Those Little Mistakes That Can Lead to the Big Downfall

It’s those little mistakes athletes make that can lead to defeat and humiliation. Sometimes the humiliation actually precedes the defeat and you have humiliation to the second power after the defeat. They don’t have to be mistakes on the field or in the throw or run or swim. It’s the mistakes you make before the competition that can ambush you, like inviting your family to the event.

That’s how I plotted my own demise at the 1988 Olympic trials in Indianapolis. Don’t get me wrong. I love my family, but it was a little like inviting the Clampetts to the Oscars. God love them, both my family and the Clampetts.

I had always gone rogue — alone — to all of my competitions, beginning in 1968 at the National Track and Field Championships in California, where I made mistakes that forced my return to my All-American city of Elgin, Ill. — where saloons equal the number of churches — and a job as a punch press operator on the midnight shift. One little faux pas kept me from going from the nationals, where I placed seventh, to the Olympic trials that year.

Sometimes I can still taste the bitter salts of defeat and humiliation, but beer can help quite a bit with those. Sooner or later you have to learn to laugh at all of the Bozo stuff and think about the great things, like those Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, for instance. Oh yeah, and that world record throw in 1975.

The mistakes in 1988 were different than they were in 1968, but I still made them. After 20 years of competitive experience, you’d think I would have learned.

In 1968, I was a naïve novice, throwing for Middle Tennessee State University and in the summer for the University of Chicago Track Club, run by the famous coach Ted Hayden, a great mentor and friend. At that time, the nationals and the Olympic trials were held separately. The nationals were in Bakersfield and the trials were in Lake Tahoe. Lake Tahoe was chosen because of its altitude. The 1968 Olympics were held in Mexico City, elevation 5,000 feet, just like Denver. There the similarity ends between the two cities.

I had thrown a qualifying mark for the nationals that year so I was invited to the nationals. The University of Chicago Track Club and the Amateur Athletic Union paid my way to the nationals and there I was in Lake Tahoe, where I was nicknamed by teammates as “Lil Abner.” They thought I was clueless. Now I know that I was.

Back then, I thought they only took the top six throwers at the nationals. I threw for a seventh place, 63’8”. So I didn’t make it into the finals. I walked off the track humiliated, the same thing that would happen in 1988. I can still taste it.

But — and this is a big but — the seventh place thrower could be chosen as a provisional invitee to the trials. I was in the top 20 U.S. throwers and therefore could go to the trials if I chose. But I didn‘t know it at the time. Nobody told me. This was back in the Perry O’Brien throwing days. Nobody helped you out. Nobody gave you training tips, nobody wanted to see you improve.

I remember O’Brien was standing there watching me throw. I was watching him watch me, instead of paying attention to my throws. None of the big guys intimidated me, though. I had wrestled 300 pounders. They had nothing on me physically, but they had the experience and the knowledge, which they could have imparted, but didn’t.

The provisional option is in the rules and regulations, which I did not read. I was told you had to be in the top six to get to the trials. So, for you aspiring Olympians out there, always read the instructions, always do your research.

By 1988, I was a gnarly, grizzled veteran, still plotting my own demise. I had never taken my family along to an Olympic Trials. I don’t even think my family came when I won the state championship in 1963. So they had never been around to bother me much.

I had considered going rogue to the 1988 trials, that is alone, but I was 43, the oldest track and field competitor there, and I thought it was time for me to have the family around. Besides, I didn’t know if I would ever get another chance to invite them to an Olympic Trials, which is an exciting event since you have the greatest athletes around. But it turned out that inviting my family led to my downfall in a way, because I had to take care of them.

I don’t think people realize how difficult this can be for an athlete. I had a hotel suite, which they moved into and it was difficult for me to get any sleep or sometimes to use the bathroom. This latter was really unfortunate, because I came down with an intestinal affliction.

I became distracted. I let my discipline falter. I ate ice cream, drank orange soda pop, and became bilious. The junk food went right through me. I was in the family van on the way to the trials and had to get out before I soiled myself. I got out and walked quickly to the front gate and the attendants told me where the bathroom is, so I made a beeline, but a cop started yelling at me, telling me that I couldn’t run across the flower bed I was cutting through. When I got there, no bathroom tissue, clogged toilets, dirty and filthy, it was the bathroom from Hades.

So it was a morning filled with major distractions.

But more than that, I was believing my own press. I thought I couldn’t be beat. I thought I would make the team. That was my biggest mistake. Be confident but not over confident. So when I threw, I didn’t get low enough, I had chills, I was worried about everything. And my family was watching me.

I placed 9th with a 61’9”. Missed by a half inch. So that’s all it takes. I had to take that walk. The moral of the story — shit happens.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

Finding Nirvana in The Ring of Reality

We all want to reach Nirvana, that place in Hindu mysticism where all individual existence ceases to exist and you are one with the universe. We previously discussed the intitation of the throw — “Out the back” — and the drive phase. We are now at Nirvana phase.

This is also the next phase in the rotational throw and I named it Nirvana because the thrower should shed individual concerns at this point and become the throw, a blur of energy, acceleration and movement. This seldom mentioned and often misunderstood position is the most significant in the outcome of the throw and the recovery after the throw. It focuses all energy into the pivot, creating power and directing the momentum up through the release. These energies are described as planes of power and they line up the muscular-skeletal performance as the impulse step ignites. This phase consists of two turns, the first of which is 180 degrees and centrifugal; the second turn is centripetal and is 360 degrees for a total rotation of 540 degrees.

