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)

The Rotational Revolution

It has been a great spring for my disciples. They proved the revolution is complete and the future has arrived. I mean the revolution of the rotational throw and the overthrow of the glide technique.

I cite as an example the young athletes who threw shot in the Illinois boys state high school championships recently.

Rotational throwing was the clear choice for all Classes, 1A, 2A and 3A. The ratio may have been nearly 10 to 1.

For me to have this kind of impact with young people and to be remembered as a coach and mentor is an honor for me. I’m still leaving my mark on the world. And now, my disciples will leave theirs.

The top three high school shot-putters in Division 3A were part of my throwing brigade. I either coached them or helped their coach coach them. Two of them are twin brothers at Lake Park High School, Jermaine and Jeremy Kline. Jermaine took first with a throw of 66-05.75, a state record and Jeremy threw 61-09.5, taking third.

In between them was Igor Liokumovich, of Deerfield High School, with a throw of 62-00.25.
Those three guys also took the top three places in the discus. Jermaine first with 188-01, Jeremy second at 185-10, and Igor third with 181-10. The wind came from the left so it cut down on the distances, because Jermaine has thrown over 200 feet.

Igor is going to Harvard and probably will become some sort of genius. Jermaine and Jeremy are going to the University of South Carolina where they will do well, I‘m sure.
I have to mention Brian Bobek, a senior from Fremd High School in Palatine, and Owen Saldana, a senior from Waubonsie Valley in Aurora. Brian took fourth in shot-put with a throw of 61-05.50 and Owen fourth in the discus at 179-0. I consulted with Brian’s coach on throwing and he has been to our coaching clinics. I am in regular contact with Owen’s coach and have been for years.

So the rotation revolution is continuing and I want to take some credit for it. Though I did not invent the rotational shot-put throw, I like to think I put it in the limelight, gave it grit, gave it some respect. They laughed when I threw the shot with it until it hit them in their imagination. They laughed when I sat down to play the piano, until I picked it up and threw it at them.

Sing it with me: Somewhere over the rainbow, throw so high, somewhere over the rainbow, why or why can’t I? I wish I may I wish I might throw that shot right out of sight.

I showed the world in 1974 that the rotational throw was the path to the future. I worked on it for two years before using it in competition. I was in El Paso when I took my last six throws with the spin and they were all about 72 feet.

It is almost all we teach throwers at the John Powell Throwing Camps, in which I play the role of shot-put coach, or shot-put ogre as some think. This is the only place where a shot-putter can get coached by a 75 foot thrower, namely me.

Powell and I have been holding these camps for 25 years and we have had a lot of student athletes who have done very well in competitions at state, national and international levels.

Powell is an Olympic medalist and former national champion in the discus. Together we have coached thousands of throwers and many of them have been able to get athletic scholarships, one of the other primary reasons why throwing is a great sport.

We even have the 72-year-old state discus champion from Wyoming and the 13-year-old female middle school discus champion from Illinois. They both throw about 110 feet. So we take all people into the camps, young, old, even ogre types like me.

For those who can’t quite grasp the rotation, there is the Oldfield Shuffle, in which you take two fast steps backward, turn the feet and throw. I stole the two-step from George Woods, the silver medalist who used it and did quite well. I think he called it the Chicago Shuffle.

The spin is complicated, it is complex, and takes a lot of coordination. So if you can’t boogey, you throw the backward two-step. The first time I used it, I threw 69-6. And that was a piano.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 6/16/2011)

Stay Hungry, Keep Training and Go Into Battle Smiling

If I didn’t vomit before an important throwing meet, I would get extra nervous and think there was something wrong with me.

I would get so wound up before meets I would have to spew. It became a ritual and the more I spewed, the better I threw.

It was like getting into the warrior mode. The ancient Roman warriors would cut their hair short and they would fast because they believed a hungry warrior is the best warrior.

So I guess vomiting was a form of fasting for me. It would get me into battle mode. I always felt like it was a battle out there on the field with all of the other throwers, all of those Alpha types who wanted to rip your head off and throw that.

So I came to rely on the regurgitation to get me in the mode. It helped make me feel light and fast and edgy. That’s when I would feel, “I’m ready now. Ready to throw.”

Also, my breath could blister paint and make people flee. That was enjoyable.

