A Rebel in Big-and-Tall Wear

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1994

A Rebel in Big-and-Tall Wear

Breaking the age rules with Al Oerter, fitness explorer
By Randy Wayne White

"One of these days," Al Oerter told a sportswriter back in 1963, "I might try to put out a little pamphlet, with things I've learned."

Three decades later, Oerter still hasn't produced his little pamphlet. Too bad--that's what I tell him down at Gold's Gym. Oerter lives nearby, and for the last few weeks we've been working out together. Rather, Oerter has been working out and I've been tagging along, messing with light weights, mimicking his routine while he crunches heavy, focused reps. I'm here looking for a few pearls from somebody who's even older and bigger than I am.

When I mention the pamphlet, Oerter looks at the ground, swipes at his nose--a gesture, I gather, of self-deprecation--and says, "People have better things to do than listen to my theories." He grins. "At least, they should have better things to do."

I'm not so sure. Oerter is a legendary figure, the only athlete in history to win gold medals in four consecutive Olympic Games. His event was discus, and he won in Melbourne in 1956, Rome in '60, Tokyo in '64, and Mexico City in '68. He might have won again in 1980 had it not been for the American boycott of the Moscow Games.

More interesting, though, are the circumstances under which he won. Not once was he the reigning world-record holder going into the Games; not once was he considered the most talented in his field; not once was he favored to win. Yet he did win, again and again, each time coming from behind, reaching down for one final huge throw, performing heroically despite injuries, despite his youth, and later despite his age.

But what's most remarkable about Oerter are the quirks and cross-weaves of his personal fabric. He's always been known as an outsider, a quiet rogue with a blue-collar work ethic that mirrors his antecedents, and a progressive sensibility that leans toward the unusual, sometimes the spiritual. Oerter was taking vitamins and eating health food long before the rest of us--and was portrayed as a kook because he did. In the Tokyo and Mexico City Games, where it was no secret that some athletes were using steroids, Oerter was called naive because he didn't. While other athletes sought the spotlight, Oerter shunned it. While some made the Olympics a business, Oerter kept his campaigns intensely private. He was and is viewed by many as the last purely amateur Olympian--a big, shy guy who took the journey for the journey's sake.

Now 57, Oerter is still journeying hard. On this busy morning at the gym, it strikes me that most of the bulky iron-pumpers and sleek aerobic dancers here hadn't even been born when Oerter won his first gold medal. Hell, some of their parents hadn't been born. But at six-foot-four and 270 pounds, Oerter is still taking his vitamins, still following his own instincts when it comes to training. And when he's not flying around the country giving motivational speeches, he still lives an intensely private life with his wife, former track star Cathy Newman Oerter. The man could pass for 40 if he wanted--which he doesn't. His silver-blond hair and cool, Nordic eyes just add to the overall impression that Oerter has some kind of karmic association with Kodiak bears. As he moves from station to station, he seems to carry his own space with him. With most men Oerter's size, you worry about making them mad. But Oerter is so wry, so mild of voice, that my only worry is that he'll step on me during some iron-pumping reverie.

His workouts are tough, regimented, and give no quarter to age. He therefore doesn't buy it when I say that at 43 I'm too old to hoist any more dumbbells. "To exercise at near capacity," Oerter tells me, "is the best way I know of reaching a true introspective state. If you do it right, it can open all kinds of inner doors."

An anachronistic view in this glitzy age of sound bites and infomercials. We've all been prodded to just do it. And Oerter does it. But his reasons are personal and complex; they're not Madison Avenue slick.

"This country has a crazy attitude toward youth and age and fitness," Oerter says, toweling down after his third set of squats. "I was always too young or too old, too dumb or too something. But the way people are expected to lie down just because of the aging process, it's nuts. And the way they jump from one health fad to another--a lot of it's a crock of shit."

Not a bad title for the pamphlet he once considered, I tell him: "A Lot of It's a Crock of Shit."

