Inarticulate Fandom
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa (Aug 2009)

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            I was fortunate enough to be welcomed as a walk on to the University of Pennsylvania NCAA Division I Varsity Women’s Track & Field team. I wasn’t good enough out of high school to be a formal athletic recruit, but with incredible coaching and notable improvement (thanks Betty and Tony!) I earned the opportunity to high jump for the home team in the collegiate division of the Penn Relays, the largest annual track meet in the world. Only the Olympics can claim greater longevity in Track & Field competition. It was beyond exciting to compete, and it wasn’t half bad to see national and world class athletes up close and in person.
            Like Dan O'Brien. Dan was the world record holder in the decathlon which, true to its name, consists of ten events. Ten. Competing in one event is exhausting, and success requires great talent and skill. But running, jumping and throwing practically nonstop over two days is a different level of crazy. Of course, this goes also for the women in the seven-event heptathlon. At the college level, they and the decathletes are often specialists in a few events, and their endurance and athleticism get them through the rest. How many excellent shot put throwers are also stellar high jumpers? How many elite sprinter/hurdlers can put in a competitive individual time in the 800 or 1500 meter run? Yet, at the world class, mutant level, competitors must be impressive across the board. Such was the case with Dan.

            Reebok sponsored the two leading members of the US Decathlon team in 1992: Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson. The then inescapable "Dan and Dave" commercials drew many American viewers to the Summer Olympic Trials broadcast. Those viewers would be horribly disappointed. Dan, the favorite to win the gold, failed even to qualify for the Games due to a freak turn of events that would forever be known as the “no-heighting” incident in the pole vault. Dave, the next great hope for the US, went on to win the bronze. The gold went to Czechoslovakia.

            That was then. Now both Dan and Dave were at the 1994 Penn Relays with the US Olympic Development Decathlon Team training for the 1996 Summer Games. Unfortunately, Dan, male specimen of athleticism and object of many a wicked crush, would not participate due to injury. It saddened me that I would not get to see him compete, but he spent his ample free time greeting the crowd, cheering on his teammates, and generally wandering about being dreamy. This could work. Sure enough, between hurdle heats I noticed a hubbub two rows ahead of me at the edge of the stands. I discerned its cause. Dan O'Brien was signing autographs from the track.

            Growing up the product of a 5'10"+ mother and a 6'7"+ father surely had its down side for me as a spindly, towering adolescent, but there are certain undeniable perks to being composed primarily of limbs. One is the ability to bypass traditional paths (e.g. aisles and stairways) and go straight from point N to point D by stepping over things (e.g. stadium seats). I called upon this power and, in two loping steps, found myself two rows down and face to face with the man himself as he finished signing a program. Then he turned to me and said, "Hi. How are you doing?"

            "Heh heh – hi – hee hee hee heh!"

            ??!?!! Who said that? What’s happening to me? OK, don’t panic….            

I handed over my T-shirt then calmly, slowly, attempted to put actual English words into a recognizable sequence. "I’m good. How are you?"

            "Good. What's your name?"

            "Nicole." Correct! Confidence restored.

            He hunched over and began to write. Now, what I intended to say to him next, on this gorgeous day at the best track meet I might ever see, was something like, “So when is your next competition, and will it be televised?” What actually came out of my mouth was, "So when am I going to see you again?"

            The horror. He looked up to see my eyes widen, my smile fade, my jaw slacken, three instinctive responses to hearing those words spoken in my own voice. I imagined my brain doubled over laughing while peeking around a corner from afar to watch me try to recover.

            "I mean like… on TV!” Awkward pause. “...At a meet!"

            More laughter and, I think, tears, from my brain in the distance.

            Dan was kind to respond with National competition dates and broadcast information as though I had asked the question of a fan rather than an overeager wannabe girlfriend. I merely nodded. Clearly I could not risk speaking again. He handed me back my shirt, smiled – probably out of pity – and went on his way. I checked to make sure he hadn’t written “To Nicole, from Dan O’Brien: keep your distance or I will be forced to call security.”

            On the grass behind the stadium the next day, there was Dan cheering on Dave and the others in the javelin competition. And there was I, drooling over Dan with a teammate and fellow fan. The typically sparse throwing crowd allowed us to sidle right up to him without seeming pushy. Surprisingly, he remembered me. Astonishingly, he did not back away, turn and flee. Perhaps his injury prevented him, giving him no choice but to stay and take his chances. He turned out to be quite friendly and relaxed, though, and was kind enough to pose for pictures with us. I spoke of nothing else for weeks.

            Dan O’Brien’s exposure to me doubtless inspired him to recover quickly so that he could break into a sprint if he ever saw me again. Accordingly, I take full credit for his top physical condition at the 1996 Olympics, where he finally won the gold. I’m sure the thank you card and bouquet he sent just got lost in the mail. Or something.

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