The Ultimate Competitor
By Dr. Greg Shepard
Published: Fall 1996
Al Oerter is one of only two athletes to win gold in the same event in four consecutive olympic games. I would like to thank the NSCA for inviting Al Oerter as keynote speaker to the NSCA convention last June in Atlanta. The following article includes excerpts from his speech. Next year's NSCA convention will be held in Las Vegas, NV. Call 1-719-632-NSCA for details.
Until recently, Al Oerter was the only 4-time Olympic Gold Medalist in the world. However, during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Carl Lewis won his fourth gold medal in the long-jump and now joins Al Oerter as the second-only Olympic athlete in history to win four gold medals in his event.
Al Oerter won his first gold medal in 1956 in Melbourne, the second in Rome in 1960, again in Tokyo in 1964, and finally in 1968 at the Olympics in Mexico City. Oerter was also the first to break the 200-foot barrier in the Discus in 1962. Al Oerter is considered by many to be the greatest modern Olympic athlete. It is apparent that he has always had one goal in mind, to win the Olympics. When asked why he never won the Olympic Trials any of the four years, he simply shrugged, "That wasn't the goal." In addition to the gold medals, each time he won he broke the existing Olympic Record. Oerter won six national championships and set the World Record six times!
The Al Oerter story begins back in 1944 when at the age of eight he first discovered weights by repetitiously lifting various objects found in the basement. "I had fun with weights," recalled Oerter.
At age twenty, one of Oerter's coaches told him not to lift weights while training for the Melbourne Olympics. But Oerter remarked "I lifted for the fun of it." His first real experience lifting was in a gym where, he recalls, "there was an 'eye of the tiger' atmosphere there and I really felt the energy flow."
Later Oerter was invited to visit a training facility in the former East Germany. His initial impression of the building was it's physical deterioration. But once inside Oerter recalls seeing the facility's technological advancements such as computers and high speed film. They could have film processed and back in as little as 10 minutes! But more importantly there were many other athletes there throwing discus. After his visit Oerter commented on the fantastic technology but said that he failed to see the relationship between it and athletes throwing discus. He expressed concern that technology would complicate the sport and take the humanity out of it. "Science is nice," he said, "but it shouldn't be overwhelming. Let's not develop athletes who are dependent on it. It is more important to develop athletes who rely on themselves. I have found that you can have all the fancy equipment and professional coaches but if you don't want to achieve for yourself, it won't happen.
"When asked how he beat the world four consecutive times in the Olympics, Oerter gave a surprising answer. "I didn't beat the world four times. Competition is a test of ones self. I made myself as ready as I could and then when I stepped up to compete I would say to myself I have prepared the best I can and there is nothing left for me to do but my very best."
Al Oerter never did have professional coaching. But following his four Olympic victories he commented, "Now, I am introduced to professionals everywhere I go: therapists, psychologists, business managers, and trainers. But, I am used to being self reliant and it has worked well for me." Oerter's coaches were a calendar and a towel. He recalls, "my calendar had 1460 days on it, which was the number of days I had to train before the next Olympics. I checked off every day that I gave 110% effort." Then, during training I would use a towel to mark the distance I threw. I never set a goal on 'the perfect distance' I simply worked to beat the towel. Often people would watch me train but I didn't notice them much because I was so focused on that towel.
"While training for the Olympics, Oerter adopted the training philosophy of Norm Schemansky: work hard for 45 minutes with no coaxing, no looking at mirrors and no B.S. talk. Norm quickly became one of Al Oerter's greatest heros. Oerter worked hard lifting 12 months a year. So, at age 32 when he won his fourth Olympic Gold Medal, he was 6'-4" and weighed 295 pounds. He was able to arrow grip Bench Press 525 for two reps, Squat (touch a bench at parallel) for 5 reps at 725 pounds, Hang Clean 5 reps at 350 pounds, perform swinging, explosive curls for 5 reps at 325 pounds and do dumbbell alternate presses, flys and curls with 100 to 120 pound dumbbells. "I had a strong back from doing the old Jefferson Lift," remembered Oerter. "I used up to 450 pounds even at a young age."
Oerter doesn't think that it is possible for an Upper Limit athlete to avoid injuries. "If you work at elevated levels," reasoned Oerter, "you must expect some injuries. You don't look for injuries but you must push yourself. That is the only way to become stronger."
In Rome, Oerter slipped on a muddy ring in the preliminaries and ripped the cartilage loose from his rib cage. "That was devastating," remembered Oerter, "I couldn't sleep, eat or throw. It really hurt!" The doctors told him there was nothing they could do. But, Oerter persisted. So, the doctors agreed to try a method where they froze the muscle, taped it, gave him ammonia capsules and then hoped for the best.
Since each competitor gets to keep their best throw from the previous days preliminaries, Oerter could have stayed in the top eight without over extending himself. However, he said, "I just thought about the four years of hard work and those 1460 days. I did not want to cheat myself." Then during finals each competitor was allowed three throws. But because of the excruciating pain, Oerter decided to make the 2nd throw his last. "So," tells Oerter, "on that second throw I gave it everything I had." He threw an Olympic record!
When asked about the struggles experienced in training for the Olympics, Oerter replied, "Barriers in life happen all the time. You have got to step it up. If you back down, you never learn anything about life or yourself." Later in his career Oerter did have Olympic coaches who would really push him but he always knew it was to make him better.
Al Oerter was also a great success in the business world. Ironically, he worked with computers and advanced technology. Currently, Al Oerter is living in Colorado. And he is still a lean, but powerful 260 pound man. Although he is retired, he stays quite busy as a motivational speaker for a variety of corporations and as a husband, father, and grandfather.
We thank Al for the opportunity to tell his story.........................