The Man Who Thought He Could Not Coach Was the Greatest Teacher of All
On a summer day in 1988, I met Al Oerter for the first time at his home in West Islip, Long Island, where I interviewed him over a span of three days. On day two, I asked Al if he wanted to get into coaching, having just retired from competition. His terse reply was fast and sure. “No, I don’t have the patience.”
In the early spring of 1965, after winning his third consecutive gold medal at the Tokyo Games, his most difficult Olympics due to a major rib injury, Al would work out from time to time at his old Sewanhaka High School training field in Floral Park. Joseph Volpi, Sr., a seventeen-year old shot-putter, would also use the training field to work on his throwing skills. While Al was legendary for his discus throwing, all through high school and college he also “put the shot” during winter indoor seasons. Upon seeing Joe throw a couple of times, Al engaged with him. Joe recounted,” Al taught me the technique of putting, and I vastly improved my throws to place second best in all of New York State a few weeks later.”
(Al Oerter with the Shot during the Indoor Season at Kansas)
Joe Volpi, Sr., passed on stories of these personal training sessions with the great Al Oerter to his son, Joe Volpi, Jr., who grew up to become a weight thrower at Ward Melville High School in Setauket. In the early 1990’s, Eileen Volpi, Joe Sr.’s wife, located Al through his job at Grumman Corp., and surprised her husband by setting up a phone call with the Olympic legend. “We talked a long time. It had been about 25 years and I was shocked he remembered me. I like to think he did, or he was just being the gentleman he was,” Joe recently said.
As a result of the call, Al volunteered to put on a discus throwing clinic for Joe Jr. and his teammates at Ward Melville. Joe Sr. said, “My son and I became mini-celebrities because of our connection with Al. He actually apologized for being stale in his throws…and then promptly tossed the discus deep into the woods!” That day, Joe Jr. improved his discus throws by over ten feet.
Joe, Sr, added, “Years later, Al invited us down to the “Art of the Olympians” gallery he founded in Fort Myers, where he had retired to. It was the last time we talked. Al died shortly after. He was a kind and gentle man and an athletic giant. He was the best of the best and my son and I will never forget him.”
There are over a hundred testimonials that I have gathered from people who recall that special time when Al reached out to them personally in a coaching, mentoring or teaching way and had a major impact on their lives. They range from young discus-throwing hopefuls to CEO’s to fellow Olympians to work colleagues to friends to strangers and everyone in between. In 1996, Al gave the keynote speech at the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) conference held just before the Olympic Games in Atlanta, before an audience of coaches and sports psychology researchers. He demonstrated his deep understanding of what coaches needed to do to “maximize the motivational levels of their athletes.” Al’s concepts not only pertained to sport and coaching, but to living a full life, as well.
So back to that summer day in 1988, and immediately after Al’s “I don’t have the patience (to coach)” comment, he continued with, “After you left me yesterday, I went over to the local training field and threw for a while. Some kids showed up and one of them, a high school girl who I had worked with previously, came over to me to thank me for helping her."
“She had placed sixth in the New York State Empire Games and, for her, that outcome was magnificent. Just a couple of weeks before, she didn’t think that she had a chance of doing anything. Now she felt she had done her best, and this was after only one training session.”
“So, she was back yesterday just on the chance that I would be over there throwing sometime during the day. So, we worked a little bit. But, I don’t have an organized system.”
Al Oerter at a Local Field Just Throwing circa 1988
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