If ever an athlete proved that brains and brawn need not be
strangers, it was Parry O'Brien, whose curiosity and intelligent
tinkering made him the greatest shot-putter ever. In the 1950s
O'Brien dominated his event as few have, winning 116 straight
finals--a record streak for any track and field event--and gold
medals at the '52 and '56 Olympics. He added silver in '60 and
was fourth in '64, when he was chosen to carry the U.S. flag at
the opening ceremonies. O'Brien broke the world record 17 times,
increasing it from 59'3/4" to 63'2". He owed much of his success
to simple hard work. Daily practices included an insane 150
puts, each of which had to exceed 54 feet. "I don't quit until
my hands bleed, and that's the god's truth," he once said.
But O'Brien's greatest asset was his mind. There was something
to be learned from everything. Yoga taught him
concentration--though he never could fold his 6'3", 240-pound
frame into the lotus position--and from the Hindu principle of
ayurveda he acquired "placidity, sereneness." He listened to
Tibetan bells, to Balinese and Afro-Cuban drumming, all of
which, he believed, helped him achieve a warrior's frenzy. Long
before the age of sports psychology he was using self-hypnosis.
"I'd record pep talks to myself," says O'Brien. "I'd put the
tape player under my bed, get into a sleepy state and let it all
sink into my subconscious."
O'Brien even invented a new technique for his event.
Shot-putters used to begin by facing the side of the ring. They
took a few hops, then turned 90 degrees. O'Brien tinkered,
making small adjustments until he was facing the back of the
ring; he took a few hops, then turned 180 degrees to put the
shot. The "O'Brien glide" became the universal style of putting
the shot until the mid-'70s, when putters began experimenting
with a spin.
O'Brien stopped competing in 1966 and enjoyed a series of
successful careers, in commercial banking, real estate and civil
engineering. Today, at 65, he and Terry, his wife of 17 years,
live in Palm Desert, Calif. O'Brien began throwing again in the
'80s and set world age-group records in the shot and discus, but
years of twisting his back caught up with him. In 1992 he
underwent a spinal fusion. Told to give up golf, he began
swimming and is now among the best in his age group. At this
year's national masters, he was second in the 200-yard butterfly
and swam on a record-setting 200-free relay team. He coaches
himself, studying videos and other swimmers. "I learn by doing,"
says O'Brien, who has followed that path to extraordinary
August 17, 1997