I bring this up to illuminate how deeply emotional I was about throwing and how it was not only a physical event filled with fire and desire, but a metaphysical event that we don‘t entirely understand. We just know that for some of us it taps into our fourth dimension, that place where the spirit drives us to become more than we thought possible.

You can will yourself to improve, if you have a pathway with heart, as I did. But as you continue, the path gets narrower until it is only a thin line and it becomes more difficult to stay on. I know. I’ve walked that line and so must you, if you want to get to Valhalla.

I want to preach here a little on what I call the “Wiffle Ball” practice. It’s like playing baseball using the plastic bat and plastic ball with holes in it. The point of it is to simulate what happens during a game without needing a big field. In my Wiffle practice, I would use shots of various weights and set up scenarios that I might encounter at the big meet. It was a rehearsal. I would tell myself things like, “Now you have to throw just a little that-away because there is a breeze coming from the left.”

Or, “I’m going to have to slow down this rotation a bit to get the timing right.“ Or speed up the rotation to get the timing.

All life is a play and we must rehearse our roles, especially throwers. I never used a 16 pound shot to practice, except when I was on the road. At home I would use a variety of weights – 20, 19, 15, 14, 13, down to 8 pounds. This technique expands your scope. It’s like stretching your imagination.

I once threw a 35 pound shot 35 feet. That’s like throwing a 16 pounder 70 feet. The idea being that if you stretch your imagination, you can enlarge your field of dreams.

Another technique is to throw with a partner. You use an 18 pound shot and the partner throws with a lighter shot. Then you switch. You can make it a competition. If you have a training partner who can’t throw as far, you give yourself a handicap. He or she gets the light shot. You take the heavy shot. You let them throw farther. It builds them up, gives them confidence, makes them better throwers. And when they get better, you get better.

Throwing takes hours and hours of lonely training, years of study, practice and competition, weight lifting, running, swimming. And you must train your smile, too. When you compete, you want to have a smile on your face. Or at least a face that’s grimace-free. It’s the effortless face, part of the effortless throw. Smile and think about how light the shot feels.

It’s easy to over-train though. The secret is to know when to let up. A lot of guys would lift weights up to the day before a meet. I would hear them say things like, “Got my personal best lift yesterday.” Then they would fall short in the throws because they left their best stuff in the gym.

I have an example from ancient history. In 1972, I was competing at the national championships in Spokane, Wash. Randy Matson took top honors with a throw of 69-6. I came in third. Reporters asked him what he was going to do to prepare for the Olympic trials that were coming up in Eugene, Ore. He said he was going to go home and do more weight lifting.

I remember smiling and thinking to myself, “Get yourself nice and tight. Just keep lifting and be a two dimensional thrower. Me, I’m going to stay loose.”

I went down to Portland, Ore., and did a meet with my buddies from the University of Chicago Track Club against the Pacific Coast Track Club. While Matson was in the gym cranking up the weights, I was out there throwing and staying loose, doing back flips and goofing around, keeping a smile on my face.

I was still feeding the muscles, but I was also feeding the psyche, enjoying the moment, which is what throwing is about, after all. It was two weeks before the Olympic trials.

Then at the trials, I simply let it all hang out and won a spot on the team, beating out Matson the gold medalist from 1968. I credit my philosophy of maintaining an equilibrium between strength, flexibility and balance for the victory.

I threw up before the competition, of course. Stay hungry, my friends.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 5/31/2011)

Getting Ready for the Championships

It’s spring and throwers should be training hard for their meets. The championships are just around the corner. Throwers will be kissing their lucky totems, girding their loins and pumping iron like maniacs.

It will be the strongest of the strong that ascend to the podium under the formula: citius, fortius, altius. That’s faster, stronger, and higher, the old Olympic credo.

There’s nothing wrong with having a lucky charm or two and preparing mentally and physically for the contests. But a word of warning from Brian the Wise: Don’t over-wrought yourself.

True, it is time to reduce reps and lift heavy for that ultimate throw that will get you into the finals. But it’s also time for doing those 50 or 100 yard sprints and 25 laps in the pool. It’s time to bring out the finesse in your athlete, not just the musclehead. It’s time to work on the nuances.

One of the problems with throwers is that we spend a lot of time building up our strength, trying to pack all of our power into a one-second throw of a heavy shot, discus, hammer or javelin. The preparation is long and difficult and the actual event is brief. We get all wound up, wired up, tightened up. That’s when the effortless throw is out of reach.

