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

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