SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Dan is no longer to be confused with Dave.
Just ask Dave.
"Dan is doing so well, he's head and shoulders above everyone else right now," said Dave Johnson, a 1992 Olympic bronze medalist in the decathlon. "At any competition, he could set a world record. My job, basically, is to scare him into a world record. That's all any of us can do with him right now."
Dan O'Brien has been on a mission since the million-dollar debacle on June 27, 1992, in New Orleans, where he missed the opening height in the pole vault of the U.S. trials and didn't make the Olympic team.
O'Brien, 29, wants to set another world record. He wants to win a gold medal at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. And he needs redemption for that effort in the pole vault on a distance (15 feet, 9 inches) he had cleared easily a dozen times in practice.
The assault on the world record began last night at the USA Mobil Track and Field championships at Hughes Stadium in the first five events of the decathlon.
However, it was clear after the third event that O'Brien would have little chance at a world record.
After the 100 meters and the triple jump, O'Brien was 50 points off his world-record pace of 8,891 set in 1992. But his shot put throw of 50-1 3/4 placed him second behind Chris Huffins, who had 2,891 points compared to 2,830 for O'Brien.
O'Brien ran the 100 in 10.36, and had a long jump of 25-8 on his third attempt. He also false-started in his sprint race and scratched on his second long jump.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee was second after two events in the women's heptathlon with 2,131 points, ahead of second-place Kym Carter (2,031). Michael Johnson had little trouble winning his qualifying heat of the 400, but 1988 gold medalists Steve Lewis and Danny Everett did not advance.
O'Brien had three great chances last year to break his world record, but the Portland, Ore., native had trouble in the concluding 1,500 meters event.
But O'Brien changed his practice schedule to include 1,500's in workouts once a week for the past few months. He is confident he will score in the 8,800's in this meet, and one day set another world record with a mark over 9,000.
"I came to grips with the 1,500 this year," said O'Brien. "I realize to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games or World Championships, I don't have to be great at it, but I have to be good.
"I don't think it was a mental block. I just didn't do the work."
Mike Keller, O'Brien's coach, said that's the biggest difference in O'Brien. The party animal days and long nights are over.
O'Brien no longer survives just on athletic talent, but has become a technician. A month ago, O'Brien (13.47) beat Roger Kingdom (13.48) in the 110-meter hurdles, possibly the first time a decathlon world-record holder beat a two-time Olympic champion in his specialty.
"Years ago, we were inexperienced at some events," said Keller. "We're no longer learning, but conquering. I've said before that failure is a part of life, and Dan's was magnified. People who handle those failures, they are the ones who become important."
Reebok featured him and Johnson in a $25 million advertising campaign that asked, "Who is the world's greatest athlete . . . Dan or Dave? To be settled in Barcelona."
O'Brien made the trip, but as a TV commentator. He watched Robert Zmelik of Czechoslovakia win the gold medal with 8,611 points to 8,412 for Spain's Antonio Penalver. Johnson was third with 8,309.
"Who knows if I'd still be doing this if I won in Barcelona?" said O'Brien, a 1993 World Champion. "You'd definitely have to say the mishap in New Orleans prolonged my career. I don't think about New Orleans, but what I learned there.
"I'm not affiliated with Reebok anymore. I don't think the question of who's the world's greatest athlete exists anymore."