What is needed is elegance, balance, tempo. The antidote for tightness of being? Let the nothingness into your shots, as they say in golf. Easy to say, difficult to do. Stay loose to throw with juice, is what I say.

We want to incorporate spatial abilities, grace and power which will transform your throwing into the art form it should be. I note that Rudolf Supko, a throwing coach in Australia, says that a feel for rhythm and some musical ability or dancing skills can help your throwing. That’s how grace, elegance and flexibility can be worked into your
come in.

Weightlifting is only part of becoming the thrower you want to be. The thing I found out is that your own strength can inhibit you. I threw against people who were stronger than me, but I could out throw them. It is not only strength, but it is how much you can accelerate your strength.

A good example is Udo Beyer who had a standing throw of 72-2 feet and a dynamic throw of 74-4. He was almost as strong in his standing throw as he was in his dynamic throw, which was a glide. So he didn’t add much to his throw by moving through the ring.

My best standing throw was 65 feet. But I could add 10 feet to that with my dynamic throw. This means I was faster at the release. Conclusion: I had more acceleration over a longer period of time and more bang for the buck.

Beyer got stronger and bigger faster than any thrower I ever knew. But his athletic ability didn’t increase exponentially with his strength.

Olympian George Woods had a formula that said for every 20 pounds you added to the bench press you could throw a foot further. It worked for Woods, he won two silver medals. I found that I could increase my throw a foot for every 15 additional pounds on the overhead push press, where you drive up on your toes at the end.

This is somewhat like rocket science: angle of release plus speed of release plus thrust equal trajectory and distance. The laws of physics apply everywhere.

I like Supko’s thoughts about music and dancing and I interpret them as a call to be light on your feet. When you are light on your feet, you can cover X distance faster, thus your acceleration through the ring is greater. Besides, dancing is good for you in general. I always loved to dance and once was part owner of a disco joint in California. But that’s another story.

My recommendations to let the nothingness into your shots:

  • Swim – I always swam whenever I could. It’s soothing and loosens you up.
  • Run – Sprints for foot speed. I found that sprints helped my footwork, not to mention overall feelings of well-being caused by endorphin release.
  • Golf – Practice your swing. This is a good way to loosen your shoulders. I compare the effortless throw we strive for to the effortless golf swing that the great golfers have.
  • Yoga – Great for flexibility and balance. Get a guru.
  • Gymnastics – Chin-ups for strength and endurance, hand stand push-ups for overhead strength.
  • Dance – I would try some ballroom dancing as well as the latest night club styles.

You never know. You might make it to “Dancing with the Stars.” I know I would have.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 5/7/2011)

Fear and Loathing in L.A. Part II

Revenge is a dish they say is best served up cold, but it was hot in Los Angeles in the summer of 1984 and you could almost smell the asphalt melting.

I was out for payback in the City of Angels against my arch-nemesis, the United States Olympic Committee. I had been locked in battle with the USOC over my amateur status for years and the committee wanted me to fade into the sunset with the rest of the aging Olympians who had rebelled against its athletic tyranny.

The committee members didn’t want to see my beautiful mug anywhere around the Olympics in LA. I was the bad boy they hated. But I didn’t hate the committee members. I just despised their rulings that kept me out of the Games even after I had won the hearts and minds of nearly everyone else.

A newspaper columnist wrote that the things the USOC had to fear that year was a terrorist attack on the games, traffic congestion, the Soviet Union, and me. I was happy to be on the short list, even if I was the unholy infidel, ranked right up there with the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union, which empire boycotted the LA games because the US had boycotted the Moscow games in 1980.

The committee even had their four star general call me up in LA. “Couldn’t you just leave town and stop scaring the children?” is basically what he asked me, or words to that effect, anyway.

“I’m as American as anybody else, with a God-given right to compete and pursue the happiness of the throwing sports,” is what I told him. Or words to that effect.

A short recap is in order. In 1972 I got on the dishonor roll of the USOC after I was caught on film smoking a cigarette at the Olympic trials. The photo made the papers and put me on the map. I made the team, headed for Munich, then almost got kicked off it for going AWOL at training camp in Oslo. The things we do for women.

