Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Passing of an Olympic Legend - By Jim Duggan

Originally posted on Natural On Monday, October 1, 2007

Al Oerter, the first man to win four consecutive Olympic gold medals in the same event, died of heart failure near his retirement home in Ft. Myers, Florida. He was 71 years old.

He won the first of his gold medals in the discus in 1956, when he was just 19 years old. He won his last gold medal, battling poor weather and injury, in 1968. He was in his thirties when he won his last gold medal, and decided to take a break from the sport. While today's olympic athletes are, essentially, professionals, Oerter pursued his career while holding down a full-time job and raising a family. He competed at a time when amateur athletes were truly "amateur." They were prohibited from receiving ANY money or financial assistance.

I first became aware of Al Oerter in the Spring of 1980. I was fifteen years old, and a sophomore in high school. I had been lifting weights for about a year at that time, and, with the encouragement of my father, joined the track team competing in the shot-put, and discus. It was around this time that Al was in serious training for the Moscow Olympic games. He had embarked on a comeback in 1976, and he was throwing better than he ever had. His comeback was being chronicled in Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. Al lived, and worked, on Long Island, and our track coach held him up as a fine example of talent, hard work, and dedication. We all followed his comeback, and tried to emulate him. And for good reason- his athletic career was as inspiring as it was successful.

In every Olympics that he competed in, he upset a reigning world record-holder to win the gold medal. He was never the favorite, in fact he never even won the Olympic Trials. However, he was, in the words of fellow Olympian Elliott Denman, "the supreme competitor, able to rise to every occasion, cool while others around him were collapsing." Additionally, he set a new Olympic record with every victory.

He overcame a lot to win each medal. In 1957, he survived a near-fatal car accident and was able to return to Rome in 1960. In 1964, he suffered a serious injury just prior to the Games- he tore cartilage off his rib-cage, yet still competed and won. In 1968, he endured a disc injury to win his fourth gold medal. In 1980, at the age of 43, he made a throw of 227'11" for his best throw ever. Unfortunately, politics prevented him from competing for a fifth gold. Yet, he still kept pushing, and was on his way to the 1984 Olympic Trials when a leg injury ended his competitive career for good. I still remember an interview he gave just prior to the Trials when he was asked what it was like to compete against men who were half his age. His response was: "So what if I'm twice as old, I'll just work twice as hard."

He did work hard. He began lifting weights when he was about ten years old, and trained diligently for his entire life. Although his college coaches frowned upon lifting weights, he began to incorporate serious weight-training into his Olympic preparation and the results were obvious. He was a fan of strength-training and, in 2002 was honored with The Highest Achievement Award from The Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen.

He was a great athlete, yet viewed sports as a joyous personal challenge. He once described his discus pursuit as " very internal...a self-fulfillment, not an acquisition of fame and fortune." That philosophy, as well as his four gold medals, makes him one of the greatest- if not the greatest- champion in Olympic history. As well as an inspiration to all athletes, of all ages, in all sports.

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