Reflections of a Golden Life (2.0)
On October 1st, 2007, Al Oerter passed from this earth. Longtime sportswriter Paul Zimmerman (aka Dr. Z) wrote, “Al Oerter died last Monday. The New York Times ran a good piece on him in its obituary section. Aside from that, there was minimal coverage, at least in the papers I looked at…Sports sections I saw gave his death a quick mention.”
Most of the newspaper pieces focused almost entirely on Al’s four consecutive Olympic gold medals in the discus, as if that quick blurb of notoriety, like a statistic on the back of a baseball card, captured everything about the man. And, that sound bite still comes up from time to time around days like today and every four years at the Olympic games.
However, beyond the mainstream media, beginning on October 1, 2007, a mighty, yet gentle, flood of memories, tributes and stories began to flow about Alfred Oerter, Jr., that continue to this day, and I’m sure for many days and years to come.
These passages come from hundreds of Olympians and thousands of more common folk from around the world, some of them throwers themselves. If I can capture the common theme of these missives, it is that Al gave everyone he touched a sense of purpose in life, to challenge the norm, ignore limitations, and attack barriers.
Whether it was picking blackberries before a meet in New Jersey, stumbling upon an all-comers event on an autumn night in Braintree, MA, or working with kids at the local middle school, day after day, in the midst of his Olympic training, Al Oerter was a memory-maker for those he encountered.
The people who know only of his gold medals might tell you that Al Oerter was a “god.” Those who were touched by Al personally, and shared their stories, would say that to call Al a god diminishes his considerable humanity. Despite his competitive intensity, it’s his gentleness that was the common refrain.
And so, please enjoy this revised edition of a small sampling of remembrances of Al Oerter, sent in or collected, over the years.
Up Close and Personal
“I was throwing in a collegiate meet at Princeton while coaching for a division 2 team from Pennsylvania. As a graduate school coach, I was able to still throw the discus against college athletes. I was very competitive at age 33. The meet went on and I had a decent day but I couldn’t get my form right. So, I continued to throw after the event was over. I noticed an older gentleman watching me. Other than his large size, I just thought that he was someone that was interested in the discus. I asked him why he was watching me. He said that he was curious about my technique. He introduced himself as Al Oerter. I almost fell out of the ring! I asked him what I could do to fix my technique. He said to focus on the back of the circle when I entered the middle of the throw. He said that he liked everything else and congratulated me on my throwing. This made my day and is the highlight of my throwing career. RIP Al Oerter.”
“Having seen him throw, up close, it is a memory that has stayed with me for over fifty years. And while I never came close to throwing anywhere near as far as he did, it was a privilege to have been one of those to whom he handed down some techniques.”
Dr. Paul Gill, Jr.
“I grew up on Long Island and was a high school discus thrower from 1964-66. Naturally, Al Oerter was a god to all area high school throwers. My school was about a one-hour drive from where Al lived. My coach was a contemporary of Al's and had received some coaching from him at various area track meets. My coach, in turn, taught me how to throw, and gave me an Al Oerter-throw-photo-series to study. I spent countless hours looking at that series, both in high school and in college, and I credit it for much of the success I had at Notre Dame, where I still hold the school record after 51 years. I met Al a couple of times, and those meetings are still, and always will be, fresh in my memory.”
“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 1968 Olympics, but he had time to help me.”
“In 1980, I was 15 years old, on the girl’s track and field team at my high school in New Jersey. My events were discus, shot put and javelin. My mom showed me an article on the great Olympian Al Oerter and I wrote him a letter asking about his athletic experiences and tips for my own success. He called me and spent some time patiently and enthusiastically answering questions and giving me advice. He invited me to an event in NJ that he was throwing in that summer. He followed up with a wonderful handwritten letter with very encouraging words from this great man. I framed the letter and still have it today.”
“The greatest Olympian the USA ever fielded was Al Oerter. I was a high school track and field competitor and the discus was my passion. The tattered poster of Al unleashing one of his gold medal throws followed me through my college career and for the decades after when on warm summer nights I would go to the Middlebury College Discus Pit and throw for joy. I wish I had met him in person.”
