A New York State of Mind - Part 1

September 1, 2020

The Genealogy of a Discus Record

 

In May,1954, Al Oerter set a new U.S. high school record in the discus with a throw of 184'-2 ¾" at Randall’s Island Park, which sits in the East River neatly surrounded by the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. Fittingly, welcoming visitors to the venue is the towering sculpture on a pedestal, “Discus Thrower,” created by Greek artist Dimitriadis Constantinos in 1924 and donated to Randall’s Island in 1936 to commemorate the opening of the new stadium where the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials were held. A twin copy of the sculpture sits just outside the historic Panathinaic Stadium in Athens, home to the first modern Olympics (1896).

 

Al was a product of the acclaimed track and field program from Long Island’s Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, NY. With the new prep mark, he was flooded with letters from collegiate track and field programs from around the country, only he did not know it. Rather, head track coach and part-father figure, Jim Fraley, kept the inquiries from Al, and guided him into accepting an academic scholarship from the University of Kansas. Six years later, his national prep record was broken, but Al’s throw remained the standard for the State of New York. By the time he had achieved his second Olympic Gold Medal in 1960, his feats were a part of legendary lore, and for New York high school track and field participants at the time, “the record” was well-established as the holy grail.

                                           Randall's Island Park, NYC

 

It was in 1963 that Kenneth B. Dietz, an 8th grader at Rye Neck Jr/Sr High School in Rye, New York, picked up a discus for the first time. He wanted to join an after-school activity and Rye Neck had a junior high track and field team that seemed to be a good place to start. Being a big kid for his age, Ken sidled up to where the varsity discus throwers were and was examining the 1.6kg/3.5-pound implement when head coach Harry Beal noticed him. Harry was the assistant principal at Rye Neck and a Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. He introduced himself and began telling the impressionable young Dietz all about the exploits of two-time Olympic gold medal winner, Al Oerter; that he was the holder of the NY State record in the event, and to follow Oerter as a role model if he wanted to be good at the throws. After that first encounter, Ken went home very excited. First, because he got to hang out with the big kids and, second, he wanted to find out all he could about Mr. Oerter.

 

“I soon became aware of all things ‘Al Oerter,’” he remembered. He followed Al's career closely, felt a hometown New York connection since Al lived and trained on Long Island only about 50 miles from Rye, but even closer as the crow flies. Ken read everything he could on the discus champion, watched him every time he was on television, copied his form and technique, and dreamed of one day having just a taste of his success. As a sophomore, Ken followed Al when he tore his ribcage before the Olympic finals in Tokyo in ‘64, endured tremendous pain in the competition, yet somehow took the gold medal and set a new Olympic record. Ken was mesmerized and inspired when reading Al’s quote after that experience: “These are the Olympics; you die before you quit!”

 

Ken’s only discus training aids were to mimic what he had observed and learned about Al Oerter’s technique and “Throw, throw, throw!” Rye Neck did not have a weight room and Ken knew he was at a disadvantage strength-wise. He summarized, “I had excellent form but not much strength by any standards.”

 

Throughout his junior year and into his senior season, Ken was throwing well and colleges were interested in his talent. He saw Al Oerter’s New York State record looming large, yet daunting. Still, it was a distance he was fixated on and went into every competition with the goal to pass it. Coach Beal set up extra meets to give Ken more opportunities to reach the hallowed mark. On a rainy Saturday in mid-May, 1967, with his high school career nearing its end, Ken made the 3-hour drive to Cobleskill, NY, for the first annual high school invitational track meet. Normally, Harry Beal would accompany him, but on this day it was Ken’s father who did the driving.

 

With the skies gray and the rain coming down, Ken’s expectations for a good discus day were low. Then, the precipitation stopped, the sun peaked through the clouds, and things began to dry up. Ken felt loose and had the best throwing series of his high school career. One of those attempts sailed 186’-1¾”, and got past Al Oerter’s 13-year record by nearly two feet. Father and son were thrilled as Ken was named the meet’s “Most Valuable Field Man.” Coach Beal was sorry that he wasn’t there, but celebrated nonetheless. Ten days later, Ken Dietz was recognized in the 5/29/1967 issue of Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd,” with his photo and a mention of his Al Oerter/NY State record-breaking achievement.

                  Ken Dietz, Sports Illustrated "Faces in the Crowd" 5/29/67

 

Not long after that, through Harry Beal’s efforts, Ken was incredulous when he received a call from the New York Athletic Club congratulating him on setting the new state prep discus record. The next thing he heard was that Al Oerter wanted to meet him, and was inviting the young record holder to train with him at the club’s facility on Travers Island in Westchester County. Ken surreally remembers, “I met my idol at the NYAC and he was cordial. We worked on spin technique, hand release and things I never even thought of. It was a huge day! Al was in training for the next Olympics, but he had time to help me.” Ken began an association with the NYAC where he competed in local AAU meets in the tri-state area over the next five summers.

