When the Sun Sets in Braintree
In October of 1976, the foliage in the northeastern United States was already alive with brilliant colors, and there was a crispness in the air that readied things for nature’s transformation, once again.
A 1974 Volkswagen bus chugged along the Mass Pike, its motor churning like the sound of a sewing machine. The driver, and sole occupant, Al Oerter, had decided to leave his Long Island home to spend at least the weekend, and perhaps longer, enjoying the change of season’s hues and tints of New England. In other words, he went for a drive.
In the days, months and years following his fourth Olympic discus gold medal in 1968, Oerter had pretty much stayed away from any form of competition or training. He did very little throwing and cut out lifting altogether. He said that he did rake his lawn, but was now thinner, older, smaller, and weaker.
During those eight years, Al did have some fits and starts in trying new and repurposed athletic activity. He tried distance running again, something he had not done since high school. He thought it would keep him in some type of condition, but found it difficult to even go on a two or three-mile jog.
Not to be deterred, for about six months he committed to running on the sands of Fire Island, the ocean barrier beach off the south shore of Long Island. While in search of the mystical “runner’s high,” Al ran in heavy fog; he ran in the evening sunsets; he ran in the early morning, experiencing the spectacular sunrises.
He tried running with his eyes closed to sense a “Jedi-like” feeling. Nothing. No “high.” He labored every step of the way. He proved to himself that he hated running.
He joined a tennis clinic with his daughter at Farmingdale College, having never played before. On his third groundstroke over the net, the ball hit the female instructor in the throat and, as Al said, ”She went down like a house of cards.”
He rushed to her aid and she was fine after a few minutes. “And from that moment on,” he remembered, “nobody in that class would play with me, except my daughter, because she was just as aggressive on the court as I was.”
As he played more tennis, he found that he was incapable of a soft, easy swing of the arm. The residual effect of the 24 years of throwing the discus had conditioned him to apply maximum force at the point of contact with the ball.
This was especially acute with his serve. His racquets bent severely at the top of the grip where his knuckles squeezed because he was cranking and torquing with such force. He tried all makes and models of metal racquets, from steel to cast aluminum, to no avail. Playing tennis was getting expensive.
Home and work life had changed dramatically. Al and his wife had divorced, and his time was now devoted to the growth and nurturing of his teenage daughters who were no longer little children, but young women with their own ideas and needs. While the parents shared joint custody, the girls lived with their single-parent father. Life in the household moved forward and their lives flourished.
Over the same eight years, Al’s work life had been plodding along. He was sick of climbing the corporate ladder, one rung at a time. He ventured out internally and developed a hardware and software communications team for Grumman Data Systems, which was necessary for the survival of the business. The success of that effort motivated him again.
Then, in late ’75, there was a “strategic reorganization,” and Al’s team’s headcount was cut in half, with a reduction in the customers they served as well. The “make-do with less” edict didn’t make sense for a group already producing with extreme efficiency.
That was the day Al took off his tie and never wore one to work ever again. He said he owed a debt of gratitude to the cost-cutting decision-makers. He now turned his sights to more personal endeavors and went for that drive to New England.
As the VW bus approached Boston, Al headed south on I-95 and then met up with I-93 as it looped slightly northward. He was met by a bumper-to-bumper merge with Route 3, Pilgrim’s Highway, at Braintree, when a small roadside sign magically caught his eye.
It was a poster announcing an “All-Comers Track Meet, Entry Fee: 50 cents” at Braintree High School set for 6pm that evening. Al got off onto Route 3 and then exited for Braintree and parked in a nearby shopping center. He had a few hours to kill.
Al recalled his thoughts at the time. “I had not thrown or lifted for almost eight years following my last Olympic Games in 1968. But, I thought, it would be interesting to see a track meet once again.
“Then, in a flash, I thought of all of those years in the ring, working hard to reach lofty goals with unknown challenges, and the absolute joy I found at attempting to launch yet another discus into space.”
Al asked someone for directions to Braintree High, and he arrived at the beautiful complex, built in 1972, bordering tranquil Sunset Lake. It was fitting that there was a brilliant sun setting over the glistening water of the same name, right at 6pm.
The sky seemed ablaze with pastels of red and orange which backlit the tall spire of the South Congregational Church, its weather vane at the peak pointing in a southwesterly direction. A smokey mist hung about 3 feet over the center of the lake. Temperatures were in the low 50’s, with the surrounding oaks and maples, resplendent in their autumn colors, completing the pastoral scene.
Al decided to go from being a spectator to active participant. He found one of the meet’s organizers inside the school and was able to borrow a discus and a pair of somewhat tight throwing shoes, after paying the 50-cent entry fee.
While Oerter didn’t think anyone recognized him, he was still a 6’4” giant of a man, an eight-year layoff notwithstanding. Probably everyone there, and every fan of track and field in Braintree, knew exactly who he was.
That evening, to his complete surprise, Al Oerter found that he still had the balance, footwork and a fair amount of the strength to produce a throw of over 190 feet. That effort, and his 50-cent fee, earned him first place and a 4-inch trophy.
Not long after that, Al was taping a television segment of “Olympiad” at New York’s Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island with Olympic filmmaker Bud Greenspan. After reviewing his four Olympic competitions, Greenspan asked Al about his future plans. On his way home, Al thought about Greenspan’s question and decided that getting back to competition and the Games was something he wanted to do.
He asked his daughters at dinner that night and they were enthusiastically supportive. They would both be heading to college over the next four years and Al would be freed up even more to train. It was time to get to work.
Al reflected on that evening in Braintree: “That 4-inch trophy I won was every bit as important to me as an Olympic gold medal. 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 2.5m diameter of the discus ring he called “home.” Maybe his prediction of five Olympic gold medals, made in 1956, wasn’t so far-fetched after all.
At the moment Al Oerter started on that drive, he decided to go to where the road would lead him. Look what 50 cents and an autumn night out in Braintree can get you!
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