“In 1967 I was a high school discus thrower and heard that Al Oerter was training nearby for the Olympics. My fellow throwers and I just had to go see the man we called ‘God.’ We watched Al uncork a throw, and our jaws dropped. It looked like it would go into orbit, and that was only a warmup throw. He had the grace of a ballerina combined with enormous power. Amazingly, he let us throw too. He showed me how to speed up my spin, and the first time I tried to spin like him, I fell flat on my butt in front of God. Humiliated, I prayed for a quick death. Al reached down, ruffled my hair, and said, ‘Son, don't worry, it happens to all of us’. I got up, learned how to spin, increased my distance 30 feet in one year, and received my letter. The things from Al that I remember so fondly and have stayed with me all my life were his gentleness and humility, qualities rare in a world class athlete. He was truly a renaissance man in every sense of the word.”
(From 2015) “I'm a collegiate thrower at the University of Texas, and I just wanted to say how much of an inspiration Al Oerter is to me. To hear his stories of accomplishments under the given circumstances really gives me an idea of the kind of attitude to carry with me to achieve similar successes. To see someone with such passion, drive, and courage is a big source of motivation to me, as I'm sure it is for many others, and hopefully one day I could have a story of my own to match. I think the biggest takeaway I've learned is to always carry a can-do attitude and never let anything at all hold you back or stop you from living your dreams.”
Susan Gordon Fitzmaurice
“Al Oerter came to watch us women throw the discus at the Drake Relays and was such a kind man!”
“My son, Tyler, and I still talk about the day we had lunch with Al Oerter. I found it hard to believe Al would take time to meet with us but he did and we’ll never forget it. Tyler went on to win the national championship in the discus for fourteen-year-olds and became an All-American with the hammer in 2012, throwing for the University of Arizona. I think Al was an inspiration for him. He never grew much over six-feet but he worked hard. Lunch that day was one of the things we’ll always remember.”
“Al Oerter was not just one of the true, all-time Olympic greats for what he uniquely accomplished, but because of the qualities of the man himself! Without the man, and his own innate character and personality, then there is no Olympic champion who does all of those incredible things.”
Coaches of the Track and the Field
“You will know that I am an old track guy when I tell you I was at the LA Coliseum in 1962, the night that Al Oerter set a new world record and became the very first to toss that discus beyond the 200’ mark. Some 58 years later, I still recall the major excitement watching that throw land past that chalk line at 200 feet. I have witnessed a good number of world records, but this was my first and it is still ever so clear in my memory bank as if it took place yesterday!! And that, my friends, comes from this old-time middle-distance dude who coached the sprints, hurdles and relays for 37 years…yet, I think Al was one of the all-time great athletes regardless of what sport you consider.”
“I was honored to meet Al Oerter in 1987 when I was coaching high school and then went on to the college level. Al was a true champion, competitor, and a kind man. I will always cherish meeting him and how he inspired me to become a better discus thrower and coach.”
“Jim Fraley, my gym teacher, was Al’s high school track coach at Sewanhaka and he would give us pep talks about Al Oerter and his gold medals. We heard so much about Mr. Oerter it was as if we knew him!”
“In 1997, when I was just learning the sport, Al Oerter was the first name I ever heard coming from my throwing coach as the best of all time. My coach would consistently repeat Al’s name over and over again as if to make us remember what he was so lucky to witness in the past. He even named half of his drills after Al. The Olympian has influenced me and many others throughout the years to pick up that flat implement and giving it a whirl, hoping we could all be the next Al Oerter.”
The Time He Gave was of the Essence
“A friend shared with me that when he was a young man growing up on Long Island, the famous Olympian, Al Oerter, trained at the same high school track. Oerter took time from his own workouts to coach and encourage the young man, leading to a high state ranking, and success in life as a medical doctor. Not everyone puts their fancy-sounding words and ideas into practice, but Oerter did. What a Man!”
“Al taught me how to throw the discus ... I had no field coach at my high school and still hold the record today! We even worked out at Olympic Gym near Grumman, Bethpage! He was an awesome man.”
“Al Oerter’s inspiration as an enduring competitor is a true feat any boy, man, girl, or woman can only try and emulate in their own lives. And what a true gentleman Mr. Oerter was. His inspiration helped me in my sports achievements including throwing the discus, playing high school and college football, as well as baseball, and more importantly, in business. I’ve always said that it takes just one positive influence to make a difference in someone’s life, and that influence in mine was Al Oerter.”
“What a guy! He came out to our high school practice and gave us pointers on our form in throwing the discus around 1968. As big as he stood, he drove a relatively tiny green MG convertible.”
“He came to visit my high school and said hello to the track and field team. I was ‘trying’ to throw shot put and discus. He gave me a few pointers. I was blown away!”
