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Al Oerter: The Greatest Olympian Ever

When I was a kid growing up in the 60’s and 70’s my Uncle’s were busy with their own athletic careers as part of the Jackson Weightlifting Club, or JWC. Not only were they Olympic lifting, they were also busy with high school athletic careers. My Uncle Phil was, among other sports, a top notch discus thrower in high school. I always looked up to my Uncles and one day while hanging around the old gym as a little kid, I spied a picture of someone throwing the discus.

I asked who it was and Phil said, “That’s Al Oerter”.
Being pretty young, I said, “Who’s Al Oerter?”
Phil replied emphatically and without hesitation, “The greatest Olympian ever”.

Those kinds of endorsements stick in your mind. Kind of like when my Dad told me Dick Butkus was the toughest football player ever or when my wrestling coach told me that Dan Gable was the greatest wrestler ever. Many are good, some are great, but only one can be the greatest. According to my Uncle the greatest Olympian, not just discus, not just Track & Field, but of all Olympics of all time, was Al Oerter. He stated the only man that could stand at Al’s side was Jim Thorpe. After reviewing his career, I can only agree the case is pretty solid. Al was still throwing in those days and I made special note to read any article that had his name on it or pay attention to any telecast that mentioned him.

Recently, I was putting up some of the old photos in the latest version of the JWC gym. I was thinking about some of the greats on the old gym wall, Bob Bednarski, Alexeev, Kazmaier, and then I remembered that photo of Al Oerter. I called my Uncle Phil up and we began to talk about Al.

Oerter had won 4 Olympic Gold medals while setting the Olympic record all four times. In my opinion, he may have been able to win even more had things worked out differently, but injuries, politics, and other factors limited his career after the first four Gold Medals. Al’s best throw ever was 227’ 10.5”. His longevity was equally amazing as he threw that distance at age 43. Not many athletes can make the claim they peaked at 43, and probably none could say that after having won 4 gold medals, the last being at age 31. Maybe equally important was the fact he was always the underdog and always won with an Olympic record throw.

Al was an amazing athlete and volumes could be written about his career. But more importantly, I noted how my Uncle Phil spoke of him as a man of character, a champion in the truest sense. He said to me, you need to find him and write about him. He influenced our club as much as any lifter and you need to get his picture back up on that wall.

So, I decided to get a hold of Al and talk. It was such a great experience, I wanted to share it. The following was gleaned through several recent communications.

JWC: How did you get interested in throwing? Who was your early inspiration?
Al Oerter: I had no inspiration for throwing and my throwing career started quite by accident. One day I was training for the mile and a discus skipped on to the track where I was and I picked it up and threw it back further than it was thrown to me and my coach suggested I go see what I could do in the throwing ring and a long career began.

JWC: What are some early throwing memories you have? Did you ever have a moment when you knew that you were going to be good at throwing?
Al: I could throw anything as a child, a football, a baseball, or even rocks. I just had the levers to throw almost anything so I knew immediately on entering the ring that throwing a discus was a natural effort. My earliest memory of throwing that remains to this day was the feeling of being very comfortable in a throwing ring and it felt in fact like being at home.

JWC: What was your basic training philosophy?
Al Oerter: Also from day one I enjoyed lifting, running (sprints) and throwing and after the first few years I adopted a program that lasted 12 months out of each year. I simply enjoyed throwing and everything that went into throwing so nothing felt as if it were a burden. My only coach during all of the years that I threw was a towel. I would place the towel at the impact point of my first throw and for the next 80-90 throws I would move the towel out to the new impact point. It simply was a matter of getting beyond the towel and that proved to be a very fine training technique for Olympic competition.

JWC: How much did weightlifting play in your throwing?
Al Oerter: I started lifting in NYC at age 8. Many of the families from the old countries brought lifting apparatus with them and as a child I would play with my buddies emulating their lifting styles and this proved to be a life long enjoyable effort as it started out as being little more than play with my buddies. Weight has never been a problem, it was always something you could lift or not be able to lift and all that was required was additional work to succeed at whatever poundage was attempted.

