Zen and the art of discus throwing

December 30, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

When I pass the statue of the discus thrower in front of the Johns Hopkins University field house, my glorious athletic career flashes before my eyes.

There's lifelong dreaming in these moments, a double dose bit of Walter Mitty and James Thurber. I'm the dreamer (Mitty) and the writer (Thurber).

Such contemplations arise at various times, year's end among them. The dockworker-fighter figures in as well. I feel his pain. But I console myself with the fact that I actually was a contender. My illustrious (in my mind) athletic career included winning the Atlantic Coast Conference discus championship in 1960. The meet was in College Park that year. You could look it up.

This discus dreaming resumed momentarily last fall with the news of Al Oerter's death at the age of 71. He might have been the model for that classic statue. He had all the discus thrower's tools: size, strength, speed, imagination and mental toughness in competition (I had the imagination part covered).

He was almost certainly the best ever at his sport. He was Olympic champion four times over a span of 16 years, winning in stadiums around the world. Athletes seldom win their Olympic event even twice. Four times was a reflection of Mr. Oerter's total commitment, total immersion. Throwing was more than a metaphor for life.

I heard stories about him from an acquaintance who stood back in wonder and amusement when Mr. Oerter would, while walking on a city street, stop suddenly, crouch, spin and unleash an imaginary throw. He was visualizing and then executing what he thought must be the ideal posture. He was perfecting his timing, refining his technique: his steps in the throwing circle, the right angle for his arm and the torquing tension created by the fulcrum of chest and shoulders, finally unloading the disk with a lashing surge of the arm.

I worked on the same things. Every day in the spring, I would show up at the track and field facility behind Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill, N.C., to hear Joe Hilton's advice. Mr. Hilton was the field event coach at the University of North Carolina.

Our track was more than a sports venue. It was a place for seeing how the world works and how humans adapt. The track was on a college campus, yes, but it was also a refuge for Cold War defectors. Two Hungarians - the distance runner Laszlo Tabori and his puckish coach, Mihaly Igloi - had come to live with the UNC family. They had come to North Carolina to live and train with Jim Beatty, an Olympic-class runner then at UNC. I would watch them run speed intervals in fluid sequences with the coaches holding out their stop watches.

Then I would go off for my own workout. I'd spin and throw. Spin and throw. Again and again. I loved the feel of what I thought would be a good one, the disc leaving my hand, sailing in the right attitude, landing within the defined triangular. A landing outside the arc was a foul, a wasted effort. Unlike life, you could choose the best of three tries. What I didn't do as much as Mr. Oerter was lift weights. I mean really lift. I don't think steroids were in use then and I doubt he would have used them if they were. (I didn't think Brian Roberts, the Orioles' second baseman, ever used, either.) Mr. Oerter's major competition was another imposing figure of a man, Fortune Gordien. I saw them compete one summer at the Olympic trials in Palo Alto, Calif.

An old friend of mine and I were working that summer in the oil fields several hours south of Palo Alto. On the job, we met another Olympic athlete. Unlikely, but there it was. We were moving heavy oil drilling bits from a warehouse to the rigs. Jerry Tarr ran the 110-yard high hurdles, one of the most exciting track events, demanding its own amalgam of strength, speed and technique.

There was a big difference between Mr. Tarr and Mr. Oerter. Mr. Tarr didn't seem to care if he won or lost. He didn't take even one day off work though he might have saved enough energy to make the team if he had. He did well, finishing just behind the runners who made the team.

Mr. Oerter wanted to win. But mostly he wanted to throw. It wasn't just the gold medals. He was on a quest for the perfect throw, certain he could achieve it if he kept at it. He had his life in his hands.

I don't think I ever stopped in the middle of Franklin Street in Chapel Hill to launch an imaginary throw, but I know I thought about it all the time.

I'm thinking about it now.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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