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Sport: The Great White Whale

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“Listen,” a fellow athlete once told a mountainous young football player named Parry O’Brien. “You can be either an All-American or an Olympic champion. There are at least 33 Ail-Americans every year. But there is only one Olympic champion—every four years.” Parry O’Brien thought it over. “I wanted to be able to take the credit or the blame for what I did myself. I always wanted to be a soloist.” So Parry became an Olympic champion.

This week, some six years and several world records later. Air Force Lieutenant William Parry O’Brien Jr., a strong and strapping (6 ft. 3 in., 240 Ibs.) giant of 24, walks into the center of Melbourne’s main Olympic stadium to defend with his brawny grace his reign as world’s champion shotputter.

In the lexicon of track and field, weight men are called “whales,” and in this Olympic year, Parry O’Brien is the great white whale of the U.S. team—a Moby Dick whom the Russians and the rest of the athletic world would rejoice to master. In competitive terms, he is the epitome of the spirit of single-minded pursuit of perfection idealized in the Olympic creed, a loner who has consecrated his life to the task of tossing a 16-lb. ball of steel farther than anyone—including Parry O’Brien —has tossed it before. He searches for tricks that help him “dig deep into what you might call an inner reserve of strength,” a search that has taken him into studies of physics and aerodynamics, through a canvass of religions and a long flirtation with the postural exercises and “positive thought” notions of Yoga. To warm up for a contest he often uses a sort of self-hypnosis, with tape recordings of his own voice firing himself with hatred for Competitor X or Y, and exhorting himself to greater effort.

There are doubtless other men in Melbourne’s Olympic Village who take their talents as seriously. None has been more successful than O’Brien in combining what he calls “M.A.” (mental attitude) and “P.A.” (physical aptitude). Smooth interaction of the two enabled him to become the first man ever to toss the shot beyond 60 ft.—a feat comparable to the four-minute mile. His farthest throw, of 63 ft. 2 in., is more than 6 ft. farther than his 1952 Olympic record. He is an almost sure bet to win his second Olympic Gold Medal—and ten unofficial points for the U.S.—this week.

Football Was War. It was probably inevitable that O’Brien would become an athlete. His father, a former bush-league ballplayer good enough to earn a tryout with the 1926 Athletics, tried his best to steer his only son toward big-league baseball. But when Parry was not fooling around on the handy home-town beaches of Santa Monica, Calif., he was proving himself one of the best ends in the state on Santa Monica High’s championship football team and toying with the 12-lb. shot at high-school meets. He decided to accept a football scholarship at U.S.C. (major: business administration), where he got standard financial aid: tuition plus $75 a month for doing a job little more demanding than checking each morning to see that the 50-yd. line was still there. (Later, when he switched to shotputting, Parry’s duties consisted of taking care of the shotput ring.)

In a freshman scrimmage, a kick in the stomach tore loose some of Parry’s groin muscles. “Thereafter,” he recalls, “any grunting effort would result in excruciating pain. The frosh team was under the direction of Harry ‘Black Jack’ Smith then. He taught football like it was war. Jeff Cravath was varsity coach. Between the two of them, I about lost interest in the game.” Another man who helped ease Parry out of his football pads was Wilbur (“Moose”) Thompson, U.S.C.’s 1948 Olympic shotput winner, who had watched the blond, well-larded freshman working out with the track team, and as soon as he got a chance, talked O’Brien into dropping all else for the shot.

Approach Gingerly. Even as a tubby kid enduring the snickering nickname “Podge,” Parry O’Brien had always organized his life with a kind of compulsive neatness. Now he rearranged it methodically around an iron ball. Fraternity brothers in Phi Kappa Psi remember how he painted a shotput circle in the alley outside the fraternity house, to practice his technique—even at night. “You had to approach O’Brien gingerly,” recalls one brother. “The thing was, you never knew whether he had just let go of the shot and it was headed in your direction.”

In those days, Parry put the shot just like everyone else. Standing at the rear of the ring, he would rock back on his right leg, swing his left leg in front of him for balance, hop forward across the circle, and shove the shot for all he was worth.

Even then, he figured there must be some better way. His father recalls his coming home beaten from a collegiate meet and brooding over his failure. At 3 a.m., Parry Sr. was roused from his sleep by repeated, earth-shaking thuds. Parry Jr. was putting the shot by street light. “I think I’ve discovered something!” he shouted to his sleepy father. “I couldn’t wait till morning.”

Practical Physics. When he came home from the 1952 Olympics, champion by a bare three-quarters of an inch over Darrow Hooper, Parry was convinced it was time to perfect his private style. Says he solemnly: “It’s an application of physics which says that the longer you apply pressure or force to an inanimate object, the farther it will go. My style is geared to allow me to apply force for the longest time before releasing the shot.” Boiled down to its essentials, the O’Brien put begins with the putter at the rear of the ring, crouching low over his right leg, his back turned to the shot’s line of flight. Since the seven-foot circle allows scant running room, the added speed generated by the 180° spin before the shot is released makes a tremendous difference.

