My earliest impression of Al Oerter was that of an unbeatable Olympian who was a true amateur athlete – a regular guy with a regular job, who happened to also be a world class discus thrower. After meeting Al in 1988, I was amazed that more people didn’t know of him. Since then, I learned that his humility was beyond comparison, that he was a mentor to many Olympians; he influenced younger people in the discus or just while training at a local school, yet claimed that he would have been a terrible coach. It wasn’t about winning gold medals. It was about competing “with” his fellow throwers, not “against.” Al said, “I guess people like to hear my stories; I would prefer that they go out and make their own stories.”
For over thirty years, I have been trying to tell Al Oerter’s story. He journeyed through life with humor and purpose, bending all of his efforts, mental, physical and spiritual, toward that end. With so many incredible moments in a life well-lived, some will accuse me of creating a legend or a myth. A legend contains exaggerated facts, while a myth, in contrast, is symbolic storytelling that was never based on fact. Al Oerter is 100%, grade A, genuine. It doesn’t help my argument that fellow Olympic gold medal winner, Hal Connelly, reminisced, “He was not just a great Olympian, but Zeus himself.”
What I have learned along the way is that Al Oerter’s story never ends. Like a river, it keeps flowing, creating frothy rapids and settling in gentle pools. So, like him, I will work to be at my absolute best to bring his extraordinary life to you. In a lot of ways, I realize that I’ve been able to go out and make my own story, by telling his.
- Andrew Pettit
Why the Torch Burns So Fiercely
“We can’t escape our destinies, especially when laid out so perfectly”
- Cathy Oerter
There are deep echoes from my childhood that hint at my muted awareness of Al Oerter. Being the early 1960’s, you could probably attribute it to my regular diet of Sports Illustrated and Boys Life Magazine, topped off with a healthy dose of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. It was not until the 1968 Mexico City Games were recapped in the New York Times with the headline, “Oerter Takes Record 4th Straight Olympic Gold Medal by Winning Discus,” that he was finally etched in my conscious memory. I was 14 years old. I cannot claim to truly know when this really all began or when it will ever end, for it is part of my collective being, perhaps, since before the day I was born.
Ed Lowe, the popular Newsday columnist, captured the origins of this story when he wrote “A Gravestone Mystery,” in his Sunday Magazine column in July, 1986. He told of my wife Karen’s discovery of an Olympic Stadium Pass to the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, the Xth OLYMPIAD, issued to my deceased uncle, Roger Pettit, who I share a birthdate with and, as a result, Roger is my middle name. This occurred while packing up for our family of five’s move to Los Angeles, so that I could attend graduate school at the USC School of Cinema/Television. I remembered my father telling me a story maybe ten years before about Uncle Roger going to the ’32 Olympics, but I had no idea how the pass in the black leather cover had come into my possession...