“I idolized Al Oerter when I was a kid. I saw him throwing at Sewanhaka High School and he taught me technique, adding feet to my shot putting as I took second place in NY State. 25 years later, my wife remembered that story and actually called him. We spoke for a while and he came to my son's high school and gave a discus clinic, gratis! He added over 10 feet to my son's toss! Al moved to Florida a few years later and invited my son and I to the Art of the Olympians Museum he had opened there. Sadly, he died not too long after that. A great guy, a superb athlete. I will never forget him nor will my son Joseph!”
“I used to see him at the gym in the early 80’s. East Coast Health Club in West Islip, LI. He would put on a show with the amount of weight that he would press.”
“I received a workout routine from Al at East Coast gym in West Islip, NY. I was a young boy at the time and Al put a positive spin on my own poor routine. What a positive person.”
“After work, Al would work out at a gym across the street from Grumman. I went there when I was in high school with friends. He took the time out of his workout to instruct us how to lift properly. He was a wonderful man and impressed me with his kindness.”
“I worked at Grumman Corp. in Plant 3 and remember him working out at lunch time almost every day, weather permitting, on the field outside the plant.”
“One night at Gold’s Gym, Al and John Boos (Mr. World & Mr. NY State) grabbed me and the two of them played catch with me as the ball.”
“He trained with us at State University at Farmingdale one season. I believe it was ’67. There was an old tree at the end of the field he used as a gauge. Sometimes he hit it, but usually his discus sailed over it. He was inspirational for us all.”
“I used to watch him throw at the West Babylon Junior High School (LI). He was there many a day. Later on, I would drink a few pints with him at the Red Lion Inn nearby.”
“Al Oerter trained at Udall Junior High in West Islip, LI, where I went to school and ran track. It was inspiring to watch a four-gold-medal Olympian train next to us!”
The Golden Retrievers
“When we moved to West Babylon, Long Island, we lived in a 2-family house. Al and his wife lived on the first level and we lived on the second. I used to go with him when he practiced. I would help him pick up the discus after throws. I still have the one he gave me.”
“In the 1950’s, I was a kid who used to retrieve the discus for him when he worked out at Jerusalem Avenue’s Fred Neist Field (Long Island). Just a regular guy with super human talent and strength.”
Impressions from the Media
“Al Oerter…what do I think of him? He was the most quintessential, modest man I have ever met in sports…ever! Those of you who know Al Oerter know that he won 4 Olympic Gold Medals, 4 different Olympiads. You would’ve had to drag out of him the fact that he won 4 Olympic Gold Medals throwing the discus. But modest? Unbelievable.”
“In almost 40 years of reporting on sports for Newsday, I can’t say that I’ve ever come across the equal of Al - - as a sportsman, philosopher, fine story-teller and regular human person. His terrific sense of humor and humility made him one of the most interesting subjects to interview, and his experiences on the figurative Mount Olympus made me (and readers of his adventures) true patriots of the highest Olympic ideals. Believe me, I have dealt with many, many great athletes who were best appreciated at a distance. Al, on the other hand, was even more fascinating and admirable up close. I didn’t cover any of his gold-medal exploits and only got to know him during his first attempted comeback, in 1980. But that didn’t stop me from using Al’s many observances - - entertaining and profound and enlightening - - to do my work for me. All of us out here who knew him, miss him.”
Randy Wayne White
“We move to the throwing circle, an old slab of Florida concrete pocked with fossilized seashells. The circle, at least, pleases him. ‘A thousand years from now,’ he says, ‘they'll think this is some kind of religious symbol placed here by aliens.’ That thought seems to please him even more, for he begins to discuss the antiquity of the sport. How the technique has been handed down through the ages, from one athlete to another, as purely and as cleanly as his own gesture of lifting the discus and tossing it into my hands. He is implying that he is but one more discus thrower in a very long line. For once, Al Oerter's wrong. I've seen him throw.”
Paul Zimmerman (aka Dr. Z)
“I don't want to get into some kind of philosophical treatise on the meaning of the true competitive spirit, because somehow it might cheapen it. There have been great competitors in many sports. To me, Oerter was the greatest.”
“In 1956, I was just 11 years old in India attending military school and undergoing my training. There was no TV or computers in those days. We did have radio and newspapers that gave us the news. Since I was adept in all sports, I was put in charge of the Sports Gallery. After the Melbourne Olympics Discus event, I saw the picture of Al Oerter with the Gold Medal …so handsome, athletic and pleasing. I cut the picture from the newspaper and pinned it on the Sports Gallery Board. I followed Al’s amazing performance in the History of Sports for the next 3 Olympics and he remained my all- time favorite athlete ever since. His legacy will go on until the end of time.”
