MARCH 21, 1955
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'�" 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 places.