Each turn is rotational in nature, directing force to the axis of the turn, keeping the arms and legs in close to the body to speed up the turn. This allows the body to come out of the turn faster than it enters, like a figure skater in a spin.

Horizontal force takes place after the first turn and consists of a lunging sprint step or skating step into the second pivot and the sliding of the left foot toward the bucket. The bucket is at the left side of the toe board. Acceleration should be added to each step taken without any lateral variations. In other words, no wiggles that detract from the energy put into the throw.

The J-plane follows the horizontal plane, but is a descending motion for the body. It is the process of working your way down to the front of the circle to set up a plyometric base with double leg support at the bottom of the second pivot. All this is done below the hips.

Nirvana is the matrix where the first three power planes are combined together with a torqued upper body. You keep the shoulder from drifting ahead of the hip. The body weight is under the ball and in front of the shot as you start to spiral up through the vertical movement. The power position unwinds as you move up through the throw.

The feet, the knees and then the hip come into action. You have to start uncoiling with the feet. This position is referred to as a backward “C.” Come out of each pivot faster than you entered it because you need to be able to throw off the top of the vertical phase.

The next phase is the vertical jump phase. Positioning, balance and alignment are key factors that add distance to the throw in this phase. Proper utilization of these factors will create a more efficient throw. Acceleration and the depth of the position add time and power to the velocity, angle and height of the release. You have to get as low as you can go. The horizontal phase combined with an efficient pivot at the power position must be equal to the vertical jump phase speed for maximum distance. Problems such as being off balance, having over- or under-rotated, moving too slow or too fast, or having too short or too long of a step can be corrected if the center of gravity is low enough through Nirvana. The lower you go the more efficient you will be at the top.

The hips should act as a gyroscope and sort out the flaws before the vertical acceleration begins. The body weight is distributed between the pivoting right quadricep as the right knee moves forward; the left leg is responsible for pulling the body weight forward and adding vertical development. As the center of gravity ascends, the left arm comes down and locks the left side of the body accelerating or catapulting the right shoulder from its torqued position; it comes into play as the final acceleration movement. It is a helix movement from bottom to top. Think of a screw being driven down and then suddenly rotating in reverse and popping up.

The torque separation of the upper body is utilized by delivering the throw up and over the top of the left side, and over the lock position. If the pathway of the shot circumvents the right hip and does not come over the top of the left leg a flat throw with unchecked inertia can result in a foul or a short throw.

There is a test for this phase as well. Imagine an imaginary strap from the shot behind your ear connecting to the right heel. Your body forms a backward C. Think of it as a drawn bow and the shot is the arrow.

Reverse and re-entry phase is the fifth phase. This phase is understood as the result of the jump phase. What goes up must come down. When the jump is vertical and without variation it will return along the same path as jumped. Let the reverse happen naturally. The results of the vertical acceleration and the horizontal acceleration when matched equally should create a 45 degree release.

If you have any questions, comments or observations, please email me at this website.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 5/16/2012)

Slowly I Turned, Step by Step

Last time we discussed “out the back.” We went through the initial starting stance, the first movement, the right leg circumscribing the arc and then the right leg beginning its arc around the pivot point of the left leg.

The next phase I call “Slowly I turned, step by step.” Actually it’s step-pivot step. This is the drive phase. Sometimes it’s called the horizontal pathway where momentum is added to the pivoting start position.

Remember we started the whole thing by shifting weight to the ball of the left foot and using the right foot to circumscribe an arc around the pivoting of the left foot. This is for right-handed throwers. The left foot will pivot 180 degrees. The left foot will then be the anchor for the beginning of the sprint phase.

The right foot is pre-turned to give it a head start on the 360 degree pivot which starts in the center of the circle. When the right foot touches down it should be pre-turned slightly counter-clockwise. The upper arms are kept parallel to the ground and the knees should almost touch. If the right leg is kept too wide, it will cause over-rotation at the front of the circle and power will be lost. Your left shoulder will drop and the right arm will try to find balance.

It is important that the center of gravity stays low and constant and the footwork is done close to the ground. No lifting of the foot up, no heel kicking during the single leg support. These are signs that you are not low enough.

Stay low, lower and lowest.

The momentum starts at the feet and spirals up through the power position (separation/torque is re-asserted at this point). Remember not to duck your head as this will eliminate your pulling power. If you duck your head, you end up pushing the shot and risk fouling.

The top high school performer of all time, Michael Carter, who was a silver medalist in the 1984 Olympics and played guard for the 49’ers, said he wanted to have the drive and lift that I had, but he forgot about torque. He didn’t turn his right foot to six o’clock and he got stuck in the middle of the circle. Instead of sprinting with his right foot, he sort of dragged it. His standing throw was 65 feet, and he only added six feet. With a turn of the right foot and the running momentum it can generate, I could add 10 feet and more.

It is a very small detail in the whole rotation technique, but it goes to show you how important even the smallest detail can be. Carter was a great thrower, a powerful thrower, but he could have added another two or three feet with just a very small modification.