Where in the World is Al Oerter?
“In the autumn of 1976, Al was driving through New England and found an ‘All-Comers’ meet at a local high school. He hadn’t thrown or lifted in almost 8 years, since his last Olympics. He borrowed a discus and a pair of throwing shoes and walked onto the field unannounced. For an entry fee of 50 cents, he won a 4” trophy that was as important to him as an Olympic gold medal. He said, ‘To be out in the fresh air competing with and not against people who chose to do exactly the same thing was thrilling!’ His comeback had begun, as well as the start of another 12-year career in the ring.”
“I was in a deli on Stewart Avenue in Bethpage around 1974, and he got out of a Volkswagen Beetle and came into the deli. He was a giant, and when he left they told me who he was. I was in awe!”
“I threw the discus in high school and college from 1986 to 1994. Al Oerter was a staple at the summer meets at Mitchell Field (Long Island). He was in his late 50’s and would outthrow everybody. He was open to questions and helped us all get better during those summer meets.”
Andrew Pettit, Jr.
“I attended a wedding in Vermont and discovered a photo of Al in a tavern up there: Mulligan's Pub & Restaurant. I posted it on Instagram and wrote ‘Manchester, Vermont knows its great Olympians.’"
“I remember well the day I met Al Oerter. I also remember thinking he didn’t look so big from a distance....but the closer he came, I realized that his arms were about the size of my legs!! Still have the autograph he signed that day.”
“My personal favorite memory regarding All Oerter takes place at the 1968 Echo Summit training facility. I just graduated from high school and was visiting the area to watch the trials. I can tell you that besides being the greatest discus thrower ever, Al was one heck of a frisbee thrower too! I was lucky enough to have been shagging and playing frisbee with him and a few of the other athletes! A memory I still cherish to this day!!”
The Olympians’ Olympian
“Al’s successes, coupled with his true humility and dignity as an individual, have inspired so many people. The ancients said that when you won in Olympia the Gods reached down to touch you and, for a brief moment, let you sit beside them on Mt. Olympus. I have no doubt that they would be saying to us now that Al earned his own permanent seat among the immortals on Olympus, and not just for his greatness in Athletics – but more so for showing us all how important it is to keep pursuing goals that stretch one’s limits and, at the same time, promote the Olympic Movement, this force for good.”
“My most vivid memory of Al Oerter is from the 1980 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Al, age 43, had just taken his last throw, finishing as the Olympic Team Alternate. The Eugene track fans rose to their feet and gave him a 10-minute standing ovation. It was truly electric. For the ‘perception-impaired’ let's review how long ten minutes is. Get on your hands and knees, start doing pushups and by the time you quit you will still have 9 and a half minutes left... 10 minutes is a very long time! Plus, it’s hard to applaud any longer because your hands get sore! As I was applauding, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Pretend this is for you, John, because this is as close as you're ever going to get.’ That applause is as vivid a memory to me now as it was almost three decades ago. Prior to October 1, 2007, I never contemplated the passing of Al Oerter. I never thought he would die... ever.”
“Al Oerter was the greatest field event athlete of the 20th century. He was not just a great Olympian, but Zeus himself.”
”My Olympic basketball experience was truly a great highlight in my athletic career, but meeting Al Oerter during the opening ceremonies will always be one of my fondest memories. He proved to me that day that experience is a great teacher. Al will always be remembered as a legendary athlete and an even better person.”
“Al was my friend, a brother of sport -- a competitor to respect. Al was a lot of man, a good father, husband, son and brother. His life was balanced, loyal, intuitive, focused and loving. Al was one who needed no glory, no crowd to compete in front of. He just needed a place to throw his best - further than the last time! He was a hardworking, no-nonsense competitor and he will always be that perfect example in the highest degree; of the ideal athlete in any sport. Al will always be with us. He is gone - out of sight, but his records and gracious way will be a part of sport. Al and I did not have brothers in our families...we chose one another. Al and I never talked about winning and losing; we only talked about doing our best and doing it better than anyone else.”
“All I ever wanted was the feeling of sun on my shoulders, a disk in my hand, a solid ring under me, turning with greater force than anyone has ever achieved and leaning into one more throw.”
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