Since he perfected his style, Parry has so successfully demonstrated its value that every topflight shotputter has adopted it.

Alongside the practical physics belongs Parry’s fierce concentration. He spends as much time just thinking about his shot as fondling it in the putting circle. Parry spent many of his nights alone in his ascetic bedroom, the lights dim. his weighty frame slack on the bed. From his tape recorder trickled the soothing sound of his own voice: “Keep low, keep back, keep your movement fast across the circle. Fast, now! Fast! Fast! And beat them! Beat them all!” Parry is convinced that this nocturnal rite adds inches to his tosses.

On the track field. Parry’s carefully nurtured M.A. and P.A. blend inextricably into what irreverent teammates have been known to call “the vaudeville act of O’Brien and O’Brien.” The show begins with Parry snarling around the track, sinking into what he calls his “competitive trance,” beneath which lies the quick temper of a scalded hog. When the spirit moves him, he snatches up the shot in his left hand, licks the fingers of his right hand and rubs the saliva on the back of his neck. This is not superstition. The thin lamination of moisture is meant to keep the shot from clinging an instant too long to the side of Parry’s neck, where it rests before a put.

Moving into a place in the ring, Parry hefts the shot in his right hand. Handling the heavy sphere as gently as a waiter balancing a tray of champagne, he raises his left hand as if he were conferring a blessing on the spectators. His blue eyes narrow, he inches his left foot back toward the center of the circle like a burglar feeling his way down off a porch roof in the dark. Suddenly he ducks low. His eyes squint almost shut, and with a furious burst of energy he scrapes his whole body in a whirling drive across the circle. The shot seems to explode from his hand to the sound of a monumental grunt. Fully three-quarters of Parry’s body winds up leaning across the boundary of the ring, but his balance is so perfect that not for years has he spoiled a put by stepping over the edge.

And So They Were Married. Such absolute absorption in so remote, a skill leaves little time for making friends off the track. It was probably as much of a surprise to Parry as to anyone else when he looked up on his way to practice one day in November 1952 and spotted a pretty coed on the U.S.C. tennis courts. Caught off guard, he blurted out: “Lookit all them curves.” Properly indignant, Sandra Cordrey told him to go put his shot. But the blunder evolved into romance, and next spring the pair were “pinned.” Sandra soon got bored with playing second fiddle to a big iron BB. Often when they went on a date, the shot went along in its little plaid bag. En route to dinner or dance, Parry usually managed to pass a convenient field. He would park, peel off his shirt and get off a few practice tosses—lest the evening wind up a total loss. Finally Sandra got fed up and sent Parry packing. In January 1955> transformed into an Air Force lieutenant, he came back and proposed.

The marriage was arranged, rather vaguely, for some time after the 1955 Pan-American games in Mexico City. Parry figured on a decent waiting period for Mexican red tape. The day after the shot-put competition (which Parry won), the engaged pair went down to the Mexican hall of records to start the paper work.

“How soon can we be married?” they asked the clerk, who shrugged: “Why not now?” Parry and Sandra looked at each other—and were married. After a fourday honeymoon, Parry was off once more, this time to tour Central and South America for the State Department.

Secret of the Universe. Back in the U.S. at last, Parry reported in to Travis Air Force Base, near Sacramento. But neither married life (sans children) nor the Air Force itself was going to interfere with his quest for the supreme shotput. “They acted like they felt I could work out satisfactorily from 12 midnight to 8 in the morning,” he recalls with indignation. “So I wrote to Washington and got transferred over to Special Services.” There Parry’s job was to arrange movies at the base theater—a task only slightly more complicated than taking care of the U.S.C. shotput ring.

The long grind has not been easy, but Parry O’Brien, for one, is sure it has been worth the effort. He has made himself into the best shotputter in the world. Few men in Melbourne this week are really close, and his toughest competition will come from his own teammates, Ken Bantum (the only man to beat O’Brien in competition in the last four years) and Bill Nieder. Both have the physical potential some day to surpass Parry’s mark. But it is doubtful that either man has the stom ach for Parry’s solitary practice, not to mention willingness to gulp honey-andwheat-germ cocktails and pay the infinite, microscopic attention to the details of shotputting, as if somewhere within them lies the secret of the universe.

Even Parry admits that little of it has been fun. But he has come a long way from the pudgy youngster playing on the muscle beaches of Santa Monica. “He could have been anything he wanted,” insists Parry Sr. “He has more determination than four mules.” As the time approaches to put away the iron ball and heft the more difficult load of earning a living, both father and son are as sure that Parry Jr. will succeed in business as they were that he would eventually heave the shot past 60 ft.

For the moment, though, it is enough that now he can walk down a strange street in a strange city on the underside of the world and compete again for the biggest possible prize. It is enough for a young man of 24 to know that his achievements can mean something as long as Olympic games are held, as long as youngsters anywhere, from the steppes of Russia to the African veld, strive to run faster, throw farther, jump higher than anyone else in the world.

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