"Sure," he says, which comes out "schua," the accent of Long Island, where he grew up. "That's a line I'd put in there, but maybe tone it down a little. It has a nice ring though, huh?"

The pamphlet, topic #1. "Weightlifting, to me, creates a sense of being in flight. I've never considered a weight to be heavy. It's something that's there, and you lift it or you don't. Period."

Barbells. Flight. The image doesn't quite work for me as I watch all of the people groaning and sweating in the weight room. Then again, I'm not the explorer Oerter is. Climbers, kayakers, polar freaks, bushwhackers--people who truly push the envelope of experience--have their peculiar philosophies, and Oerter certainly has his. He's no fashion pioneer, however: He wears sneakers, blue cotton shorts, and an old white T-shirt in a gym that glistens with chrome and spandex. He looks like a phys ed teacher who has wandered onto the set of a fitness video shoot.

"What's wrong with these clothes?" asks Oerter. "At least they're clean." He pauses to wave his nose over a shirt sleeve. "Well, they were clean."

We start into some weight-aided stretching: light repetitions on a half-dozen different machines, back, arms, stomach, and legs. This is the fun part. Oerter, though not voluble, is talkative, and his interests are far-ranging. Mostly, we chat and make wisecracks, moving from station to station. But enough is enough, and soon Oerter heads for the free-weight area, where he grabs two 45-pound plates and sandwiches them together to form an oversize discus. He swings the weight back and forth, back and forth, feet stationary, hips pivoting, as if preparing to throw. It is at this moment that Oerter, while still in the room, disappears from it. The real workout has just begun, and there are no more comments about poundage, no advice about technique, no more funny stories, no mention of Olympics past. It's just Oerter and the weight, rep after rep, set after set. The technique is there to see, the effort there to hear, but Oerter is gone, in some private place, just him and the weight, the two of them off exploring.

Topic #2. "Everything I had heard about getting old, everything I had read, was wrong," says Oerter. "We humans can get a lot more out of ourselves than is generally believed. Who are these experts to tell us what we can and can't do?"

I tell Oerter that, at age 40, I decided to play baseball again. Not softball, which I despise, but baseball, where catchers strap on gear and hitters wear helmets for a reason. I expect Oerter to make some comment on the physiology of an aging arm--the man is an expert on throwing, after all.

Instead he says, "Baseball? Geez, I love baseball. Probably my only minor regret in life is that I didn't give pro baseball a try. Is the league any good?"

I tell him there are several former major leaguers playing, so yeah, it's pretty good. "But we're all over 40. So it's not great."

When Oerter hears something that he disagrees with, something that doesn't mesh with his personal experience, he talks even more softly than usual. As a result, the listener listens even more closely. "Let me tell you something," he says. "After the '68 Olympics, I was 32 and figured I was done. I was old, OK? I entered the corporate world, which is another kind of crock, and I didn't work out for the next eight years. Eight years! When I was 40 I went back to the gym and was amazed at how quickly all the physical stuff came back. Within a year, at that so-called advanced age, I was lifting 25 percent more weight than I'd ever lifted. I was throwing the discus farther than I'd ever thrown. Why? Because I was stronger and smarter than when I was young. Hell, when I was 46 I made a couple of throws that would probably have exceeded the world record if the discus hadn't gone out of the facility and hit a damn hill.

"Don't sell yourself short," he insists. "If you want to throw a baseball harder, make yourself stronger and perfect the mechanics. Same with running the bases faster."

I suggest that Oerter come and play baseball on my team. I also suggest that maybe the two of us can take a run occasionally instead of spending every workout in the weight room.

Oerter says, "Forget it." He means running. Baseball, he's still considering.

