Whenever I see the United States 110 meters hurdler David Oliver I am always pleasantly relieved that his head remains on his shoulders. Three years ago, I chatted to this powerfully built and affable product of Denver, Colorado as we traveled on an open-top bus around the 2012 Olympic Park as part of the publicity drive – as it were – for the following day’s London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace. As we caught a distant glimpse of the as-yet unfinished Olympic Stadium, Oliver – who is six feet, two inches tall – rose from his seat on the top deck to get a picture of it on his mobile phone. A low bridge loomed suddenly in front of us. And had the American not sat down just as suddenly after deeming his snap satisfactory then, well, as I say, it’s nice to see he remains in one piece.
In emotional rather than physical terms, however, Oliver was all over the place in the wake of his recent victory at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, a victory watched by his mother, the former 400-meter hurdler Brenda Chambers, who earned the right to compete in that very same stadium 33 years earlier but was unable to do so because of the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
On the eve of this week’s IAAF Diamond League meeting in Stockholm, as he sat in a glass-walled hotel conference room with a panoramic view of the city’s glorious Riddarfjord, Oliver reflected on the emotions which had arrived unbidden after he had crossed the line in his final. And the 31-year-old’s subsequent description of 2013 as the year when he had to reinvent himself in order to stay in the game contained honesty one rarely encounters in such publicity appearances.
“Winning in Moscow meant the world,” said the man who was riding high in more than one sense back in 2010, but who then failed to take a medal at any international championship until his triumph in Moscow, failing even to qualify for the Olympics held in the London stadium he nearly lost his head over. “You just think about all the sacrifices and all the downs you went through. The emotions came out as soon as I crossed the line, and I am not a particularly emotional type of guy.
“I felt like this was the make-or-break year. I couldn’t go three years in a row not performing to my best. After the first round in the 2011 U.S. trials I got an injury, and it was downhill from that point on. If you are not performing you don’t get to sit up here in these nice places and do these interviews, come to the meets.
“I thought it was a make-or-break year for me for a lot of different reasons. You know, contract up at the end of this year, not seeing the meets that I usually see like the previous years, you know, coming in, running bad, they kind of don’t want you to be there, especially when they’ve got so many bright Americans that are running.
“You know, if I was from a different country, they might say ‘he’s still running well’, but they don’t want four or five Americans in an eight-lane race, you know, and when you’re at the bottom there you know they have to trim some of this fat. I’m a very self-aware athlete and I knew the way things were going, I was dropping down in the pecking order.”
And so Oliver made some big, obvious changes to his daily routine.
“I only train four days a week now,” he said. “I don’t lift weights in the traditional sense any more, I don’t do indoor meetings. Things started out very slow. I was running 13.30 – even in at the Shanghai Diamond League. But when I got to watch that race back I was able to see one thing I was doing wrong – it was something I was doing with my hips. And within a couple of days I made a big improvement.
“In training it was about more quality over quantity. Having Wednesday as an active rest day, that was big. Because before, by the time Thursday came around it was pointless for me to be out there, I didn’t have anything left in the tank because I went so hard earlier in the week.”
Oliver added that he was now six or seven pounds lighter. “I just kept getting injured. Being tight muscle-wise had to be part of the reason for getting injured over the last 18 months. And being 30 you can’t do stuff you were doing when you were 24, 25. It’s like you’ve just got to run your head into the same brick wall over and over again and keep getting the same result. All you had to do is make a little change, sidestep the brick wall and go through the open and I feel like that’s what I needed to do this year.
“As far as retiring, I didn’t think about that. I knew I had the talent and I just needed to figure out the way to deal with all these injuries because I knew when I was healthy I was one of the best guys in the event.
“Hurdles is one of those events where the older you are you can get a little bit better still. Ryan Wilson is a great inspiration – for him to be winning the silver medal in Moscow at the age of 32, I couldn’t be more happy for him. He just persevered throughout the years, through all the ups and downs, I mean we were number one and number two in 2010, it just took us both a couple of years to regain that form, and now we’re back again, which is great.
“Allen Johnson was about 35, 36 when he ran 12.9 in 2006. And he can be another inspiration to me, because I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”
As I say, Oliver is a man with a good head on his shoulders…
Inside the Games is a blog of the London Organizing Committee that helped put on the 2012 Summer Olympics. This article is reprinted here with permission of the authors of the blog.