Doug Robinson: The unraveling of a rare talent

Published: Saturday, April 13 2013 8:45 p.m. MDT

Of the five prep athletes who have broken the four–minute barrier, Ryun, Liquori and Webb went on to make Olympic teams and win national championships. The 20-year-old Verzbicas left the University of Oregon in the fall of his freshman year to pursue a professional triathlon career. Danielson never would break four minutes again, never run in the Olympics and never win a national title.

Danielson claimed his first victory at the elite level in an indoor mile race in Los Angeles in 1968, but his running career was nonetheless making a slow fade. Four months after marrying his girlfriend, Danielson became a father. He had to support a family and he was studying engineering at San Diego State. He made a futile attempt to qualify for the 1968 Olympic Games at 5,000 meters. A year later, Danielson, Liquori and Ryun competed in the mile at the NCAA championships. Danielson failed to make the final.

Ask BYU coaches about all this and they come straight to the point: "If he had stayed at BYU, he would have been fantastic," says Hirschi. "He would have been running under four minutes all the time. Coach James was doing a good job of training runners in those days. I don't think there was any limit as to how quick (Danielson) might have run. He had all the makings of a great one. If he had stuck around, he would've been one of the all-time greats. But of course that's all speculation."

Says James, "If he had stayed at BYU, and if he would've been a little patient with himself — by that I mean, not overdo his training and make time for rest — he would've gone down as one of the great ones. He would have been in the same category as Jim Ryun."

Perhaps the excessive training caught up with Danielson. His San Diego State coach, Tony Sucec, told the Times that Danielson was unable to train as hard and consistently as he once did.

Danielson began a career as a chemical engineer. He worked for an aviation company and was considered, according to the Times, an excellent, well-liked, even-tempered employee. But his personal life was a mess. He went through three marriages (he had two sons, 27 years apart), and he suffered from alcoholism that led to erratic behavior. His first wife claims that Danielson's running career contributed to their divorce.

He continued to run, but he also become a heavy smoker and took up drinking after the first divorce, according to family members. A decade ago, he managed to get sober and attended AA meetings, but as Danielson's third marriage fell apart, so did Danielson. He was despondent when his latest ex-wife began seeing another man, according to the Times. Depressed and drinking heavily again, he reportedly tried to take his own life. Instead, according to charges, he took someone else's life. He is accused of shooting his ex-wife in the home they shared after the divorce.

Last summer, Danielson wrote a letter to a former San Diego State teammate in which he addressed this tragic turn of events.

"I'm not sure when it will end or how it will end," he wrote, according to the Times. "One thing is certain is that I had a serious mental breakdown. It was not part of who I am. I'm still in shock after a year. Some things have surfaced which help explain my meltdown. … I had a good life before this terrible thing happened. No one could have ever guessed this outcome, me the most."

email: drob@desnews.com

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