Al Oerter Runs the Only Race of his Track & Field Career…kind of
It was 1954, the spring of his senior year at Sewanhaka High School, when Al Oerter would set a National Scholastic Record in the discus throw. The Sewanhaka track team also won the Nassau County (Long Island) Track & Field Championship during that special season. For the only time in his high school career, Al participated in a racing event in addition to the discus; the Men’s Shuttle Hurdle Relays.
In the shuttle hurdle relay, each of four hurdlers on a team runs the opposite direction from the preceding runner. Each leg is 110 meters (120 yards) with ten hurdles per leg. Under today’s rules, each team has two lanes set up for each direction, limiting the number of racing teams to four on an eight-lane track. Back in the 1950’s, there was only one lane per team, so there could be up to eight teams racing at once.
Two years earlier, when Oerter joined the track team, he first tried out as a sprinter. He was starting to grow and had more of the attributes of a human string bean than of a compact sprinter. He gamely became a miler but was not really enjoying it when an errant disk skipped across the track and...well…his life changed forever.
Just before the County Championships, Sewanhaka coach Jim Fraley asked Al if he would consider taking a stab at the high hurdles. They had a hole on the shuttle hurdle relay team, and Fraley remembered that Oerter had been a sprinter and, with his lanky frame, could make it over the hurdles. The future 4-time Olympic Gold Medalist in the discus said, “Sure.”
The starters pistol sounded a sharp “snap,” when the first-leg runners took off. Al was set to run the third leg of the race, and noticed that his teammate who started was in third place and clearing hurdles with ease. He crossed the end line and the next hurdler took off from 120 yards away, headed in Al’s direction. It was a bit of a madhouse in that every lane was filled with dashing, jumping, straining competitors.
Al started to pump himself up as the second leg runner was within about 20 yards of the end line. His teammate lunged across, and Al exploded from his starting position. He was all legs and probably the tallest athlete on the track. He approached the first hurdle when “THWAP, SLAM!” he caught the top and sent it downward, smacking onto the cinders. The second hurdle came up fast when “THWAP, SLAM!” he knocked that one over too. But, he kept going without losing a step. Eight more times he knocked down the high hurdles in his lane, like an out of control freight train obliterating a series of concrete stopping barriers. Only after he crossed the line and the fourth runner took off did he look back and realize that his teammate had no hurdles to clear because they were all down. The last-legger ran unfettered, blew past the leaders and sealed the victory for Sewanhaka.
The coaches for all of the participating teams were looking at each other and appealing to the officials as to what the rules were. All except Fraley, who knew this was a legitimate win. Under today’s shuttle hurdle rules, each team has two lanes to run in so there is time to reset a fallen hurdle. Back in Al’s day, with only one lane per team, once a hurdle was down, it stayed down and the race continued.
As he proved over the course of his life, Al Oerter would find a way to overcome steep challenges in the most intense circumstances and competitions. Years later, he reflected, “We won that race because of my being able to run through those hurdles. Who needs form?” Today, he might say that a little flattening would probably be good for everybody.
Al Oerter (seated first row, middle) with his 1954 Sewanhaka HS Track & Field Nassau County Championship teammates
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