Parry O'Brien is a connoisseur of antique edged weapons, an accomplished amateur chef, a fair performer on the bass fiddle and the bongo drums who sometimes plays as he listens to his collection of records of primitive music, and the vice-president of a bank. He is also the fourth-best shotputter in the world.
For quite a long time he was the best. His new and modest standing in this sport was brought home to him rather forcibly not long ago. O'Brien had just put the shot 63 feet 5 inches in a meet in Tempe, Ariz., breaking his recognized world record by an inch. When the distance was announced, the crowd heard it with no great enthusiasm. In the silence, one voice bawled, "O'Brien, that was pretty good—a month ago."
Unfortunately for O'Brien, his 63-foot-5 put came after the most explosive improvement in a field event in the history of track competition. A week or two before O'Brien's appearance at Tempe, Dave Davis hit 63 feet 10½ inches to gain undisputed possession of the unofficial world record—for about 15 minutes. Then Dallas Long (see cover) heaved the 16-pound steel ball 64 feet 6½ inches to top Davis. Long, in turn, held the record for a whole week before Bill Nieder did 65 feet 7 inches in the Texas Relays. Nieder is the present record holder, but his tenure is shaky, to say the least.
O'Brien regards this wholesale assault on his record with mild apprehension, but no real fear.
April 24, 1960
"This is the first time in 10 years I have had competition," he said the other day. "I hope I shall react well to it. I expect to."
He was working out in the late afternoon on the UCLA track. He paid no attention to the hurly-burly of a freshman track meet going on around him, concentrating completely on every put. Between puts, he discussed his rivals seriously.
"They are all aware of the senior-citizen psych," he said. "They do very well against one another or with no competition. We shall see what happens under the pressure of the big meets."
He went back to the shot ring, poised himself delicately, then uncoiled suddenly, firing the shot with an explosive "WOOF!", then trotting after it.
"I do not put well in practice," he said. "I save my best for competition. I am no pasture performer."
O'Brien, of course, developed the modern shot technique, and he is still the most polished technician of the big four. But technique is only a part of the shot, and O'Brien is at once the oldest and the smallest of the four men. Oddly enough, though, he has the biggest arms.
"The shot is 60% pure strength," he said. "Thirty percent is technique and 10% is mental preparation. I am much stronger this year than I have been, because I have been using heavy weights. I read that Nieder is using 275 pounds in a horizontal press. This seems to amaze everyone, but a child could do it. It is an inclined bench press, and all of us use more weight than that."
O'Brien is constantly trying to improve his technique for putting the shot, but lately he has grown reticent about the details.
"I shall no longer be the instrument of my own destruction," he said as he wound up his workout. "I will divulge my little secrets only after this year's competition is over. It should be an interesting year. For the first time, I am not the target. I am the pursuer, not the pursued. But do not overlook the experience of years of competition under all kinds of conditions and under pressure. Davis, for instance, is tremendously strong. But he takes the gas pretty well. All of them take the senior-citizen psych. And I am the senior citizen of the shot."
BUGS ME, LIKE
Indeed, the three other putters are all well aware of the mental barrier imposed by competition with O'Brien. Davis talked about it between exercises in which he pressed a 325-pound weight while lying back against an inclined board.
"Sure, it bothers me to compete against him," Davis said. "He makes it that way on purpose. He puts and then he walks away and ignores you. You feel the other guys looking at you when you're getting ready to put, but not O'Brien. He acts like he's the only one there. You know he's not worried about you. Maybe he'll drop a shot or something while you're balancing. He bugs me."
Davis, like the other top shotputters, ascribes the recent dramatic shattering of record after record to the effects of heavy weight training. All four use formidable weights in workouts; Long has bench pressed 440 pounds, the others not much less. Davis was working out in the Muscle Beach Weight Lifting Club, Inc., an organization of 150 weight lifters who have taken over an abandoned auto paint shop in Santa Monica and stocked it with tons of bar bells.
"I want to build up my strength," said Davis. "Strength gives me confidence. I don't think O'Brien will bother me now."
He stripped off his sweat shirt before doing dumbbell exercises. On his shoulders, just over the armpits, are two long, lip-shaped marks which look like scars. He was asked if he had had a shoulder operation.
"No," said Davis. "Those are stretch marks, like a woman gets when she is pregnant. The muscles grow faster than the skin can expand. I'm working on the shelf. That's what shotputters call the muscles at the top of your chest and shoulders—the head of the deltoid and the pectoral muscles." Davis' shelf comes straight out from the top of his shoulder, slab on slab of muscle.