The next phase is the Nirvana phase. I named this concept after the Hindu concept that says when nirvana is reached, there is an extinction of the individual existence. So, in throwing, it is the moment when you become one with the throw, grasshopper.

This seldom mentioned and often misunderstood position is the most significant to the outcome of the throw and the recovery following the throw because it combines all the energies going into the pivot, gains power and directs the momentum up through the release. I’ll explain more in the next blog.

A drill for you:
Put a Frisbee on top of your head, get into the starting position, and keep it on your head as you go from the starting position into the rotation. Our throwing camp record for this drill is 137 rotations without the Frisbee falling off. That student got a full ride to the University of Pittsburgh. A young female thrower invented this drill. Her name was Esparza. She got a scholarship to Amherst.

Try this drill just walking on a track. See if you can go 10 yards and keep it on your head.Let me know.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 4/19/2012)

“Out The Back”

Yuriy Sedykh, the Ukrainian hammer thrower, always said, “Out the back.”

He didn’t mean out the back door, which was a handy escape route for me on various adventures around the globe, as long as you could find the back door. Sometimes you had to create one on the spot. Those are the times you really believe that necessity is the mother of invention. But that’s not relevant here.

What is relevant is Yuriy’s advice. Let’s examine that and do a little inventing ourselves. I should say re-invention for those who are not getting out the back door efficiently.

Yuriy was talking about out of the back of the throwing circle. That’s where everything begins for throwers and what you do there predicts the future in the throw, at least in the circle. It’s sort of a back to the future theory and a method on how to turn into the pathway for the linear approach to the effortless throw. That’s what we search for, the effortless, endless throw that could pierce the sky.

Yuriy was right. His mantra “out the back” worked for him. He had two Olympic gold medals and a world record. It can work for everybody, though there’s no guarantee about getting medals or a world record. But your performance will improve if you work on the initial movement for your throw, dissecting it down to the first half-second.

Let’s discuss Yuriy’s theory and my practical concept of how to initiate the start of the throw. It is the first of the five throwing phases I have developed over the years, the others being the linear or sprint phase; the nirvana phase; the vertical or jump phase; and the re-entry phase.

Sometimes throwers leave their best effort at the back of the circle because they think that all of the effort comes at the front of the circle. But it’s at the back of the circle where your throwing pattern is set up.

Set up is important for your first move. Your feet should be shoulder width apart. You should be facing to the rear. Let’s call that the 12 o’clock position. You should be straddling the imaginary radius from the center of the circle to the 12 o’clock mark. That’s right. It’s high noon for you and you have to be quick on the draw.

You should be in a squat, with your knees bent at about 90 degrees.

The 6 o’clock position is directly behind you, at the front of the circle. If you had eyes in the back of your head you would be looking at the landing area. If you are right handed, your right hand is holding the shot behind your right ear. Your left palm is up as if you are carrying a tray close to your shoulder or doing a behind-the-neck press. This is important.

The shot is held high behind the ear at the base of the skull. The center of gravity of the shots rests just below the apex of the fingers of the throwing hand with the palm up. The shot will have a natural tendency to roll toward the fingers when thrown. The left arm is held up and back with the palm up. You should try to touch your shoulder blades together. The head is held back and the eyes are kept level.

A quick test of one’s starting position and balance is to turn and look over the right shoulder at the landing area, toward 6 o’clock. At this point the athlete can gain the perspective needed to line up their spine toward the target. The spine is the axis of the rotation.

Remember – in the rotation style the starting position is basically the power position and you must be under and in front of the shot, meaning that you are low and carrying the shot behind the ear.

Now you are in position to start your throw. The first thing is to shift your weight to the left foot. The biggest mistake throwers make is to shift to the right foot, which seems more natural. The shift to the left foot doesn’t seem natural because you want to keep your weight on the right foot to push off. But the trick is to free the right foot by shifting to the left. That way the right foot is ready to begin its movement, circumscribing an arc around the left leg. This is a little trick that has to be learned, along with a lot of others for successful throwing.

Next, both feet must shift and point counter-clockwise, adding more dominance to the left leg. The right foot is prepared to lift and begin its movement around an imaginary pole that runs down through the left shoulder, hip, knee and foot, creating the first axis of the rotation.

The right foot will circumscribe an arc around the pole until it lands in the circle and becomes the anchor of the second pole, or axis, one running down through the right shoulder, hip, and knee. That is the first part of what I call the “Big circle-Little Circle-Big Circle” rotation.

Thrower Mike Carter once said he wanted to get the drive and lift I had. Well, getting things right at the back of the circle is how you can do it.

You can practice this with two shots, one in each hand, and throw both at the front of the circle. This will improve your coordination and make you remember to control and stabilize your non-throwing hand.

Another good drill: place a roll of duck tape on your head like a crown and practice until and your movements are smooth and controlled and it stops falling off.

Here’s drill another for balance and getting low: Initiate the throw and when the right foot lands, start sprinting toward what would be the landing area, rather than starting the next phase of the rotation. Take four or five sprint steps. You don’t need a throwing circle to practice this. This drill helps put drive in your throw.

Another is to assume the starting position, and turn 360 degrees maintaining that position with the right foot lifted and circumscribing an arc until you return to the starting point. Mark the spot where your right foot should land. Repeat until perfect. You can do it with weight in one hand, or both hands, or no weight.