In 1973 I joined the professional International Track Association. After that, the USOC ruled that I was no longer an amateur, but a professional athlete and therefore unworthy of competing for my country at the Olympics.

In 1976, I was still throwing for the ITA, but it went defunct that year. The Montreal Olympics was coming up. I was ineligible as a professional, of course. It sounds totally inane now, being ineligible because you make a living from your sport and somehow that makes you impure and unworthy, but that’s the way it was.

I was still in ABC’s Superstars, which was a reality show for famous athletes competing against each other in various events. It was only four days out of the entire year, so it wasn‘t a long term deal. But the Superstars show got me to Montreal after sportscaster Keith Jackson of ABC asked me to be a commentator for the games. I happily accepted. I was on national television. I was wined and dined. And I still was a thorn in the foot of the Olympic committee.

By 1980, my dream of going to the Olympics was still alive. After a court battle with the USOC, a federal judge ruled that I, along with my ITA pals, could compete. Then President Carter cancelled American participation in the Moscow games. But at least I was back in the land of eligibility for amateur games. So I thought.

In 1984, I was still dreaming the big dream. I had won the Gran Prix, a series of competitions sponsored by The Athletic Congress to showcase track and field athletes. It showed them I still was one of the best athletes in the country and I was almost 40.

I was throwing really well. I dominated my event in the series, including the greatest meet in the history of the shot-put up to that time. There were five throwers who could heave a 16-pound shot more than 70 feet. That had never happened before.

Besides me, there was Mike Carter, a silver medalist, Dave Laut, a fourth place Olympian, NCAA champion John Brenner, and Michael Lehman. We were throwing like there was no tomorrow and they had me until I launched one 72 feet 9.25 inches. That broke them.

With my success in the Gran Prix, I signaled my intention to go to the Olympic trials in LA. The USOC filed a motion to stop me. I went to court. I had beat the USOC in court several times already, so I thought I would get a hall pass. Then the lawyers for the USOC asked for a continuance to prepare their case. The judge granted one until Aug. 26. That happened to be the day of closing ceremonies for the Olympics.

Screwed again.

I wasn’t done yet, however. Don Franken, a talent agent, called. He had a part for me in a television commercial for Kodak film. Franken’s specialty was working with high profile athletes and he signed me on.

Kodak was the official film that year of the US Track and Field Team. The idea of the commercial was to show athletes competing in events while wearing red tank tops with “USA” on them. The outfits made it appear as if you were on the Olympic team.

It was a one minute spot that would run during the Olympic trials and then the Olympics on network television. They used other athletes as well as actors. I was on screen for several seconds, warming up, throwing and, at the end, raising my hands in triumph, a hallelujah salute.

My big, smiling mug was right there for the whole nation to see on prime time television with a big USA on my chest. I think I made $10,000 from it, but the money was incidental to me. I got more visibility as a shot-putter from that commercial than any other thrower in history.

I only wish I could have thumbed my nose at the USOC at the end because you can still find that commercial on YouTube.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 3/19/2011)

Fear and Loathing in L.A.

A Los Angeles Times columnist wrote that the US Olympic Committee had only four things to fear at the 1984 L.A. games. The Soviet Union, traffic congestion, terrorism, and yours truly, Brian O., not necessarily in that order.

I considered it a high honor to be thought of so seriously. It was as if I was the anti-Christ. Not bad for a kid from Elgin.

I was still locked in battle with the USOC, which had tried to keep me from competing ever since they tried to kick me off the team in 1972. The fact that I, along with a number of other Olympians, had joined a professional track and field association, of which the pay was miniscule, made us persona non grata to the USOC. After being refused for the 1976 Olympics, I girded my loins for battle. By 1984, it was a 12 year war for me, something for the history books. Thus the columnist’s keen observation.

It was a seesaw war. I would win — I should say my fellow Olympian allies, Steve Smith, John Smith, and others — would win a legal battle, or some sort of symbolic victory over the USOC. Then the USOC would re-group, counter-attack and try to throw us out of competition by the scruff of our necks or the seat of our pants. Take your pick. I could hear them calling after us, “And don’t come back!”

After 12 years, battle fatigue starts setting in. All they had to do was to wait me out and I would eventually fade away. I think that’s what their strategy was. But I wasn’t quite ready to wave the white flag in 1984. I’m still not, really.

