutely in his power to be ready to race at a high level. And then you hear his backstory, how he’s running, having to clear snow off the track in Toronto just so he can get his workouts in during COVID because there was no place indoors that he could really get to, raised by a single father.

He’s just a blue-collar, hardworking guy and the results show. I think he held back at the regional meet. It looked like he just didn’t run that first 300 with as much authority as he had at the NCAA Indoor Championships or even the SEC Championships, and I think he gave guys some hope.

I think he will dip under 44 flat. The question is can Michael Norman just step up and run a 43.8 anytime he wants to, who are we going to see internationally? We haven’t seen a lot of international guys just run fast 400s yet. I think that’s just because of the time of the year.

CMW is going to be on that Canadian team. I’ll be interesting to see him get to the semifinals at the Olympic Games and see what he does from there.

Rachel Glenn could be an Olympic champion… (in the hepathlon)

Dan O’Brien: The women’s 40- meter hurdles is going to be fun as well. Rachel Glenn, from Arkansas, she’s an interesting story. She started her college career at South Carolina, outstanding high jumper, outstanding sprinter.

I looked at Rachel Glenn and thought, she’s going to be a fantastic multi-event athlete. And then we get through COVID. And we don’t see her. She didn’t really show up. She didn’t show up in 2023 and all of a sudden she shows up on this Arkansas team and she’s blowing it up.

She’s phenomenal. She’s running good hurdle races. She’s running fast 200 meters. I mean, she was like the fifth person on that Arkansas 4 x 400 that they could have put in there. One of the fastest 200-meter runners on the team. And then she high jumps — she wins the NCAA indoor championships in the high jump.

I think Rachel Glenn gets on the Olympic team in the high jump. But she’s going to be one of the favorites to win the 400-meter hurdles [at NCAAs]. But what a weird combination, high jump and 400-meter hurdles. It’s like, this is nuts. This is a physical being that we really haven’t quite seen in that combination.

LetsRun.com: Has she done a heptathlon?

Dan O’Brien: No. And I’ve talked to her about it. I said, look, you can be the world champion in two years. You can be the Olympic champion, if you concentrate on the hep. And she’s like, “Not a chance. I’m not doing it.” And so it’s like, okay, you keep doing what you’re doing. But I think she showed a lot of people indoors that she’s ready to push Vashti Cunningham in the high jump [at the Olympic Trials].

I think right now she’s doing everything she can to help her team. But once this season is over, I think she’s really going to concentrate on the high jump and give a great effort.

What other collegians could make an Olympic team?

Dan O’Brien: One of your questions that you had was what athletes are going to, are going to impact and have a chance to make the Olympic team. And, you know, we talked about them — Rachel Glenn, Kaylyn Brown from Arkansas, Parker Valby. We’ve got some sprinters too, McKenzie Long from Ole Miss.

I mean, she could shake things up in the 200 meters. I don’t think any collegians on the men’s side are really going to be a factor in the sprints because the men’s sprints at the pro level are just so deep. But man, watch [Texas A&M’s] Sam Whitmarsh challenge for a spot on the Olympic team [in the 800].

And Heath Baldwin is an interesting story. He’s a decathlete from Michigan State. He got the Olympic standard at the Mt. SAC Relays. He’s not doing the NCAA meet. He hurdled at the regional meet, didn’t get in, but he’s a college guy, who’s going to be able to show up at the Olympic Trials. All he has to do is place in the top three at the Olympic trials and he’ll make an Olympic team.

O’Brien on the Pressure of the Olympic Trials and Olympics

Q: [Speaking of the Olympics], what was the pressure like for you going into Atlanta in ’96, with the world record, with those three world titles [and not making the team in 1992]?

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Dan O’Brien: Ever since 1992, you know, I watched tons of video of the failure on my final jump in ’92 at the Olympic Trials. And so I worked with a sports psychologist and we watched it over and over again.

And we analyzed it. And he said, there’s going to come a day when you’re gonna have to talk about this. And I don’t want it to throw you off or anything. There’s going to come a day when you’re going to see it. And I don’t want it to ruin your mojo or your momentum.

And I’ll never forget walking into the stadium at the ’96 Olympic Trials. They showed my miss on the big screen and it was just like, thanks guys. But I was ready for it. I’ll never forget the pressure was so intense and you get ready for the decathlon anyways, but I put my head in my wife’s lap and she was my girlfriend at the time. And I just sobbed, just sobbed for five minutes.

That’s how much I was feeling the pressure. And once I cried and got it out, you know, I put my sweats on and we headed to the track. But, for years, Bruce Jenner, Bob Mathias, Milt Campbell, Rafer Johnson, those guys told me that the Olympics is different. To train, to win an Olympic gold, you’ve got to train for Olympic gold medal… And once I developed the intention that I was going to win Olympic gold medal … everything got a little bit more serious.

I took a lot more accountability of my success and failures and didn’t rely on my coaches as much — nobody can help you out there. So, the [Olympic] pressure was great, but I think it was a little bit less because it was in the United States. I got to compete on home soil. So it was, it was really cool.

On the NCAA as a developmental system

Dan O’Brien: Life is never so good as when you were in college because you have everything that you need right there. And I think one of the biggest decisions that these athletes have as they get through with college is, do I stay nearby? Do I stay in the system? Or do I get out there [and go somewhere else]? A lot of these athletes are piecemealing all their training. They’re training on the track at one location, they’re lifting weights at another location to get in therapy, and chiropractic at another location. When you’re in college, it’s all right there for you.

And so I’m always a little surprised when you see somebody in their senior year not come back for their final year of eligibility, and it’s an Olympic year. It’s like you have all the structure you need. And I think especially in the sprints and even the multi-events and the field events, the college competition schedule is what really gets you in great shape, provides the structure for you to run that fast. All of a sudden, you graduate college and you step out as a pro, your season starts later.

You’re not used to that the first couple of seasons out, and you don’t know why you’re not running your fastest races in May and mid-May. So you’d better be in a really good system that gets you in shape at the time of the year that you want to be in shape. I trained within the college system with coach [Rick] Sloan at Washington State University.

One of the things that he and I always talked about was in the college system, there’s always a sense of urgency, right? There’s a championship around the corner, we gotta get ready for this, this, and this. And then all of a sudden you become a pro and that sense of urgency kind of goes away.

And then all of a sudden you’re in May and you’re like, man, I’ve only raced three times. I gotta get out there…

Being in college, I think the meet structure and the competition level is always there. If I’m counseling collegiate athletes on whether to take the next step to go pro, I’m going to tell them, man, stay in college as long as you absolutely can, because all the support you need is right there.

Dan covered a lot more on the podcast as he was on for 55 minutes. For his thoughts on the distance races, his thoughts on Grant Holloway, and Sha’Carri Richardson, you need to listen to the podcast. Dan even reveals why as a Washington State Cougar he’ll be rooting for the Washington Husky guys in the 1500, and how he started listening to the LetsRun.com Track Talk Podcast.

Full podcast here (Dan joins at 71:08) or listen in the player below:

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