Al Oerter. One of the Great Ones.

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Al Oerter, arguably the greatest Olympian of all time died earlier today. I had a chance to meet Al last year and it was really an honor. Here’s Al Oerter’s obituary from the NYT:

 

Al Oerter, a discus thrower who became the first modern track andfield athlete to win four consecutive Olympic titles in one event andwho competed into his 60s, died today in Fort Myers, Fla. He was 71 andlived in Fort Myers Beach.

His wife, Cathy Oerter, saiddoctors at a Fort Myers hospital had told her that the cause was eithera heart attack or a blood clot. Oerter had had high blood pressuresince he was young and heart problems in later years. When he was 61,three cardiologists told him he needed a heart transplant, he said. Hedeclined, took pills instead and stopped lifting weights. Ten monthslater, he was lifting again.

Oerter (pronounced OAR-ter), asandy-haired bear of a man who weighed as much as 297 pounds and stood6 feet 4 inches, won Olympic gold medals in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968.Only Carl Lewis has duplicated the record, winning the long jump from 1984 through 1996.

Oerter’ssweep was all the more remarkable because in each case he broke theOlympic record, beat the world record holder, overcame an injury andwas not the favorite to win. His winning throws were 184 feet 11 inchesin Melbourne in 1956, 194-2 in Rome in 1960, 200-1 in Tokyo in 1964 and212-6 in Mexico City in 1968.

Harold Connolly, an American hammer thrower who also won an Olympic gold medal, once told the sports columnist Stan Isaacs:

“Inthe opinion of many of us, he is the greatest field-event athlete ofthe century. There’s a magic about him when he’s competing. He’snervous before the meet. He doesn’t eat well and his hands shake. Butonce the event is about to start, a calmness settles over him. Theother athletes see it, and it intimidates them. They watch him, andthey are afraid of what he might do.”

Typically, Oerter madelight of his triumphs. In 1991, he told The Olympian magazine, “Thefirst one, I was really young; the second, not very capable; the third,very injured; the fourth, old.”

The injury in his third Olympics,in 1964, occurred six days before competition was to begin. Whilethrowing a discus — a 4.4-pound disc resembling a miniature flyingsaucer — he slipped on a wet concrete discus circle and tore ribcartilage on his right side (his throwing side), causing internalbleeding and severe pain. Team doctors told him to forget the Olympicsand not throw for six weeks. He refused.

“These are the Olympics,” he was quoted as saying at the time. “You die before you quit.” He competed and won.

AlfredOerter Jr., was born Sept. 19, 1936, in Astoria, Queens, and grew up onLong Island, in West Islip. At Sewanhaka High School, he was a sprinterand then a miler.

One day, he recalled, when a discus landed nearhis feet, he casually threw it back so far that the coach immediatelymade him a discus thrower. He became the national schoolboy recordholder and went on to the University of Kansas, where a classmate was Wilt Chamberlain, the basketball great.

Oerter won two N.C.A.A.titles at Kansas and a business degree in 1959. Later, competing forthe New York Athletic Club, he won six national championships and brokethe world record six times.

In an era before elite track athletestrained full time, he worked full time as a computer executive for theGrumman aircraft company on Long Island. After his fourth gold medal,he retired from track, only to return many times.

In 1980, at age43, he threw 227-11, a career best and the second longest in the worldthat year. In the 1980 United States Olympic trials, he finishedfourth, one place and 4 feet short of making the team. (The team nevercompeted in that year’s summer Olympics, held in Moscow, because of theboycott ordered by President Jimmy Carter to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.)

AfterOerter’s last throw, the crowd in Eugene, Ore., gave him a five-minutestanding ovation. He bowed. “That never happened to me before,” heexplained.

When he was asked what he had to prove at that age,he replied: “You don’t understand. It’s not whether you get there. It’sthe journey.”

He retired again, then re-emerged at 47 for the1984 Olympic trials. He reached the finals, only to tear a calf musclejogging before his last three throws.

In 1987, he quit elitecompetition for good, saying of it, “The drug culture had taken over.”He turned to meets for athletes 40 and older, setting world records forolder age groups with a lighter discus. (“It feels like a potato chip,”he said.)

He recalled attending one such meet when he was 61.“I was showing some old duffers how to do it,” he said. “They were soexcited competing. One guy said: ‘I just threw 120 feet. What did youdo?’ I told him I just threw 204 feet.”

Besides his wife, theformer Cathy Carroll, who once competed in international events in thelong jump, Oerter is also survived by two daughters from a previousmarriage, Crystiana Beardslee, of Mexico, N.Y., and Gabrielle Oerter ofColorado Springs; a sister, Marianne Boland, of Stormville, N.Y.; andthree grandchildren.

In later years he became a well-traveledpublic and motivational speaker and took up abstract painting. He alsohelped found Art of the Olympians, a program to help fellow Olympianspromote their art work.

In his 60s, after a visit to theOlympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, he lamented what he saw asa culture of professionalism entering track and field. “I saw athletesin their 30’s training full time,” he said. “That’s their life. Whathappened to the rest of it? I’m happy that I had a normal life, with acareer and family. That makes a person whole.”

He also had no regrets about competing well into middle age.

“Have you ever seen a longer face than on an athlete who has quit in his prime?” he said.

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Mike Young

Mike Young

Founder of ELITETRACK at Athletic Lab
Mike has a BS in Exercise Physiology from Ohio University, an MSS in Coaching Science from Ohio University & a PhD in Biomechanics from LSU. Additionally, he has been recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength & Conditioning Association, a Level 3 coach by USA Track & Field, a Level 2 coach by USA Weightlifting.
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Mike Young
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