The USOC had reason to fear. We had wrestled the American committee to the dirt in 1980, legally that is, and won the right to try out for the team and compete. I was ready at that time. I was training hard. I was throwing like a maniac. But the hated curse continued to dog me. The Olympics were going to be held in Moscow and President Carter cancelled the US participation because the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. I had a ticket to the dance and the dance was cancelled.

So the Americans stayed home and pretended to be morally superior. But now who’s in Afghanistan?

Guess where American athletes were headed in 1981, the very next year? Leningrad, now known by its original name of St. Petersburg. The Athletic Congress (TAC), which was the new name of the Amateur Athletic Union, sent a track and field team to an international meet in Leningrad. It was TAC‘s way of thumbing its nose at Carter‘s decision to skip the Moscow Olympics. I was invited to go.

The USOC then invited me to participate in its sports festival in Syracuse N.Y., and paid my way home. I came back from Leningrad with Steve Smith, the pole vaulter, and I thought they actually wanted me to compete, but they really set a trap for Smith and me. When we got there, the USOC changed its mind and said we couldn’t compete because we had turned pro with the International Track Association, which went defunct in 1976.

The committee had its lawyers — Dewey, Cheatem and Howe — ready to do battle, and we brought in our California lawyers, Pillsbury, Pillsbury and Pillsbury. Smith and I were the only ones left in the battle with the USOC. Jim Ryun had been part of our team, but I don’t think he wanted to compete at that point anymore and he faded into the background.

Our lawyers found a sympathetic federal judge in Syracuse who was angered by Dewey, Cheatem and Howe, which firm had argued that we were bad boys and shouldn’t be allowed to compete. The judge ruled that we had to be allowed to compete, upholding the basic God-given right that men be allowed to throw and compete. Women, too.

Besides, I had a letter from John Holt, the president of the IAAF, saying I was eligible for any and all competitions. So the courts were on my side, the international athletic organizations were on my side, but the United States Olympic Committee was still against me.

But the judge had waved the magic legal wand and I was allowed to compete in Syracuse for the USOC. It was really anti-climatic after Leningrad and the court battle. I was exhausted from the trip to Russia and from all the nerve-wracking legal wrangling. I had a bad day with a throw of 68 feet and change. I was war weary. I needed to withdraw from the field and regroup.

By 1982, my philosophy was to stay in training and not compete. I was having back trouble, the same problem that had nagged me since I was a kid, and I didn’t want to aggravate it. Then, too, if you compete and come up with an injury, you are on bad paper, particularly if you are already on the politically injured reserve list, which, of course, I was. So you always tried to avoid being physically injured in front of the coaches and officials, especially those looking for any excuse to keep you off the team and the sacred ground of USOC competition.

In 1983, my Olympic dream was still alive, but I could feel it slipping away. I would be 39 years old in 1984 and that’s ancient for a shot-putter. But the dream where I stand in the Olympic Stadium and heave the shot so far and high it splits the sky could still become a reality, I thought. I set out on the road to Olympic glory again.

Part of my motivation was to rub the faces of the Olympic committee in the dirt with the court decision. But mostly it was that dream of standing in the Olympic stadium before cheering throngs and throwing the shot as hard and furiously as I possible.

There still was fire in my belly. I still wanted to break the sky. I wanted to go to Los Angeles and make the USOC quake and the earth tremble. I knew I had to go as soon as they told me I couldn’t.

NEXT: My Kodak moment at the 1984 Olympics, when I become the most visible athlete around.

By Brian Oldfield and George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 2/16/2011)

Very Bad Example

Sports Illustrated never ran a picture of me smoking a cigarette, contrary to popular opinion. It was Newsweek, which at that time was a widely read national news magazine.

A Sports Illustrated reporter did write about me smoking during the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon in 1972. There I was, lounging on the field, watching the activities, smoking a cigarette. This was, of course, like setting your pants on fire, or somebody else’s.

But I wasn’t the only one. They were half a dozen of us lounging around and a lot of the U.S. team members smoked at that time. Of course, almost all of the Europeans smoked back then, so we weren’t alone. I would have to say about 50 percent of the U.S. track and field team smoked, if not on the field, then at the bar later that night. It was not uncommon. I learned not to take cigarettes to the apres meet parties, because if you opened a pack, people would beg from you. They’d be gone in no time flat. I remember a lot of the track guys would smoke cigarettes, and drink gin and Coke, which they called “Do It Fluid.” They’d get totally wired.

