Al Oerter is stretching and straining his 42-year-old muscles in mile-plus altitude this week to further his current fixation, earning a shot at a fifth Olympic gold metal in the discus.
The dedication displayed by this remarkable man is astounding, considering he abandoned the sport, cold turkey, for eight years following his fourth straight Olympic championship in 1968.
"It's a fascinating thing for me to see how hard I can push myself and see what next year will bring," said the 6-foot-4, 275-pound computer specialist. "My No. 1 goal is to make the U.S. Olympic team and I'm going to do everything possible to prepare myself. If I would lose my right arm in a car accident I would have to give up the attempt. But nothing else will stop me."
So why didn't he go for No. 5 in 1972, when he presumable would have been in better shape and near the peak of his ability?
"I got tired of it, but basically it would have taken time I wouldn't commit," Oerter said. "My daughters were 8 and 10 in 1968 and they were becoming adults. If I'd missed the growth of their lives, I'd never have recovered it. I'd never have excused myself for that."
Now his daughters are in college and they gave dad their blessings to try again. Less understanding were "sincere friends who felt I had built up an image and had a great chance to destroy it. Now they know that is nonsense."
Oerter, with a best throw this year of 219 feet 10 inches has added more than seven feet to his retirement peak. He can see 10 or more feet by Moscow.
"I have a mental image of what I need to do and we'll have to see if I can do it physically," Oerter said. I think I can go 230-plus next year - realistically. We shall see."
Oerter set two goals for himself this year. He wanted to throw 220 feet and rank among the top five in the U.S. He reached 219-10 in his first meet and was the fourth American in the National AAU Championships, so if the man says 230-plus next year, believe it.
"I'm working with more intensity than I ever have," Oerter said. "I'm also stronger than I've ever been. In 1968 I could bench press 450 pounds. This year it's five (500) or five and a quarter.
"I'm learning how to throw, too. I just got back from Europe and school was really in, watching Wolfgang Schmidt, Knut Hjeltnes and Mac Wilkins. I've picked up a lot of things. When you're doing a thing for so many years, you can't change everything overnight. It's like changing from a left-handed to a right-handed person. But I can make little changes as I go along."
Athletes are supposed to peak at about 28, then slide downhill.Oerter has proven otherwise.
"The only difference being 42 from 32 or 22 is that when you tear something it takes a weekend and a half or two weeks to heal," Oerter said. "At 32 or 22 it would take three or four days. But that's the only difference. My reflexes are just as good and my strength is greater."
Oerter is pushing himself here, because "at altitude you have to breathe harder and work harder. I want to press myself more, because it's what I need to make the team. After you leave altitude after hard training, the benefits stay with you for a couple of months."
Oerter laughs when he compares the facilities at the Olympic Training Center here with his pre-Olympic buildup in 1956, the year he won his first gold with a throw of 184-11 at Melbourne.
"I didn't really know how to prepare for the Games then," he said. "We made the team in June or July and the Olympics weren't until October. I built lifting benches in my garage and it was enough to get me through, but it never would today, because of the poundage everybody is lifting."
Oerter also laughs when he tells how East German Schmidt, the world's current top thrower, is bolstered by a personal physician, coach and psychologist.
"I can't work under a coach, to say nothing of a psychologist," Oerter said. "When I want a beer or just want to lay back, I will.
"I perform for my own personal satisifaction or self worth. If I went to a psychologist, it wouldn't be me."
Introduced as a "living legend" at one track meet, he says that isn't Al Oerter, either.
"I can't handle that stuff," he said, sweating under media scrutiny. "I'm uncomfortable talking about the whole thing. Shooting my mouth off about this is not my thing. I like to be throwing, or with my family."
With his family grown, however, Oerter must search for other outlets for his nervous energy. He already has a thought about 1981, but it doesn't concern the discus.
"I'm going to try the hammer throe," Oerter said. "I'm willing to put the time in. U.S. hammer throwers are at the end of the spectrum of good throwers, so maybe I'll be in the top ranks by '84."
Few would doubt it.