JWC: How long did you throw at a high level, even after you stopped competing.
Al Oerter: I never stopped competing when I was throwing at a high level. I've thrown around 30-35 years and during most of that time I was either ranked well in the world or not far down the list.

JWC: I would like to include a paragraph or two about your art career. Which I know is very important to you now and you feature it on your website, Why do you like to create art?
Al Oerter: My earliest heroes were not in sport but rather the abstract artists in NYC that were cutting new ground in the 30’s and 40’s. Because of my grandparents who enjoyed abstract art these strange and wonderful paintings became part of me in a very real sense. It took a long time for me to create my first piece of abstract art but in doing so as in throwing I felt as if I had returned home. I thoroughly enjoy the magic of placing color on raw canvas in an attempt to create something no one has ever seen. One of my efforts is entitled the Impact Series where I smash a discus into acrylic paint resulting in a dynamic spray of color on white canvas. It is the impact point that I have never seen throwing but now I am able to witness it up close. I enjoy two facets of life, one being the structure necessary to create a gallery/museum for Art of the Olympians and all of the components necessary to have it succeed and the second the spontaneous unstructured creation of unusual art.

JWC: What do you think of the throwing today?
Al Oerter: While I don't follow the sport closely, I'm obviously impressed with some of the distances today's throwers can achieve. I don't think it is a huge difference from where we were throwing in the early 80's but an improvement nevertheless. I am encouraged after attending Rob Lasorsa's national throws coach seminar with the quality and enthusiasm for the existing and up and coming coaches.

JWC: Did you ever compete in Scottish Highland Games.
Al Oerter: I am familiar with the Highland Games and if I can remember correctly I competed in Edinburgh a long time ago. Great fun trying to throw some rock that has been around 4 centuries.

JWC: Are there any great throwers that stand out in your memory?
Al Oerter: I thought (Brian) Oldfield was one of the most impressive human specimens I have ever seen. I saw him throw 85' with a foul but anyone who can throw that far even with a foul opens your eyes. My greatest competitors were everyone I threw against. I was never the favorite in any of the Games, never won the Olympic Trials and never paid attention to any of the European throwers so everyone became a real challenge. I respected all throwers for the simple reason that we all had the same kind of goals, endured the same injuries and were motivated day in and day out to add a few inches onto our best throw.

JWC: What advice would you have for any throwers, track & field or Scottish Highland Games?
Al Oerter: My advice is always the same. If an athlete expects rapid improvement or world class distances after only a few years of training he or she best choose another event. Don't forget, I never had a coach or training partner, or anyone else beside the ring when I trained so I thoroughly enjoyed the singular quest.

JWC: What would you like to be remembered for as an athlete?
I believe I will be remembered for the first to win 4 successive gold medals and perhaps the only one to set 4 Olympic records but far more important to me is the hope that I will be remembered as an athlete who thoroughly enjoyed his sport without the need to turn Olympic success into financial, political or notoriety gain. The love of sport simply was all that mattered.

There were some points that struck me in my interview of Al. One is the fact that he was largely un-coached and the basic simplicity of his training routine. To sum it up, Throw Farther. Another point was his respect for his fellow athletes and the sport. He feared no one and respected all. He seemed to never sell himself short. Being the underdog every single time he won gold, he never accepted anything less than victory. Finally, and most importantly in my book, was how much he loved what he did. He mentioned that feeling of home in the ring. I had not put my finger on it, but I know that feeling.

My contact with Al was everything I had hoped. I have got to meet a lot of greats, more than my fair share. Sometimes I’ve been disappointed, more often than not they do live up to my expectations, but Al is a guy that exceed my expectations. I asked him for another photo to hang in the gym and he graciously provided it, as well as one that my Uncle Phil now has hanging in his home gym. When I got it in the mail, I opened it up and my daughter Morgan came over and peered over my shoulder and said, “Who’s that?”

I replied emphatically and without hesitation, “The greatest Olympian ever”.

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