On that day in Eugene, the throwers were on the field, waiting for their flight. Somebody had a pack of Marlboros, perhaps it was me, and some of us lit up. As I was reclining on the grass with a cigarette in my hand, a photographer caught me. The photo ended up in Newsweek and was the talk of the sporting world. Here was an Olympic hopeful, a person who was supposed to be a role model, an athletic hero, a clean living Boy Scout kind of guy, smoking cigarettes at the trials. You would have thought I was lighting up an opium pipe.

It proves my theory that I have been perceived as a very good bad example. I’ve been held up as one of the best bad examples by very excellent people. The various members of the International Olympic Committee. Various members of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Members of the media. Coaches. High school teachers. Ex-girlfriends. It’s a record of which I’m rather proud. I was the best bad example I can think of.

I think the cigarette picture was one of the best examples of being a bad example. It was one of those, “Look at this naughty boy” type pictures, “don‘t be like him.” Though Sports Illustrated did not run a photo of me smoking, the writer did call me a “cigarette-puffing whackadoo” that year. But a lot of the track and field athletes, as well as other competitors, smoked cigarettes.

How it was that I was the only one to be painted as a cigarette smoking whackadoo out of all those who were lighting up is an illustration of how rat pack sports journalists came after me for not being a model of Olympian — quiet, strong, loyal, obedient, humble, courageous. But I wasn’t afraid of letting people know that I smoked.

I bring this up because it is illustrative of how fast things change. Smoking is really out of bounds now. You’ll never see an athlete light up in the infield at the U.S. Olympic trials again. It might seem strange that athletes would smoke, but it was the 70s and students would smoke in college classrooms back then. Some of the professors, too. Most journalists smoked. You walked into a newsroom and it was like a damn gas chamber. Intellectuals smoked. Doctors smoked. Priests smoked. The tables are completely turned now, and it seems almost perverse to light up.

But I nearly went down in flames because of that photo. The U.S. Olympic coaches did not want their athletes smoking in public. It was the beginning of Bill Bowerman’s efforts to expel me from the Olympic squad. He was head coach of the U.S. track and field team and a co-founder of Nike. He already was a legend in the track and field world. After I had won a spot on the team, he called and said I had embarrassed the U.S. committee because I was smoking right in front of God and everybody.

“What am I going to do with you?” he asked me. He was a pretty straight arrow and was trying to make me feel guilty. He wanted reassurance that I wouldn’t go around flaunting my cigarette smoking in public, as if it was some sort of venereal disease.

I told him I had quit smoking, that it didn’t mean anything to me and he shouldn’t be upset. I said being in the Olympics was a good reason to quit smoking.

“If that isn’t a good reason, what is?” I asked him.

But I don’t think he believed me. He told me a story about the 9.5 sprinter he had that smoked. Bowerman said he got the guy to quit smoking, but then the kid gained so much weight he never ran a 9.5 again. We laughed. But I could tell he was really worried.

“If you win a medal, you won’t go up to the awards stand smoking a cigarette, will you?” he asked.

I told him no. “I would never do that. I can’t believe that you would think I would do that,” I said.

That seemed to satisfy him. I did stop smoking for a while, but have smoked on and off for years. One time I lit up in front of Chevy Chase at a resort in Orange County, California. It was 1980. By that time I had become well known as an international athlete. Chase went over to Dave Laut, another famous thrower who was there.

I remember Chase said to Laut, “Look at Oldfield. What is he doing smoking a cigarette?”
Dave lit up a cigarette and said to Chase, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?”

Chase didn’t ask me. He didn’t have anything else to say after Laut lit up. Chase was speechless, an unusual state for him.

In any case, that was how I was introduced to the larger American public, a photo of me at the Olympic trials smoking a cigarette, as if I was some sort of alien from another planet. It was a measure of how hypocritical the media can be, because most of the reporters and writers I knew smoked like fiends and drank like fish.

But I did become a non-smoking “whackadoo” and threw 75 feet. And I was from another planet — the Planet Brian. Just try to be like me. I dare you.

By Brian Oldfield with George Houde

(this blog was originally posted on 1/18/2011)