Then do it in reverse. Repeat, repeat, repeat until you are a whirling dynamo, ready to go on to the next phase. And remember, “Out the back.” Try some of these drills and let me know if they help your throw.

P.S. Sorry about the long delay since my last blog, but it was such a nice winter, I was able to get out of the house a lot more and couldn’t stand to sit at the computer.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 3/27/2012)

Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina or Venezuela or Santiago!

When they decided not to pay us, I wanted to demonstrate, but we were in Chile. President Pinochet was still in power. You just don’t demonstrate when the big, mean dog has his paws on the power buttons.

Chilean jails are not as nice as the hotel we were staying in. I didn‘t want to end up in a windowless cell in Santiago. No one might ever hear from you again, although I have to say that some of my associates would have been happy if that had occurred.

It was a track and field tour of Latin America in 1981. I was associated with a club called the Philadelphia Pioneers, a group formed to compete against other clubs, including such organizations as the Pacific Coast Club, the New York Athletic Club, and the University of Chicago Track Club. We had already been to Venezuela, Trinidad, Tobago, Argentina and Brazil. I was so hung over I think flies were buzzing me. Chile, fortunately, was the last stop.

I had started out fatigued because to prepare for Latin America I went on a two week binge in Galveston, one in which I was arrested for wearing tennis shoes. Well, it was a case of disorderly conduct and misdemeanor battery, but it started over the tennis shoes I was wearing when I tried to get into a cowboy bar. The dress code wouldn’t allow tennis shoes. One thing led to another. Cops chased me, pulled out guns and took me into custody. But that’s another story.

By the time I got to South America, I had regained some of my balance and energy. I was still throwing 70 feet and there wasn’t anyone in South America who could compete against that. Al Oerter was with us, too, four time Olympic medalist in the discus, so we could put on a good show. He was 10 years older than me and could out throw me in the discus. He was throwing 200 feet in the tour, sometimes 203, and I was throwing 190 or so. But then, I hadn’t practiced for the discus. I just showed up.

We finished competing in Chile, which was a cake walk like the other Latin countries, and we partied all night to prepare for our departure in the morning. Some of the guys were crushing up Ritalin. It’s an amphetamine in addition to being a medication for attention deficit disorder. You can buy that stuff over the counter down in Latin America and so guys were snorting it, along with smoking hashish, and drinking refreshments. I think cognac was one.

We were pretty hungry after our victory celebration so we planned on going to breakfast at the hotel. Our stay was to be paid for by the sponsors of the track meet. We also were to be paid some per diem money and some prize money. Basically it was three hots and a cot. But it turned out that was the cake we didn’t get at the end of the walk.

When we went to breakfast in the hotel, the waiter said we couldn’t have breakfast unless we paid for it ourselves. Well, I thought, that wasn’t going to fly. It was an insult piled on top of my hangover. I was going to do something.

I began throwing bread rolls at the waiter. I’m a thrower, after all, and couldn‘t stop throwing. He was lucky I didn’t throw silverware. And compared to tossing the shot, a muffin was nothing. My track buddies were giggling and saying things like, “You go, Brian.”

The waiter fetched the hotel manager. He confronted us, or me, since I was the only one pitching strikes at the waiter. He yelled that the hotel wasn’t going to give us breakfast. A female employee behind the counter giggled, I remember.

He commanded me to follow him to the lobby. I did. I really wasn’t belligerent or threatening. I was just having fun in my own dumb ass way. The hotel manager picked up an ashtray in the lobby because I think I intimidated him. My hands went up and I stepped forward. It had only been a couple of years since I sparred with Mohammed Ali. It wasn’t anything that Cassius Clay wouldn’t have done and the manager had been the first aggressor, but I didn’t hit him. He ran behind the front desk and called police.

Meanwhile, at the breakfast table, I heard one of my teammates say, “Come on, let’s get out of here.” We went upstairs and got our bags and went down to another room. I think it was Larry Jesse’s quarters. Eventually we had to go downstairs to have lunch and check out. We had vouchers for that. Our flight was at 6 p.m. so we had time to kill.

We were eating beans, rice and sausage when a bunch of guys in suits came up to the table and handed me a note in Spanish. I said, “I don’t read Spanish.” Someone interpreted it for me. The note said, “Please come with us” or words to that effect. They were polite.

I started eating faster because I knew it might be a while before I got any food again. They started asking me things like, “Have you been doing drugs?”

I answered “No, I’m an athlete. Of course not.” I kept eating. One of the guys pulled his coat open and flashed his pistola. They don’t flash no stinking badges in Latin America. I began eating faster. They consulted amongst themselves for a while. Finally I finished, stood up and went with them. One of my teammates’ father was an ambassador in Europe and had connections. He made a phone call.

The policia didn’t handcuff me but they put me in a car and started driving. I said I wanted to go to the U.S. Embassy and they drove me there. I certainly didn’t want them to take me to policia headquarters for questioning.

At the embassy, I met with U.S. officials and was questioned by officials. The U.S. Ambassador may have been there, as I recall. I was pretty well known back then, an international celebrity, so I had a little clout. I wasn’t like your basic American hippie hanging out in a flophouse, smoking hashish. No, I stayed in actual hotels.

