Al Oerter Breaks the Age Barrier With Every Toss
Competitions for athletes over 40 have increased in a number of sports - baseball, softball, track, golf, and swimming. Defeating flab and staying mentally and physically fit are often the motivations. One senior athlete is remarkable for his past triumphs and what he continues to do. This profile can be read like a Rosetta Stone for seniors anywhere, or at least a call to rise up for a vigorous walk around the block.
FORT MYERS, FLA. — THE big, healthy-looking man in white shorts standing in his front doorway - oops, two tiny white dogs no bigger than fuzzy bath sponges jump between his legs - is Al Oerter. He picks up one of the wiggling, yapping dogs with a hand about the size of Cleveland. ``Eight ounces,'' he says and laughs.
Al Oerter is the man who picked up a 4-pound, 6 1/2-ounce discus in the Olympic Games of 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968 and hurled it far enough each time to win four gold medals. No one else has ever won the gold in the same event in four successive Olympics; Oerter stands alone in the history of the Olympic Games, unless maybe Bo Jackson ever ... naw.
Oerter may be the quintessential ``senior'' athlete in the United States. Spend a few hours with the man, now in his early 50s, and here is an amiable, relaxed legend who does not fall for aging, fame, or self-aggrandizement. ``I don't have a sense of mortality,'' he says, with a slight New York accent. ``I've seen too many people become tentative about their lives. Get out and enjoy yourself.''
These days, Oerter, a retired manager for a computer company, gives what he calls ``soft'' motivational talks to business managers and professional groups. ``I try to leave them thinking about what they can do to improve their lives,'' he says, ``to create their own approach and not fit into a program.''
Oerter and his second wife, Kathy, divide their time between a home on Long Island, N.Y., and a home here. Oerter is still solidly built and fit with a rolling laugh and the candor of a man with no regrets. He works out regularly at a local gym (basketball for 40 minutes and weight lifting for 45 minutes) and competes in the annual World Veteran Games for athletes over 40.
Last year in Eugene, Ore., he won the discus competition in the 50 to 55 age bracket with a world record throw of 205 feet, 10 inches, surpassing his mark of 191 feet, 9 inches from the previous year. His best official throw ever is 227 feet, 11 inches in 1980.
But during taping for a television show in 1983 when Oerter was 47, he threw the discus several times an astonishing 240 feet. ``It would have been a world record then,'' he says nonchalantly.
Sitting in the screened porch of his comfortable home overlooking a canal, Oerter contends that the majority of younger athletes today are ``peacocks with egos flying.''
He says, ``They have so much to say about themselves that I don't see how they can be comfortable with themselves. I've seen really capable athletes just crumble because they weren't able to bring their therapist or coach or physician out onto the field. They lost their little support group.''
Oerter's singular, ageless, self-reliant approach to competition and behavior is the exact opposite. Pete Cava, a spokesman for The Athletics Congress of the U.S.A., the governing body of US track and field, rates Oerter's ability to focus and concentrate as one-of-a-kind. ``Remember,'' he says, with awe, ``there are us mere mortals, and then there is Al Oerter.''
Oerter has always been undisturbed by such mega-praise. Nor does he suggest that involvement in senior athletics should not be fun. Winning to him is the result of a well-executed plan, not an end in itself.
``Olympic competition, or any competition,'' he says, ``is really a test of self. Those who enjoy it do well. Enjoyment is not a frivolous thing. It means you've worked very, very hard for long periods of time. You have nothing to add to your training regimen. The focus is not on winning, but to mirror the effort you've been going through, to be so well-focused that the cumulative effort of four years [training for the Olympics] would be exhibited on just this one day. You're focusing the sun's rays through a magnifying glass, and you're right in the little spot of heat.''
Simulating conditions that might arise on the day of the competition was part of Oerter's training regimen. ``I simulated every possible competitive situation that might arise,'' he says of his tenacity during Olympic training, ``wet weather, strong winds, throwing when I was injured. I was prepared for anything, physically and mentally. And if you have come to be at peace with yourself regardless of the outcome, you realize you are as capable as you're going to be. In this environment you enjoy it.''
In 1976, he tried steroids for two months. ``I wanted to put on some bulk,'' he says, ``and a physician put me on a light program. But it caused my blood pressure to go through the ceiling and made no difference at all in my performance. It's all in the mind,'' he concludes.
``I've since spoken out long and hard against drugs,'' he says, urging adults and young people to exercise physically and mentally. ``Jump start yourself. Get an instruction video, go to the library for a book. I'd like to talk to a million kids at once and get them to use their abilities.''
Oerter didn't care much for what he calls the ``abrasiveness'' that drugs introduced into competition because even modest enjoyment had disappeared. ``When I left the sport in l968,'' he says, ``everybody was fairly good friends. But when I came back [for Olympic competition] no one spoke. People were locked in mortal combat in the discus event when we were out in the sunshine and fresh air.'' He leans forward, disappointment and anger in his voice. ``This is combat? The attitudes just drove me nuts.''
After growing up in West Islip, Long Island, N.Y., German family that ate plenty of meat (``we thought vegetables were a garnish,'' says Oerter, laughing) he now follows his wife's vegetarian example. ``I haven't had a steak in about five years,'' he says, ``or pork chops.'' He eats fish, some poultry, and lots of whole grains with skimmed milk.
Oerter admits he was not a team man, yet always rose to the occasion of the Olympics even though he was never the favorite. ``I loved the isolation, the training,'' he says, ``the long periods of time by myself. It was the event that fascinated me, not winning for a team.''
Oerter likes what he sees on Florida beaches. ``You can see men and women 70 and 80 years old running on the beaches,'' he says. ``They're not locked up in an apartment somewhere watching TV or afraid to go out. At the World Veterans Games last year there was a 100-meter dash for men 90 and above. If you need assurances that you can make it to those ages and still be capable, there it is.''