 

In the fall of ’67, Ken headed to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was recruited, and immediately formed a close relationship with assistant track coach, and former Olympian, Irving “Moon” Mondschein. In October of the following year, Ken vividly remembers watching television at his fraternity house of Al Oerter competing at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. “There was a rain delay, but Al kept throwing and walking around the infield to stay psyched up. Everyone else was under tarps.” Oerter would claim his fourth consecutive gold medal and continued to inspire Ken to "never give up," and "always find a way to win."

 

The following April,1969, in Ken’s fourth varsity competition as a sophomore, he was throwing in a triangle meet versus Brown and Columbia, one week before the Penn Relays. He cranked a good throw of 181’- 8” and was surprised to set a new Penn discus record. The Quaker track and field program was experiencing a revival under Coaches Tuppeny and Mondschein, and Ken Dietz’s leadership, performance and work ethic played no small part in that effort. In the Penn yearbook, The Record, it was written: “For Penn (Track & Field)1969, there was agony…But, inevitably, the beauty was there as well. Perhaps it was most often displayed by Ken Dietz, the sophomore sensation who broke all the Penn discus records.”

 

On May 16, 1970, after Ken’s junior season, he was invited to compete at the Martin Luther King International Freedom Games held at Villanova University, just outside of Philadelphia. When Ken arrived, he was surprised and awed to see Al Oerter stretching and getting ready for the meet. Al had retired from competition after the ’68 Games, but sometimes would participate in events when he thought it was for a good cause. “Anything to help out,” he would often say.

 

Also, in the throwing line-up was Dick Drescher, a University of Maryland senior and two-time ACC discus champ who would go on to place second at the USA Championships later that year. Ken recalled, “Al Oerter was in total competition-mode that day. He didn’t really talk to or engage with anyone prior to the competition.” Ken felt ready and got off a throw past 175 feet, good for third place. Drescher placed second, and the retiree, Al Oerter, was first. After shaking the hands of each of the throwers, Al quietly departed the venue. Since we’ve been talking a lot about records here, at the same Freedom Games the year before, a just-retired Al Oerter set the Villanova Stadium record of 201’, which still stands today after 51 years.

                  Dr. MLK International Freedom Games Program 5/16/1970

 

Ken Dietz headed into his senior year at Penn thinking about his experiences of the prior three years. He had surpassed Al Oerter’s NY state high school record, met and trained with the Olympic champion, and finally had the chance to compete with him. Ken was elected by his teammates as Field Captain and completed his college career never having lost to an Ivy League opponent. He was an NCAA finalist as a sophomore and national qualifier as a junior and senior. Internationally, at the 1969 World Maccabiah Games in Israel, he won the gold medal.

 

In 1969, the Daily Pennsylvanian wrote, “Ken Dietz is the best discus man in Pennsylvania track and field history.” His school record would not be exceeded until 1994, when Chuck Hinton threw a little more than a foot further. Fittingly, Ken was inducted into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame.

 

Ken Dietz was most proud of the team accomplishments of his track and field brethren who, under great coaching, brought the program “from worst to first” in the Ivies. He points to three great men from whom he received inspiration. Harry Beal, whose accomplishments are vast, went on to coach the West Point cross-country team, became a respected Big East basketball referee, and was a marathoner and triathlete well into his 80’s. Moon Mondschein became head coach of Penn’s Track & Field program and spent 22-years with the Quakers. He won the 1944 U.S. Olympic Trials in the decathlon, but there were no Games due to World War II. In 1948, he was finally an Olympian, finishing 8th in the decathlon in London as a teammate of gold medalist Bob Mathias.  Ken said, “Both men got the most out of me, an okay talent, and we became lifelong friends.” Of the third, Al Oerter, Ken said, “The fact that I am still looking up to him today is a testament to his greatness and the impact he had on my life. Al inspired me from afar, and all three were winners who motivated me to find a way to win.”

 

                                Colonel Harold G. Beal, Jr. (1929 - 2017)

                                  Irving "Moon" Mondschein (1924 -2015)

 

And what of Al Oerter’s New York State high school discus record that Ken Dietz surpassed in 1967? How long would Ken’s mark stand until the next worthy heir came along, ascended to the Empire State throne and joined the legacy of the throws? That, my friends, will be revealed in the next installment of “A New York State of Mind (Part 2) The Genealogy of a Discus Record.”

       "Discus Thrower," Randall's Island Park, by Dimitriadis Constantinos

 

 

© 2020 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

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