Racing Toward the Olympics

Top decathlete Dave Johnson trains to be a man of many talents in Barcelona this summer

TAN, shirtless, and wearing sky-blue body shorts, Dave Johnson jogs around a quarter-mile track with two buddies and a Dalmatian named Oakley. His six-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week training schedule will be light today, allowing recovery from a two-day decathlon April 23-24 in which he finished with the third-highest score in United States history: 8,727 points.

That is higher than American Olympic gold medalists Bob Mathias (1948 and '52), Bill Toomey (1968), or Bruce Jenner (1976). And his second-day total - for the 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and 1,500-meter run - set a world record.

Johnson, at 6 feet, 2 inches and 195 lbs., is widely expected to return from the Olympic Games in Barcelona this summer with a gold or silver medal. Neck-and-neck for the distinction of the "world's greatest athlete" with another American, Dan O'Brien, Johnson has been chasing the No. 1 spot since 1982. He feels this is his year.

"I've spent a decade getting to where I am," he says. "The only person I have to beat to win the gold is myself."

Born in Missoula, Mont., in 1963, Johnson spent a checkered childhood in Corvallis, Ore., before trying the decathlon as a high school senior. (See accompanying story.) He attended Azusa Pacific University in California, where he met world-famous trainer and coach Terry Franson, who has honed Johnson's skills ever since. Ninth in the Seoul Olympics

Johnson captured decathlon titles at the United States national championships in 1986, 1989, and 1990. Participating in the Seoul Olympics in 1988, Dave finished ninth. He won the Goodwill Games title in Seattle in 1990, though a minor injury kept him from doing well at the 1991 national championships.

His April point total would have far exceeded the two-day world record of Britain's Daley Thompson had Johnson registered average showings in javelin and 1,500 meters. But "mental distractions" threw him off his game. "Timing," he says. "I let myself get thrown off my own timing."

Interviewed in a sandwich shop just off the Pacific Azusa University campus where he trains, Johnson says most people don't understand what the decathlon is.

"They either say, 'Isn't that the one where you swim and bike?' or 'Isn't that where you ski and shoot?' " he says, and laughs. No, they're thinking of triathlons and biathlons, respectively.

A major advertising campaign sponsored by Reebok is trying to change all that. Twenty million dollars have been sunk into promoting a "Dan vs. Dave" rivalry between him and Dan O'Brien. O'Brien has registered the top two American point totals in history, and is also just shy of the world record of 8,847.

"Whoever wins the gold in Barcelona will be the one who is hitting on all 10 cylinders," says Franson, Johnson's coach of nine years. The US Olympic trials, used to select the American team, are in New Orleans next month and Olympics competition is Aug. 5 and 6. "Dave is right on schedule to make a quantum leap during the [Olympic] Games," says Franson of Johnson's training schedule.

While O'Brien is the flashier of the two, with his expertise in the 100-meter and 400-meter sprints as well as the long jump, Johnson is considered the better all-round athlete, with no weak events.

"I don't really have any major weaknesses, except that I don't have more events in which I excel," says Johnson. His best event is the javelin, where his average throws of 228 feet far exceed those of most competitors. In accumulating his personal best mark in April, Johnson threw only 220 feet. "I actually felt great and think I threw too hard," he says. By not maximizing the arc of the tip, the javelin fell prematurely, he says.

Johnson's ultimate goal is to score more than 9,000 points. But he will not attempt to do that by focusing on gains in individual events. He says he needs to "up the intensity" in every event. Since muscles in one event often work counter to those in another (the slow, grueling pace of the 1,500-meter race vs. the explosiveness needed in the 100, for instance), focusing too much on one event could detract from others.

"Most athletes have to be confident in just one event," says Jim Taylor, director of the sport psychology program at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Noting that the decathlon requires mastery of the mental skills for the 10 events' varying levels of intensity - explosive for sprints and jumps, controlled for pole vault and long distance - Dr. Taylor says, "loss of confidence in one event may hurt the athlete in other events." Looking toward the trials

"Events like shot put and high jump require supreme concentration and focus," says Taylor, "while long-distance events require low intensity and an ability to monitor the body."

"There is a great skill in mastering the ups and downs of competition over two days," says coach Franson. Calling Johnson's recent weak showing in the javelin a "fluke," he says, "after 10 years of doing this, Dave is at the point where he doesn't 'psych out.' "

Looking toward the Olympic trials in June and the competition itself in August, both Johnson and Franson say they are concentrating on speed work that they expect will add to point totals in sprints, hurdles, long-jump, and pole vault. But they are resisting the urge to train too hard.

"I tend to want to do too much," says Johnson. "I've had to learn that rest is just as essential to training as going all out."

As he enters lesser competitions to prepare himself for the Olympics, Johnson says he can't afford to pamper himself to avoid injury.

"There is always the danger of an injury that can take you away from what you have been training so long for," he says, noting that a sprained knee last year kept him out of key competitions. "But I've got to give it 100 percent every time out and not look back."

Though the Olympics provides the extra excitement to produce peak performances, the Games also are very distracting, Johnson says.

"Because of the media, the ceremonies, and all the pomp, you have to be mentally disciplined to stay focused on why you are there," he says. Because the decathlon is held over two days, with hours between events, it requires more mental discipline than other events, he says.

In keeping with religious beliefs he says have turned his life around, Johnson says he has no concern about losing. "My only job is to be the best I can be," he says. "The rest is up to God."

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