In the end, they escorted me to the airport and made sure I got on an earlier flight out of the country. The ambassador also was there. He wanted to make sure I left peacefully.

I guess I overstayed my welcome. It takes extra effort to get thrown out of a country. It’s something of which I remain quite proud.

By Brian Oldfield and George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 1/9/2012)

The Latin America Tour; Bored and broke, but we had batteries

I was in Santiago, Chile, doing a tour of South America as a born-again amateur and an athletic revolutionary. I wanted to spread the word of the heavy metal gospel and continue my free-wheeling, free-throwing lifestyle.

Unfortunately, I ended up getting expelled from the continent, for which I am grateful. Had I been stayed longer, I might have ended up against a wall staring at a firing squad. Or down the barrel of a pistola held by an angry husband or father.

Santiago was a charming city with little fortress homes, fleets of Mercedes public buses and little Catholic girls and boys in their uniforms everywhere. The tour had started in Trinidad, went to Venezuela, then to Brazil, and on to Chile, which was the last stop.

It was an eye opening trip for me. I hadn’t really seen slums where people lived in cardboard and plastic shacks built into the sides of hills, unless you count the homeless guys camped out on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago.

I was associated with a track and field club called the Philadelphia Pioneers, a group formed to compete against other clubs, including such organizations as the Pacific Coast Club, the New York Athletic Club, and the University of Chicago Track Club, my all-time favorite. Back then, there was a lot more attention paid to track and field because of the big boom in citizen running and races and the legendary fame of such athletes as Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine, Jim Ryun and, of course, myself.

Even the shot-put became a popular event due to television coverage of the Olympics and other sporting events. The coverage spotlighted most of the speed and power events, the endurance events, and the swimming events. Everybody wanted to run, jump, swim or throw. People still do, but the Baby Boom generation seemed to make it more popular just through sheer numbers. Everybody started buying running shoes, even if they didn’t run.

It was 1981, and by then I had competed in the Munich Olympics, become a professional track and field celebrity, set a world record, been banned from the Olympics and amateur competition, declared war on the U.S. Olympic Committee and then re-admitted to amateur competition by a federal court decision. It was a wild ride.

The year before I was ready to go and throw in Moscow for the Olympic Games, but that turned out to be the year of humiliation as President Carter withdrew the U.S. team because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

I was 36 and still competing when the track and field tour to the southern latitudes came up. I didn‘t want to miss it. I had been in Leningrad for a meet with a lot of my American comrades and thought a stop in Rio de Janeiro would be in order. I came home, bought a new summer wardrobe, and headed toward the border.

It was summer in South America, winter up north, so it was a good place to spend a month. On this particular trip I fell in with the Pioneers, many of them fellow hooligans to whom I could relate. It was a good club. Track clubs were a way for amateur athletes to compete, get their expenses paid and receive a little per diem.

A lot of people were getting free shoes, equipment and accessories from various companies under the table and it was the beginning of club sponsorship by shoe and sportswear companies. I wasn’t a member of the Pioneers. I was a solo artist, and had gotten an invitation to make the tour, along with such luminaries as Carl Lewis, hurdler Charles Foster, pole vaulter Larry Jesse and others.

As amateurs, there was no paycheck, but we received money to live on and a little extra spending cash. Few of us had money of any significance. Few of us came from affluent families. But we got a couple of bucks for showing up and wowing the fans. It was a type of indentured servitude, except that we could always walk away.

Of course, if I walked away I would have to get a job. You know what getting a job means to me. I’ve had jobs and I think they are very over-rated unless you’re making six or seven figures and have a car and a chauffer.

I recall that the tour was sponsored by the Brunswick Corp. which at that time was known mostly for its bowling equipment and pool tables. Somehow the company Hottentots wanted to branch out into track and field. That was fine with me. I would have even bowled for them if they wanted, as long as they paid my airfare, hotel bill and expense money, plus a little extra to buy cigarettes or whatever.

On this trip, I hung out with Larry Jesse, who held the U.S. record in the pole vault at the time. I had met him in El Paso when I lived there. He was one of those people who taught me how to be an airline pirate, mixing and matching airline tickets. Back then it was all on paper with carbon copies, sort of fill in the blank tickets. He could scam his way onto a flight as if he were that guy in “Catch Me If You Can.”

Larry knew all the meet promoters and all the scams to work on tour. He would take several poles, lose them and collect the insurance. That sort of thing.

At these meets we would compete against local clubs and their best Olympic-caliber athletes. It was not particularly challenging for us. I think it was difficult for gifted young athletes in those countries to break out. Many of the local clubs were sponsored by police or military agencies and those were the people who had the money and the power. They brought in their own kids, or their friend’s kids, and didn’t go searching through the slums for kids who had potential.

We went to Argentina, where we did the tango in the dance clubs. Brazil was great. I seemed to attract women there, and had a great time. I recall that the meet was packed with spectators. It was like New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Track and field was very popular in Brazil.

Then we went to Santiago. Santiago was part Third World, part New World. At the airport, people had chickens in cages as carry-on luggage. There were llamas everywhere. And we ran into Gypsies.

