ANNAPOLIS -- Al Cantello spread his thumb and forefinger perhaps a half-inch apart in attempting to describe the meagerness of his talent as a javelin thrower.
"I was a bum in luck," said Cantello, who is entering his 30th year as a Navy cross country and track coach. "I wasn't gifted. I spread my limited talent thin for 10 years."
He weighed 163, stood 5 feet 7 1/2 and had small hands. Yet, going into the 1960 Olympics, Cantello was the world-record holder in the javelin with a throw of 282 feet, 3 1/2 inches.
He arrived in Rome with understandably high hopes of winning a gold medal -- and finished 10th.
The first unsettling news had come from Olympic officials: The U.S. javelin, with which Cantello set the world record, was banned. Instead, competitors would use the European javelin.
"The circumference of the shaft was different, the position of the grip was different, and that made the center of gravity different," Cantello said. "As a result, the 'moment' was different, the microsecond that the throw starts when your left foot hits the ground."
The other two U.S. throwers, both from Kansas, were eliminated in the first flight, their throws 50 feet short of their best, in part because of their unfamiliarity with the European javelin.
Cantello fouled on his first attempt, threw too low on his second and qualified easily for the final on his third at 261 1/2 feet. If he had duplicated that the following day, he would have won the silver behind the Soviet Union's Viktor Tsibulenko, the champion at 277-8.
But the long wait for the event to start and the three throws -- two more than he anticipated would be necessary to qualify -- left Cantello spent.
"The next day, I had no arm," he said.
"I knew it was not to be my day. And it wasn't. My best throw was 245 -- 10th place."
Cantello was 29 when he competed in Rome. He had grown up in Norristown, Pa., where he threw the javelin for the first time as a high school senior. Then, two years of working in an asbestos factory convinced him he didn't want to make that a career, so he enrolled at La Salle.
He blossomed as a college thrower, winning three IC4A titles. The Marines were next -- he was a lieutenant when he competed in Rome -- and by 1963 he was a civilian, coaching at the Naval Academy.
"My second night here I said to myself there was no way I could stay, because I wasn't going to cow-tow to the brass," Cantello said.
As he starts his 30th year, Cantello's record as a head coach in cross country and indoor and outdoor track is 233-57-1. His 32 wins over Army are the most by any Navy coach in history.