A Rebel in Big-and-Tall Wear
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Outside magazine, May 1994
A Rebel in Big-and-Tall Wear
Breaking the age rules with Al Oerter, fitness explorer
“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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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,
“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
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
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
For once, Al Oerter’s wrong. I’ve seen him throw