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A tribute to Olympian Al Oerter

Source: www.wcsn.com

29 November 2007
By Elliot Denman

To time travelers, the convergence in dates and circumstances was uncanny. Jesse Owens won the fourth and last of his gold medals at the Berlin Olympic Games on August 9, 1936.

Forty-one days later, on Sept. 19, 1936, Mrs. Mary Oerter presented son Alfred Adolf Jr. to her husband, Alfred, and this young man was destined to win four Olympic gold medals, too.

But the route to his quadruple triumphs required a far different journey. Instead of winning four golds in the span of a week, as Owens had done, Oerter's days of glory spanned the stretch from Nov. 27, 1956 to October 15, 1968.

Never a winner at the U.S. Olympic trials, Al Oerter nevertheless won four Olympic golds, competing in four nations on four continents, each time setting an Olympic record.

He did it at Melbourne in 1956, Rome in 1960, Tokyo in 1964 and Mexico City in 1968.

Winning consecutive golds in the same event constituted an unprecdented feat. Not until Carl Lewis won the long jump at Los Angeles in 1984, Seoul in 1988, Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996 was the achievement equaled. And these products of neighboring Northeastern states -- Oerter is from New York and Lewis from New Jersey -- continue to stand alone.

Oerter's death in Florida on Oct. 1 shocked many who'd considered him the picture of absolute, robust health through his full lifetime.

But the picture failed to show all.

The heart that had carried this ruggedly handsome man to the heights of his sport could carry him no further. A heart attack -- or perhaps a blood clot -- had carried him off to the home of the Olympic gods. He'd been warned some years earlier that nothing less than a heart transplant would be needed to keep him going for years more, but this was not the route he chose to take.

He settled for a course of medication and placed his future in the hands of a greater power.

He left us just 13 days past his 71st birthday.

But the legacy of Al Oerter is sure to endure for eons.

There may never be an Olympic athlete to match this man with the amazing ability to rise to the greatest of heights at the greatest of moments.

While others -- world and continental record-holders, rivals boasting winning streaks years long, and massive collections of newspaper headlines -- came to the games fully confident of turning back the American, that was never to happen.

Nearly two months after the fact, the shock of his sudden death has been put aside. It's time to reflect on the man and the glory of his achievements.

And so it was at the New York Athletic Club on Wednesday night, Nov. 28th.

Family, friends. Olympic colleagues, clubmates and admirers gathered in the ninth-floor assembly hall of the classic NYAC building on Central Park South to mark a celebration of his life.

"He represented what we are, and what we were, and what we always hope to be," said NYAC President Val Taubner. Oerter had first joined the NYAC as a national scholastic record-setting discus thrower at Long Island's Sewanhaka High School. He continued throwing for NYAC through his days at the University of Kansas, and wore the NYAC's winged-foot emblem with pride to the very end.

At Kansas, he was a contemporary of the famed basketball player, 7-foot Wilt Chamberlain.

As tribute leader Dr. Winford L. Hendrix put it, "when they sat at a table together, with Al's large hands and Wilt's long arms, and their eagle-sized wingspread, there wasn't much room for anyone else at that table."

Unlike the great track and field performers of succeeding decades, Oerter was never a full-time athlete, and once out of college, he never had a coach. He attended Kansas on an academic scholarship, returned to Long Island to put his education to work as a computer specialist in the Grumman Aircraft Co.'s lunar module design and space exploration projects, and stayed a Grumman employee for 26 years.

Once, Oerter estimated he had thrown the discus over 500,000 times in his lifetime. But never, he also said, did he reach perfection.

And that's what drove him on and on and on, forever seeking the perfection of performance he -- even with his collection of gold medals, even with his lofty standards -- was never able to attain.

He made discus throwing -- and the heavy lifting, running, and agility-building drills that went along with it -- a 12-month-a-year avocation.

"He always enjoyed throwing, and everything that went into it," said Dr. Hendrix.

"He said 'it always felt so natural, I always felt so at home [in the discus circle.]'"

But his passion for the discus never consumed him to the point of sacrificing his responsibilities as a family man. "Al was always my hero...but the thing I think I'll miss most is his laugh," said his wife, Cathy.

At that point, the gathering heard a recording of his thoughts on Edmund Piatkowski, of Poland, once one of his principal international rivals.

After another of Oerter's Olympic victories, Piatkowski had said "You just got lucky."

And Oerter's response was to laugh.

"He was my superman, and he was always there for us," said daughter Gabrielle Oerter. "Since his death, we have been completely overwhelmed by the love and the support that have come our way."

"I've heard stories about my dad I never heard before, some of them from complete strangers," Gabrielle said. "He was so much more than his Olympic medals; he never, ever bragged about the medals or his accomplishments."

"Winning gold medals, I thought that's what dads did. But he never made a big thing about them, either. He didn't compete to win. He competed for a genuine love of sport."

"He brought out the best in all of us," said Billy Mills, the 1964 Olympic 10,000-meter champion who'd also been his teammate at Kansas.

"Al could do that, and he did it time after time after time. That was Al."

"He was an exemplar that we, and all Olympians, ever hope to be," said Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic high jump champion, Oerter's teammate at the Mexico Games, who revolutionized the event with his "flop" style of leaping.

"There aren't many people like that. Four consecutive gold medals -- I can't really fathom that."

Fosbury is now president of the World Olympians Association, the group that hopes to parlay the energy of all Olympians into a constructive international force, in and out of the Olympic arena.

In recent years, Oerter had taken on important new challenges -- serving as an inspirational motivational speaker, and then as an abstract artist. And there, too, he continued striving to be the best he could possibly be.

After the fourth and last of Oerter's Olympic golds, the United States has won the men's Olympic discus event just once -- that by Mac Wilkins in 1976.

Time travelers can continue to ponder that fact of Olympic life, too. The men's Olympic event has been completely dominated by European throwers for the past three decades, making the golden memories of Al Oerter even more of a cherished commodity.

Some six years ago, Oerter clipped an anonymously written poem from a newspaper.

It became synonymous with his own life:

"When I was a stone, I lay asleep for a million years dreaming of trees.
And when I was a tree, I whispered my name to the birds who sang to me.
And when I was a bird, I watched the way humans live from my place in the sky.
By the time I was human, I believed in the glory of change. So I wasn't afraid to die."

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