We were staying at a hotel, a stone’s throw away from an old abandoned building. It was an old wreck of a place. So from our room, we started flinging batteries at the windows, just because it was a challenge. And perhaps we were a little bored. I think they were D size batteries from our boom box radios.

We had to throw through the open window of our room without smashing our knuckles against the frame. There were five of us. Larry Jesse was one. Another guy was a high jumper whose father was an ambassador somewhere; and there were two quarter-milers from the relay team. I won’t name them because the quarter-milers found the Gypsies who sold them the hashish.

I guess that might have had something to do with the battery toss. I don’t know. There we were, grown men, Olympians, throwing batteries at this building just to watch the windows break. Believe me, it wasn’t that easy, hitting those windows. It was at least 100 yards, maybe more. It took an Olympic effort, but in the end, I think I won. No, I’m sure of it.

There is a theory that humanoids started walking upright so we could throw things at our enemies, at our prey and at windows. The battery incident is proof of that. We, as humans, like to throw stuff.

But that’s not how I got kicked out of Chile. I’ll explain that in my next blog.

By Brian Oldfield and George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 12/12/2011)

The Speed of Light And the Lightness Of Throwing

This new theory about the speed of light is disturbing. We have been used to thinking of the speed of light as Einstein defined it — nothing goes faster than 186,000 miles per second, give or take a few parsecs.

If the new theory proves true, they will have to re-think and re-calculate a lot of things: the relationship of time and space; how light works; how time flies; how the universe works; how long you must cook a frozen pizza.

It seems impossible that something can go faster than the speed of light, a velocity which we cannot really imagine. But it could happen. I came close to the speed of light a few times running out of certain bedrooms and bars, but I could never quite get to that level.

What does this have to do with throwing? Everything. For instance, it seems impossible that somebody will throw 80 feet, but it could happen. I’ve done close to it in warm-ups. Sometime in the near future, a thrower will get everything aligned, the axis will be just right, the conditions will be perfect, the rotation will provide acceleration, the trajectory perfect. The cannonball will be launched into orbit.

The whole light speed theory just proves my point that just when you think you’ve reached your best, there is still a way to throw farther, run faster, jump higher. We can be faster than we think we can. We can throw farther than we think we can. We can achieve what we think we can’t.

I challenge you to test this theory. You’ll need a few things.

One, develop your sixth sense. That’s the sense of knowing. Knowing what? Knowing you can achieve what you thought you couldn’t. Knowing yourself. Knowing your weaknesses. Knowing where you are vulnerable to flaws.

Weaknesses are not just a matter of strength. The five senses are involved. Watching the world championships this year, I noticed that some of the throwers close their eyes at the release. You never want to close your eyes at any point in your throw. It is difficult to find out exactly where you are in such an explosive and instantaneous event as the shot-put, and closing the eyes does not help.

You must watch the shot leave your hand. This is commonly known as hand-eye coordination and throwers must have it in order to place the shot through the designated attack point, or the AP. This is the imaginary point in the sky that throwers must try to attack with the shot for optimum effect. It varies from thrower to thrower, depending on size, strength, speed and whether he or she spent the previous night at the bar lifting pints.
You have to find your own AP and make an imaginary map of it to keep tucked somewhere inside your thrower’s brain.

You have to know where you are going to release — where your trajectory will start – and attack that point. The more you keep your eyes open, the more information you will receive. The more information you receive, the more accurate you will be.

You have to study the things you don’t know. You look in the shadows, in the corners, in the slight movement. One of the most important things I ever did was watch the shot leave my hand. One time in Portland, I was in first place and my arch-rival Randy Matson was in second.

Matson was throwing off his chest and I told him throw it over his eyes so he could watch it leave his hand. And he did. He watched his hand go up and the shot leaving his hand. He sawed me off and I thought, “Oldfield, you just talk too much.”

Watch with both eyes, so your head doesn’t turn away. Your left side has to be firm, and you have to keep your chin forward. Don’t flinch or crib away from the throw.

And I will say it here again and not for the last time. Running is important. There is nothing that can’t be enhanced by running faster. Running and breathing put us in touch with the universe. Then we can consider the Big Bang theory and all of its implications. I don’t mean jogging 9 minute miles for an hour. Sprinting is more important. Power running for form. Because in the ring, you have to get from point A to point B as fast as you can, at something approaching the speed of light. We need to feel fast. And we need to feel light on our feet.

There are two kinds of people – those who think they can’t and those who think they can. And they’re both right.

And about that Big Bang Theory, it was in Dallas and, well, I think the theory held up pretty well.

One last thing. All you disciples out there, write me. I need help to get to Valhalla in a Viking ship. I’ll take my time, so we’ll just forget about the speed of light.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 10/30/2011)

The Valhalla Dimension

Newton was right. Gravity sucks.

Then Einstein figured out that energy is matter and matter is energy and that gravity bends light and somehow they are all related through electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces. I guess that could be the unified theory of how the universe works.

This reminder of physics and quantum mechanics is important, because as throwers we need a unified theory. We need to know something of rocket science — velocity, vector, and altitude. As throwers, we live in the very physical realm where the laws that govern the universe govern us and the space-time continuum becomes the thrower’s circle. For us, the universe shrinks down to that seven foot ring, like a black hole that can swallow you up and crush you, or propel into a new dimension where champions are created — the Valhalla dimension.

