In 1980, I was living high on the hog in Los Angeles, training for the summer Olympics and sharing a pad with John Van Reenen, the great discus thrower from South Africa.
It was my “Year of Living Lavishly.” I had landed a part in “Personal Best”, a film by Robert Towne about a lesbian track star who tries to convert one of her protégés to the other side. The film was a big Hollywood project. Towne had written the script for “Chinatown, ” the Roman Polanski directed film which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture in 1974. Towne won the Oscar for best original screenplay for “Chinatown.” Jack Nicholson was nominated for his portrayal of Jake Gittes, the hard-boiled private detective who uncovers all the ugly secrets. The movie was a great success and remains a film noir classic.
Towne put his Hollywood clout into “Personal Best.” There were high expectations for the movie, which featured a sex scene between women and a scene of women athletes taking showers. It was scandalous stuff which caused protests in Eugene, Ore., the film’s location. Local intellectuals handed out flyers saying that the movie was an insult to athletes and gave track and field a bad name. Mariel Hemingway played the protégé and became a friend of mine. I liked her. She laughed at my jokes. She was a like a little sister and I think she felt petite and safe around me.
I hung out a bit with Towne and the new Rat Pack — Nicholson and Warren Beatty, Hugh Hefner and some other Hollywood types. I was being wined and dined by the Hollywoodies, going to meetings and being introduced around. It was fun getting your leg humped by people like that. I would drive up to the Warner Brothers studio and the guard at the gate would call Towne’s office and say, “Mr. Oldfield is here.” It made me feel quite important for a shot-putter, a career in which invitations to Hollywood festivities are few and far between.
More importantly, being in the film allowed me to train at the UCLA facilities. There was a summer Olympics coming up and I had sued the Olympic committee over my eligibility and won. I was getting ready to punch a hole in the sky again. Van Reenen and I would drive to training in his little Datsun — it looked like we were wearing it — so I was in hog heaven.
That’s when I met Dave Laut, who would become my protégé and one of my biggest challengers for shot-put supremacy in the 1980s. He was a UCLA student at the time and throwing with the traditional glide, but wanted to convert to the rotational throw. His German coach wouldn’t allow it though, so Dave had to wait until he graduated before he could do the Oldfield Spin.
So, he became one of my converts. He was a good athlete, about my size and a very strong guy. He could overhead press 450 pounds for three reps. I coached him through the conversion process and I could see that he was a fast learner, picking it right up, working on his technique. Soon he was challenging me and when he tied my American record at 72’3”, I said to myself, “Damn, can’t you stop coaching your competition?”
But I’m not a top secret kind of guy. I like the camaraderie of throwers and I’d share tips and techniques or critique another guy’s throw. That is, if I liked them. And I liked Dave. He was a gentle giant and I thought he had a good heart.
Eventually Dave became the only other person in the world to throw over 70 feet in both styles — the Parry O’Brien glide and the Oldfield Spin. At least, he was the only other person that I know of. If I’m wrong somebody will correct me, I’m sure. But from the time he learned the rotational throw until the end of my throwing career, I had a running battle with Laut to be top dog.
In 1981 and 1982, he was very dominant. I was ranked No. 1 and he was right there, barging in on me. I remember in 1983 at the Bruce Jenner Classic we duked it out, one throw after another, pushing each other to the limit. That was a day of amazing throws. He ended up winning and first prize was a tiny motorcycle. He looked like a Polar Bear sitting on a tricycle. It was ridiculous.
Laut won a gold medal at the 1979 Pan American Games, a bronze medal at the IAAF World Cup in 1981 and a bronze at the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In 1985, he was ranked numero uno in the U.S. Then he tore tendons in his knees and that spelled the end of his throwing career.
Though he was an opponent, I admired his determination and grit. We would joke that if we made money by throwing, we’d be billionaires, somewhere in the top 99.9th percentile, raking in greenbacks. Of course, he wouldn’t have made as much as me.
But we weren’t billionaires, or even millionaires. Not even close. He went and got a job, unlike me. I threw my college degree down the toilet. I did use the education to help me process all of the analysis I needed to improve my throws, but I never used it to get a permanent job. After I went to the Munich Olympics in ‘72, I never wanted to return to mundane life in the Midwest.
It was difficult to believe that Laut was murdered last year, shot to death in his own yard. Even more shocking was that his wife of 29 years was charged with murder. She first told police Dave had been shot by an intruder, but then changed her story under further questioning. She eventually told police Dave had abused her for years. I never saw anything like that in Dave. He just seemed like a very easy going guy. It will be interesting to see what happens in the case. The couple had a young adopted son who may provide some clues.
Laut was only 52 and it was a sad day when he was killed. He still had some contributions to make and was the athletic director at Hueneme High School in Oxnard, Calif. He was a true disciple of throwing. If there ever was a Boy Scout who had a good heart and would help little old ladies across the street, it was Dave Laut.
When I think of him, I think of those great days in Hollywood, the training at UCLA, Mariel Hemingway, Towne, Nicholson. It was a great convergence of personalities, talent and glamour. I ended up getting bumped from the film because I went on a European track and field tour for the summer. But that’s another story. Let’s just say I wanted to be on the track and field circuit, my real calling, getting close to Valhalla.
By Brian Oldfield with George Houde
(this blog was originally posted on 3/28/2010)