• Andrew Pettit

So it is with Blackberries...

Cathy Oerter never saw her husband, Al, compete in the Olympic Games. However, from 1980 forward, she was there at most of his meets over a lot of years. She was a keen observer and a witness to Al and his approach to competition.


One gray day at the Rutgers Relays in New Jersey, it was threatening to rain just before the men’s discus event. Al Oerter had gotten to know most of the throwers over the years quite well; like Art Swarts and Jim Seifert.


On that day, like many other days, they were all very intent on their last-minute preparations for the impending competition in order to have a good throwing result. Some were making sure that the ring stayed dry. Swarts was positioning the foul lines so that the throwers could take advantage of whatever wind there was.


Cathy sat near where the throwers were getting themselves ready, when she realized that her husband was not there. She scanned the area and then looked up and saw Al, the four-time Olympic gold medalist, far out in the outfield reaching into a cluster of bushes bordering the throwing field.


He appeared to be picking berries. Blackberries, to be exact. He focused on each one that was plucked and, after careful examination, slowly savored their wondrous texture and flavor, one berry at a time.

Afterwards, Cathy asked Al if he was aware of what he was doing. “What do you mean?” he questioned. Cathy stated the obvious: “Al, I looked up and saw you were in the outfield picking blackberries. Why do you do those things?” she wondered.


Al explained, “The reason I was picking blackberries on this particular occasion was that they were ready to be picked. They were big and black and tasted good. So why not pick them?”


Through his Olympic experience, Al Oerter had learned that if one becomes so obsessed with throwing well and trying to ensure that every condition was perfect for that throw, chances are you’re making yourself overly tight and tense.


Regarding that day at Rutgers, he said, “I'm sure while I'm picking blackberries, I'm thinking about how I want to execute the throw, to try and do as well as I possibly can. But the intensity of competition should not be something that shuts you down on what is going on around you.


Cathy Oerter, Iowa State Track & Field Legend

“That's why I've been successful in Olympic competition. I can look at what's going on around me and be thrilled or amazed by it. I may not understand the attitude on the part of other Olympic athletes at times, but I can be a student of their behavior.


“I've had a few athletes over the years observe me during competition and think that I was simply employing a 'mind-games' technique. In their heads, they thought I was trying to show everyone that I am so relaxed and enjoying this, that it acts as a psyching mechanism against other competitors. Believe me, it is not true.


“I've never tried to psyche-out a competitor, nor have I ever considered my fellow throwers to be opponents. They were always folks that I threw 'with,' not 'against.' If an athlete sets himself up such that he has to beat somebody to feel good, then that is a recipe for eventual failure. No one wins everything all of the time.


To Art Swarts, considered a rival of Al’s for many years, Al Oerter was his idol. Even so, "Al never bragged or played mind games or got in your face," Swarts said. "He just threw. Win or lose, he was the same. He usually beat me. The first time I beat him, I felt embarrassed."


One of those times was at the C.W. Post Relays in Brookville, New York, in 1984. More than 3,000 athletes from 50 colleges, 100 high schools and almost two dozen clubs competed in the two-day, 64-event meet.


Swarts had been a standout at South Carolina University and was now with the Shore Athletic Club of New Jersey. On that day, Art had two throws four and a half feet further than Al’s best. They both decided to quit early and headed to the Oerter home in nearby West Islip, where Cathy had lunch waiting for them.


Al wrote, “If you can go out and compete with people and it is a joy, then the result is to see how good you have become. That cycle of establishing a goal intellectually and exercising it physically and emotionally, is very important.”

Al Oerter & Art Swarts at an early 1980's meet

In 1977, a year into Al’s post-retirement comeback, he and Art Swarts started an informal discus circuit so they could have competition every week. From a 1981 NY Times article by Michael Straus, Swarts said, ''We created meets in New Jersey. We had them in Scotch Plains and Westfield and at Rutgers. We'd have a discus and a hammer throw and a shot-put, and once we had a women's long jump so Al's wife, Cathy, could compete. And when we didn't create a meet, we got ourselves invited to other meets. No reason to quit!”


Al reflected, “If you succeed, or win, then you know the plan, and that cycle has been working well. All you have to do is bump it into a higher gear to see if the next competitive experience is even better.


“If you don't succeed, and to most folks that means ‘not winning,’ you just go back to the plan and bump it here or subtract from it there. It becomes a revision on the way you approach training and competition. Then, you measure it against the outcome of your next throwing session or meet.


“Never become so involved in trying to beat somebody. You set yourself up for failure in the long run and that can be limiting. Who’s to say you can't go two or three or five times better than that other person? Why limit yourself to anyone else's capability?


“Always look within to see what else can be done to enhance your own abilities. When you examine another competitor, whether they be a world record holder or just a very capable athlete in your local district, don’t look at that person as the ultimate.


"Don’t adhere to copying their technique, training routines or anything they do in a competition. You have to maintain your individuality when competing, including your approach to training and all the little things that go into making you unique.

Al Oerter Training at CW Post, 1977

“For example, I have my own way of walking into a ring when I'm competing, or at any training session. I carry the discus a certain way, swinging it from one arm to another arm the same way, time after time. It becomes a habit.


“When I move from the front of the ring to the back of the ring, everything is the same step, the same distance, the same look, the same carriage; the same everything, such that it becomes comfortable. When I get into a competitive environment, it’s all second nature and happens automatically.


“My concentration, then, is squarely on how far I can throw this discus and the intensity of the throw. If somebody would copy that, it would not be them. You have to develop your own individual method of approaching competition. Everyone should have that ritual down cold and rehearse it until it becomes so much a part of you that you never have to think about it.


“Your goal in competition should be to see what you can get out of yourself on that one day. In any relaxed environment, when you enjoy being there, chances are you will get the most out of yourself.


“For me, in competition, I say to myself, ‘Relax.’ This is something I worked hard for over a long period of time. So, why not get out there and enjoy it?”


Robert Finch, in “Death of a Hornet and Other Cape Cod Essays,” wrote: “So it is with blackberries. If you pull too hard, you may get the berry but you will lose the sweetness of it. On the other hand, if you leave it, it may be gone the next time you come by. Each person must find this equilibrium for himself.”


Al Oerter opined, “There were no blackberries on the floor of any of the Olympic stadiums where I competed. Had there been, I would have been out there seeing if they were ready to be picked, and tasting them to make sure."


© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved

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