The year was 1951. At three o’clock in the morning, under the dim lighting of street lights on a vacant lot next door, a young man of nineteen stood contemplating the 16-pound shot put in his hand. This iron ball was his barrier, his Everest, his four-minute mile. Despite his copybook style and powerful arms, he just could not put it farther than 55 feet.
That night he decided to explore simple laws of physics. If he could only apply his strength to the shot for a longer period of time, then surely it would go further. No rules specified which direction a shot-putter had to face when beginning the put or the action of his legs. The only rule he had to comply with was that the shot had to be put not thrown using only one hand.
O’Brien examined the 7-foot circle from all angles and then stood at the very rear–not facing the throwing quadrant as he had done in the past, but facing the opposite direction. This meant that the shot resting on his right shoulder would have to travel a full 180E before he released it, instead of the standard 90E that shot-putters normally used.
He sank low with his weight on his right leg, the shot put resting under his chin. Then he executed a long hop backwards while at the same time spinning his torso a full 180E. When he finally released the shot, O’Brien could feel the added momentum behind it.
In the days and months that followed, while attending the University of Southern California, O’Brien refined and perfected his technique. He studied yoga (“to dig deep into what you might call an inner reserve of strength,” he explained), as well as aerodynamics, religions and, of course, physics–anything that might hold the key to greater distance. He became one of the first track and field athletes to lift weights on a regular basis, bulking up to 240 pounds at his peak with a height of 6’3″.
His cutting-edge style became known as the “O’Brien Glide” and it soon brought him to the front ranks of the sport. In 1953, he set a new world record of 59 feet 3/4 inch. In 1954, significantly just two days after British runner Roger Bannister became the first person to break the four-minute mile, Parry O’Brien became the first shot-putter to exceed 60 feet.
He broke the world record 17 times in his career, ultimately raising it to 63 feet 3 inches. By 3 December 1956, he was famous enough to grace the cover of TIME magazine. In the accompanying interview, he says, “My style is geared to allow me to apply force for the longest time before releasing the shot.”
At the height of his career, O’Brien was undefeated in 116 consecutive meets. He won Olympic gold medals in 1952 and 1956, a silver in 1960, placed fourth in 1964 and retired from competition in 1966 at the age of 34. By that time, his style had been widely adopted.
O’Brien’s workouts were legendary. He took 150 practice puts a day and is quoted as saying, “I don’t quit until my hands bleed, and that’s the God’s truth.” Before a competition, to psyche himself up, he would play tapes that he had made to remind himself of the finer tips of form and style. Rumour has it that the tapes always ended with the catchcry, “And beat them! Beat them all!”
On April 21st, at the age of 75, Parry O’Brien died of a heart attack during a 500-yard Masters freestyle race in California. “He was at lap 11, getting ready to switch, and he stayed at the wall,” said his wife Terry. O’Brien had taken up swimming in the 1990’s when his joints became too painful for shot-putting.
We think of a champion as someone who stands first in his events. For many years, Parry O’Brien embodied that ideal of a champion. But in the later years of his life, Parry O’Brien showed the world another aspect of a true champion. As philosopher Sri Chinmoy has written:
“A great champion is he who, owing to the advancement of years, retires from racing or terminates his career happily and cheerfully.
“A great champion is he who longs to see the fulfilment of his dreams–if not through himself, then in and through others.”
Parry O’Brien was that great champion.