All throwers get to that circle, the gravity of the sport drawing us in. Not all of us get to that dimension, however. To get there, all you have to do is figure out how best we can light the rocket, blast off, and get our Sputnik on the right trajectory so it lands somewhere out there past our imagination.

Einstein’s theories defined gravity. My theories defied gravity. I defied it for as long as I could. It was time well spent. You can defy it in your own individual and eccentric way if you choose, just as long as you try to defy.

The genius of Einstein was the that he had the mental force to make a universe of mistakes and keep going, eventually coming up with the best theory. Same with throwing. You lift and lift, you throw and throw, you pick apart the particles of your throw, parse the form, the speed, the motion, and try to freeze frame it. Then we learn from our mistakes if we can detect them.

Let’s call them rotational variances in space-time. Those little wobbles that are hard to detect, like the wobble in the orbit of Neptune, say.

What we strive for is rotational invariance in space-time. If this sounds like cosmic blather, that’s okay. The cosmos is right here in front of our faces and the rules apply.

But let’s come back from our orbit around the galaxy for a more practical application. Take a partially deflated basketball and place it on your head. Then do your rotational throw, nice and slow. Then do it again and again and again until the basketball stays put and doesn’t move. It becomes the axis of your rotation. Eventually replace the basketball with a Frisbee for a better challenge. Or a small flying saucer.

Controlling the head during the throw is important. If you start shaking your head all around, the basketball or the Frisbee is going to fall off into the black hole. This is a drill that you can practice almost anywhere at any time. It’s the Esparza drill, named after an old student. I had a kid who was terrible at this drill, but he went home and practiced for a year. When he came back to throwing camp, he could do 137 rotations without a hitch. He eventually got a full ride to Penn State as a thrower.

The Esparza Drill is a good way to get the variance out of your space-time continuum.

I bring this up because I watched the world championships. Some throwers closed their eyes and just blasted away. Some of them threw from the middle of the circle, using footwork that started off wrong. Then they over rotated and their head fell away from the release, when they should have been looking up, watching the shot — the Sputnik — leave the fingertips. The rotational variance did a lot of throwers in and the Germans beat us. And a glider beat the rotational throwers. Kudos to the linear technique. Their rocket science was better that day.

Work on your own theory. Work on the Esparza drill. Work on your own unified theory until there is no rotational variance, until there is no wiggle room.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 9/28/2011)

You Take the High Road and I’ll Take My Road Part II

The Highland Games were a saving grace for me during my exile from the world of sanctioned amateur athletics. I had been banished because I wanted to make a couple of bucks from throwing the shot. Imagine an American athlete wanting money to perform! The sporting authorities were shocked. I felt like Oliver asking for more porridge.

I also smoked, wore Speedo briefs, and spoke my irreverent mind. These were all strictly verboten if you wanted to compete for the AAU, TAC, NCAA or the USOC. But the Highland Games were my cup of tea. I felt a kinship with them. In another age, I might have been a bodyguard for the king and queen. Or the chieftain of a Highland Clan.

Then again, I might have been a rebel leader, fighting to oust a decadent, corrupt and unjust monarch, freeing the people from the yoke of tyranny. This I actually tried to do in various lawsuits against the United States Olympic Committee, a revolt that, in the end, indeed produced a revolution and opened the gates for professionals in the Olympics.

But I digress. Back to the Highland Games, which are prehistoric in origin, but were eventually refined and developed as modern contests during the Victorian era. They have always attracted the strongest and biggest people and now include women’s events. It’s about time. They can look good in kilts, too, something they could not even wear in the Victorian era.

In 1975 I was really strong and could toss stuff around with the best of them, so I seemed to be a natural for the Highland Games. Bill Bangert, the former champion thrower, introduced me to the games and then introduced me to George Clark, a Scotsman who was like the Johnny Weissmuller of Scotland.

I have to add a sad note here that Bangert, an amazing guy who was a great shot-putter, a boxer and an opera singer, died in July at the age of 87. He competed well into his advanced age and was an unforgettable character.

When Clark invited me to go to the Scottish Royal Highland Games in Scotland, I went. It was a beautiful place and it was a great time because we would get involved in this upstairs-downstairs action, with pints of beer and three fingers of Scotch whiskey at a setting. He was an older gentleman and we would stay at these bed-and-breakfast castles usually owned or managed by ladies, whom he often entertained. That was the upstairs part. I was the downstairs man, involved with the bar maids, chamber maids, waitresses and others. I found that a lot of the Scottish people have a certain heathen quality, including the women, something I greatly admire. I mean that in the most positive sense.

The actual games were great, too. The royal games are the real deal and are attended by Great Britain’s Royal Family — the Queen Mother, the King Father, the Prince Son and so on down the line until you get to the Duke of Earl. I figured I wanted to land that job as a palace guard until I saw the Queen Mother. That changed my mind.

The Highland Games allowed me to escape my athletic exile in the U.S. After the disintegration of the International Track Association, the professional track and field organization which paid us unhandsomely to compete, the U.S. Olympic Committee declared me persona non grata because it considered me a professional. I couldn’t even compete in all-comers meets. I remember one official said, “You’ll compete over my dead body.” I looked him in the eye and told him, “Don’t tempt me.”