He did a few half squats with 525 pounds, the slender steel bar that held the massed weights bending precariously as he moved up and down.
"I don't work with the shot at all during the week," he said. "I may do a few phantom puts—kind of dream through it without a shot. What I want is to build up my strength."
Davis has built up his strength tremendously in the last three years. His program of very heavy lifting has increased his weight from 205 to 263 pounds, most of it muscle. He competed for the University of Southern California for a while, but dropped out when he did not make enough credits in one semester to retain his athletic scholarship.
He might have earned the credits had he taken a biology final, but he did not take the test and offered no excuse for not taking it. It is probably not true that he did this because he wasn't getting enough to eat at the university's training table; he has a gargantuan appetite, but the USC chefs are used to that.
"All Dave wants to do is eat and sleep and lift weights and put the shot," says Jesse Mortenson, the very able USC coach who has had O'Brien, Davis and Long under his tutelage. "He's a smart boy; he's got a photographic memory. He can give them back their own words on a test. He could have passed the biology test, but I think he wanted to get back home where he could devote all of his time to lifting and putting the shot."
Davis now attends San Fernando State College and he does well in his studies. He returned to the SC campus to set his short-lived shot record, but he never consults Mortenson on his shot problems.
"O'Brien may come by once in a long while," Mortenson said. "Not often." He was watching his latest protégé, Dallas Long, in action. Long is an enormous man; he is only 19 but he weighs over 260 pounds, and he looks bigger than his competitors. He was working placidly on his form, the shot sailing out near the 60-foot mark time and again. Long is the least susceptible of O'Brien's competitors to Parry's psychological warfare. When he did 64 feet 6½, it was only a few minutes after Davis' 63 feet 10½, and on an afternoon when he almost missed the competition. He was nowhere in sight when the shot event was called, and Mortenson had student assistants scurrying about in search of him. Just before his turn to put, Long was discovered sleeping happily in his bed at the dorm. He trotted sleepily out to the shot ring, warmed up and then put the shot farther than anyone ever had before.
This day, between practice tosses, he walked over to Mortenson to chat briefly, and someone told him that O'Brien was in the hospital, a rumor that flared briefly and died.
"Oh?" said Long, then grinned and added, "Must have had a heart attack when he heard about that 65 foot 7 of Nieder's." Because of his youth and his size and his awesome strength, Long appears most likely to establish the ultimate record in the competition among the big four. O'Brien is 28, Davis is 22, and the present record holder, Nieder, is 26. Nieder is a first lieutenant in the Army, stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco. After his record put, he raised his personal goal from 66 to 67 feet, but he expects that Long will surpass even that eventually.
TWO FEET IN ANGER
Nieder, of course, is aware of the O'Brien psychology, but it angers him more than anything else.
His recent reassessment of his shot goal came as a direct result of a quote from O'Brien printed in a Los Angeles newspaper. O'Brien commented after Nieder's record performance that Nieder did well without competition but folded under pressure.
"It burned me up," Nieder said. "Hell, he's avoided competition with me and Long. One meet last year, Long and I were entered and O'Brien wasn't. Then Long got the flu and I pulled a chest muscle, and O'Brien entered the meet. Another time I beat him in a meet and he quit competing for the year. Three days before I set the record in Austin I was doing between 61 and 62 feet. I always throw as hard as I can in practice because that's the only way to get the timing right. Then I read what O'Brien said and went out to practice. I was over 63 on a couple, then over 64. Up until then, I figured on 66 feet as a goal—now it's 67. Competition can add two or three feet."
Nieder finished second to O'Brien in the 1956 Olympics, but he does not expect to finish second to him this time. Unlike the other three, he varies his weight lifting with work on the high bar, and with basketball and a variety of handball played with a paddle. "It gives me foot and hand speed," he says. He is probably the fastest of the four big men in the ring, and the most agile. He enjoys arm wrestling, which is one of his favorite tests of strength.
"I never lost to anybody arm wrestling," he says. "I got tied once, when I was at Kansas. By Wilt Chamberlain. I couldn't put his arm down, but he couldn't put mine down either."
THE BIG MEN MEET
The summit meeting of the big four will likely come for the first time in the Coliseum Relays in Los Angeles May 20. For that occasion the ring will be bathed in spotlights, and the event will be bathed in publicity.
The senior citizen will be there. He glories in the spotlight and in pressure, but his rivals have tasted those world records now and that old senior-citizen psych may not work any more.