The Impossible (Pt 1): 1,460 Days to Tokyo
With every step he heard the monotonous crunch of the iced-up snow as he walked towards the throwing circle at West Babylon Jr. High School. Late afternoon in February on Long Island was dark grey and quiet, except for the nasty wet, frigid wind that ripped through his many layers of cotton, wool and nylon workout clothes. The only other sounds came from the consistent, passing traffic on Little East Neck Road, like a background metronome.
He carried a snow shovel over one shoulder, and his sneakers and discus in his bag over the other. On this day, frosty, hard snow had settled over the field and in the concrete circle, and it now was a matter of chipping and scraping to try to get it clear.
The amount of clothing he wore restricted movement and, at the same time, he could never quite stay warm enough. He thought to himself,” I envy those California guys who spend February, March and April cranking up for the coming year in nice, warm weather.”
He took a warm-up throw and the discus buried itself under the crusty, white layers of snow. This was another hazard he faced. He didn’t want to wait for the spring thaw to find lost implements. He stomped out through the ice field and in the fading light located where the surface had been broken.
On the next throw, he snapped his head back more forcefully and felt something release in his neck, causing a sharp ache to ensue. He thought nothing of it, especially with the long term and elusive goal he was working towards.
Al Oerter had achieved his second gold medal in the discus at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. A little more than a month later, he began his four-year quest to be ready for the 1964 Games in Tokyo. He called it “1,460 days.” It was actually a precise calendar plan with goals set up month-by-month and year-by-year for throwing distances, weight training, flexibility and technique; all leading to being at his personal best on the date of the men’s discus final: October 15, 1964. After all, he was an engineer by trade.
On that cold day in February, 1962, when he first felt something go in his neck, he was about one third of the way into his four-year plan. He continued throwing for the next three weeks when he started to experience a deep numbing of his left arm each time he would execute the throw.
This occurred when he snapped his head back violently just as the discus was released by his right hand. The action caused his arm to go dead. He thought he had banged a nerve. It hurt, and it was frightening for the big man, who knew what pain was all about.
Ten years earlier at Sewanhaka High School, x-rays revealed that, due to a congenital problem, one of Al’s vertebrae was locked out of position by a centimeter. His doctor warned that if there was a sudden jarring of this condition, it could lead to paralysis. This was the same area at the base of the neck from which the deadening of the arm emanated. Al was worried.
He met with a handful of doctors. One of them recommended traction to relieve the pressure on the nerve and spinal column. He hooked himself up to the device and connected it to a door in his house. He improved after a day or two, but as soon as he went back to throwing, the pain and nerve issues returned.
Al was perplexed and dejected. Facing a long-term injury that could cause paralysis, he thought that this may be the end of the line for him in sport. He was training 90 minutes a day, carrying a full-time job with Grumman Corp., and his second child, Gabrielle, had been born just three months before. Even if he did find the cause of his injury, how much would it set him back from his plan and where would he find the time to rehab?
In the early 1960’s, the concept of “sport medicine” was in its infancy, and physicians who associated themselves with athletes were the only ones who were well-practiced in it. However, they were few and far between. Fortunately, there was one on Long Island.
Al had heard about Doc Fallon, who was known to the New York pro sports teams and was available to athletes on local college and high school teams. Fallon understood the drive on the part of athletes to heal while continuing to “stay in the game.” His was a new and different kind of approach.
Fallon at first attempted to relieve Oerter’s pain with cortisone and some ultrasound, but that was just for some short-term relief. Al demonstrated the discus throw in the doctor’s office and detailed when the injury was occurring. Fallon observed that Oerter’s head had to be prevented from snapping back so far and they needed a workable device to achieve that, like a neck cushion of some sort.
Al objected, saying that he needed mobility for the throw. After some trial and error, it was Fallon’s idea to use a towel rolled-up around a leather belt and strapped to Al’s neck. It worked. In competition, the towel brace prevented his head from snapping back, the nerves in his arm were not affected, and the searing sensation in his neck subsided. He was willing to live with the buckle digging into his Adam’s apple.
It wasn’t perfect. Al had learned to use the head-snap to create the height in his throw. With the towel brace, the high trajectory was lowered substantially. The 2-time gold medalist had to totally revise his way of throwing the discus.
He knew that he had to increase the power of the throw at a low trajectory, rather than rely on the height to gain distance. Fortunately, his increased weight training work was at the highest levels of his career and he felt his strength was at its peak. Al concluded that if he could quiet the problem by simply using a rolled-up towel, then there was no reason not to continue to try and make it to Tokyo.
Years later, Oerter would say “If Doc Fallon hadn’t thought of that neck brace, I would have stopped right there, because the injury was just too painful.” He recalled one of the other doctors that he saw who said, “In the final analysis, you will wind up in Fallon’s office.”
Until the rolled-up towel solution took effect, Al had lost about two months of consistent throw training. He needed to compensate for that and catch up with live competition.
At the same time, there was young blood on the west coast that was throwing consistently at incredible distances. Al had heard the call of the wild, you might say, and the competitor in him wanted to answer that call. It was spring. Time to join the pack.
© 2021 Andrew R. Pettit All Rights Reserved
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