Topic #3. Who does like to run? Maybe a handful of really skinny people with bones like birds--a fraternity of which I am not a member. Yet I still run. Every day I run. But Oerter is steadfast in his position. The man is stubborn. "I hate to run," he says. "But on Long Island we had these long, long stretches of beach. And I found that if you jog for extended periods of time with your eyes closed, it eliminates all the distractions that invade you through sight. Am I going to step in a hole? Is something going to crawl out of the sea and grab me? The first time you try it, you'll run a hundred yards and have to look often. Pretty soon, you're going miles--a crazy person running with his eyes closed. When you look back at your tracks, it's amazing how your feet always found the very best path. That kind of jogging is nice. You're inside yourself. No distractions."

Work out with Oerter for a few weeks, and you come to the conclusion that he has been battling distractions his whole life.

"Nothing unusual about that," he tells me one rare morning at the gym--rare because he is leaning against the wall watching me do pull-ups instead of hammering at his own routine. "Everyone has distractions--parents, businesspeople, athletes. The question is, do you deal with them, or do you use them as an excuse?"

Oerter, clearly, is of the no-excuses school. For more than 20 years he worked for Grumman Data Systems. He trained after hours, and on weekends he traveled (at his own expense) to meets, where he consistently threw a four-and-a-half-pound saucer farther than it had ever been thrown. He set world records--four of them. And then, come Sunday, it was back to the wife and kids, the dental appointments, the school plays, and the long days at the office. The distractions.

"Why should any of those things be considered excuses?" he says. "I wanted to be with my family. I also wanted to throw the discus. So I did."

In 1963, at a meet in California, Oerter threw the discus 206 feet, 5.25 inches, a world record. Afterward he was quoted as saying that it was possible, just possible, that a human being might someday throw a discus 220 feet, but that it would take a bigger and taller man than himself.

Seventeen years later, at age 43, Oerter made an officially recorded throw of 227 feet.

"Surprise, surprise," he laughs now. "I'd fallen for that age business--a real crock of shit."

Topic #4. "An important part of any discipline is competition," says Oerter. "It's a way to gauge how well you've integrated all the training, all the study, all the work. Winning isn't crucial, though. Why limit yourself to a trophy or the color of a medal?"

The first time I saw Al Oerter, I didn't know it was Al Oerter. I was jogging past a football field and saw this big man off by himself throwing a Frisbee--that's what the object appeared to be, it sailed so far. Later, when I learned who the man--and what the object--was, I thought, Oh, yeah, the guy who won all the gold medals. It was a dumb summary of a complex man.

This morning we are back at the same football field, and Oerter is flipping a discus up in the air and catching it as we chat about the 1980 Olympic boycott. "I was 44 years old," he says. "I'd been working harder than I'd ever worked, throwing farther than I'd ever thrown, when I heard that President Carter wanted to boycott the Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For me, it was a personal decision. Had the United States gone, I still wouldn't have."

Oerter takes a second discus from his bag and tosses it to me with a kind of are-we-going-to-talk-or-are-we-going-to-throw flourish. End of subject. For the next half-hour he attempts to instruct me in the basic techniques of the sport. He talks about foot speed and touch and trajectory. He talks about why discus throwing has charmed him for these many decades: "I love the mechanics involved. But what I enjoy most is marking my last throw with a towel, then trying to throw beyond it."

As Oerter talks, I make my first tentative attempts to parrot the man's footwork. The results are not encouraging--it's like Baryshnikov trying to teach a middle-school sock-hopper. The man is freakishly agile, whereas I'm not. "Well," he says as last, "let's give it a try." We move to the throwing circle, an old slab of Florida concrete pocked with fossilized seashells. The circle, at least, pleases him. "A thousand years from now," he says, "they'll think this is some kind of religious symbol placed here by aliens." That thought seems to please him even more, for he begins to discuss the antiquity of the sport. How the technique has been handed down through the ages, from one athlete to another, as purely and as cleanly as his own gesture of lifting the discus and tossing it into my hands. He is implying that he is but one more discus thrower in a very long line.

For once, Al Oerter's wrong. I've seen him throw

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!