The Highland Games welcomed me with open arms, no matter what the venue. My exile was a period in which I not only wore kilts and ate haggis, but boxed with Muhammad Ali, performed on ABC’s Superstars, entered the World’s Strongest Man contest and lived life rather large. As far as Ali goes, I didn’t think his sting was so big, but that’s another story.

I won the U.S. championship at the Highland Games in Santa Rosa in 1977. I did the caber toss, the 56 pound weight for distance and for height, and the 28 pound weight for distance.

Since then, the Highland Games have taken root in the U.S. and there are dozens of them ranging from Hawaii to Rhode Island to Mississippi, where, rather than haggis, they serve grits. California has 17 festivals alone.

Throwers get paid big money to go compete in the royal games in Scotland now. I have heard some get as much as $60,000. I only got beer and haggis. Don’t get me wrong, it was good beer and haggis, but a pile of cash would have made them even better. That and a bunch of pictures of the Queen suitable for framing.

I did very well in Scotland, too, setting some records. The last games I competed in were in Santa Rosa in 1985 and I tore the bicep in my right arm throwing the 56 pound weight for distance. I was winding up and a photographer crept too close and I pulled the weight in. I knew it was my last throw, however, so I let it fly and tore the muscle from its attachment.

I thought my throwing was over. But I iced it up and the next day I came back and threw the 56 pound weight for height. Left handed.

I went on to the 1986 Highland Games in Tempe, Ariz., and set a world record for height with the 56 pound weight with my left arm. I didn’t have to buy any beer or haggis that day.

I would like to dedicate that throw posthumously to Bill Bangert, the wild man who could throw with the best of them and who started me on the path to the Highland Games when I was but a wee laddie.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 8/19/2011)

You Take the High Road and I’ll Take My Road

I became an honorary Scotsman when I was invited to the Highland Games in bonnie Scotland, where throwing heavy objects is a national passion.

This came about after an International Track Association trip to Edinborough where I threw 73-1 and set the European record in the shot-put at the time, which would be in the last century, 1975 to be exact. It was a sensational moment. At least I thought it was sensational. I believe it was the great beer they have there that gave me the strength, courage and vision to throw against the best throwers of the day. That and the promised paycheck from the ITA, the professional touring track and field association of which I was a star performer.

I was living on the West Coast and was in and out of Los Angeles a lot because the ITA office was on Wilshire Boulevard. I was trying to make money, make connections and live life large. I am not sure how it came about, but I met Bill Bangert, a visually impaired athlete who set a world record shot-put for visually impaired athletes in the early 1950s. Bangert sought me out, as I recall, to compete in the Highland Games, he being a stout supporter and competitor in them.

Bangert was an amazing guy, about the same size as I was — 6-5 and 265 to 280, and had been a champion shot-putter and discus thrower in the 1940s and went blind due to a degenerative eye disease. He also was an operatic baritone and obtained a glee club scholarship to Purdue University in his final year of college, transferring from the University of Missouri. He sang his way to his degree. After an operation, he regained vision in his right eye.

Bangert eventually became mayor of Champ, Missouri, a town he founded, and was active in politics. In 1971, at the age of 48, he won a gallon of whiskey from the lord mayor of Aberdeen, Scotland. He did this by carrying the famous “Dinnie Stones” across the River Dee and back again. Named after the legendary Scottish strongman Donald Dinnie, the two stones weighed 778 pounds together. Bangert carried them across the 17-foot bridge and back, the first time someone had done it since Dinnie in 1851.

Bangert said at the time that it proved he was the strongest mayor in the world. He also said some of the Scots didn’t appreciate the fact that he had accomplished the feat. “I thought there was going to be a fight,” he told a reporter on his return with the jug of Scotch whiskey, which back then was allowable as carry-on baggage.

Bangert thought I might be interested in the Highland Games that were coming up in Long Beach. We went to a park to see if I had an ability for it. He had me do the stone throw with the 28 and 56 pound weights for distance and also the 56 pound for height. The weights go all the way down to a stone, which is 14 pounds. There is also the hammer throw in 16 and 22 pound weights. There is also the caber toss, using a long wood pole to approximate the throwing of a log across a stream, which in the old days had to be done in order to cross the moat and sack the castle.

I could tell right away I had a knack for it. It was a fun, free-wheeling competition with a variety of events and you could use some creativity. And you could wear a kilt and look like a right Scotsman, which appealed to me somehow. I always felt I had been some sort of palace guard back in the days of William Wallace, and before that a barbarian in the days of Stonehenge. I may have even sacked a few castles. I certainly hope so.

So there I was, being coached by a blind guy. There is something very Zen about that. Sometimes you can see more when you can’t see. I used to practice in the dark and try to feel the arc of the shot and hear the thump of the landing, rather than just looking for it. It develops your awareness ability, tunes you in to the flow of the throw. We all have three eyes — the two on your face and the one in your mind. Developing the mind’s eye is just as important as your sight.

This is how I set a record in the 56 pound weight for height at the 1986 Highland Games in Tempe, Ariz. I simply closed my eyes.

There’ll be more on the Highland Games in my next blog, including an account of my search for the Loch Ness monster. It took place at a pub in Edinborough.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 7/19/2011)