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Parry O’Brien – Shot Put Champion
The year is 1951. At three o’clock in the morning, under the dim illumination of street lights in an empty lot next door, a young man of nineteen stood and contemplated the 16-pound bullet he had placed in his hand. This iron ball was his barrier, his Everest, his four-minute mile. Despite his playbook style and strong hands, he just couldn’t put it further than 55 feet.
That night he decided to explore simple laws of physics. If he could apply his shooting strength for a longer period of time, then he would definitely go further. No rule specified the direction a bowler should face when starting the field or the action of his feet. The only rule he had to abide by was that the shot was not to be fired using only one hand.
O’Brien examined the 7-foot circle from all angles, then stood on the back end — not facing the throwing quarter 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 leaving it, instead of the standard 90E that shot putters usually used.
He sank low with his weight on his right leg, the shot resting under his chin. He then performed a long backward jump while simultaneously twisting his torso 180 E. 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 going the 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 6’3″ height.
His cutting edge style became known as the “O’Brien Glide” and soon brought him to the top ranks of the sport. In 1953, he set a new world record of 59 feet 3/4 inches. In 1954, significantly just two days after British runner Roger Bannister became the first man to break the four-minute mile, Parry O’Brien became the first bowler to break 60 feet.
He broke the world record 17 times in his career, eventually raising it to 63 feet 3 inches. On December 3, 1956, he was famous enough to grace the cover of TIME magazine. In the accompanying interview, he says, “My style is geared toward allowing me to apply power for the longest amount of time before I release the shot.”
At the height of his career, O’Brien was unbeaten in 116 consecutive meetings. 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 then, his style had been widely adopted.
O’Brien’s training sessions were legendary. He did 150 exercises a day and is quoted as saying, “I don’t quit until my hands bleed, and that’s God’s truth.” Before a competition, to entertain himself, he would play tapes he had made to remind himself of the best form and style tips. Rumor has it that the tapes always ended with the catchy, “And hit ’em!
On April 21, at the age of 75, Parry O’Brien died of a heart attack during a Masters 500-yard freestyle race in California. “He was on the 11th lap, he was getting ready to change and he got stuck in the wall,” said his wife Terry. O’Brien had taken up swimming in the 1990s when his joints became too painful for shot put.
We consider the champion to be someone who is first in their events. For many years, Parry O’Brien embodied this champion ideal. But in the last years of his life, Parry O’Brien showed the world another aspect of a true champion. As the philosopher Sri Chinmoy has written:
“A great champion is one who, due to advancing years, retires from the games or ends his career happy and joyful.
“A great champion is one who longs to see the fulfillment of his dreams–if not through himself, then in and through others.”
Parry O’Brien was that great champion.
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