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Every track fan goes to track meets primarily for the thrills he hopes to find there; some go also to watch the beauty of the action. When it comes to excitement or to poetry in motion, the shot-put is often the track meet's ugly duckling. To a track fan enfevered by what confronts him in the arena below—the speedbursts and soarings, the valors and heartbreaks, the grace and the color—shot-putters are apt to seem a pretty pedestrian bunch; worthy and sincere, no doubt, but somehow remindful of hod carriers toiling after each other up the same ladder.
There is nothing pedestrian, however, about Parry O'Brien, the 23-year-old shot-putter from Santa Monica, Calif., now an Air Force shavetail, whose fame has spread all over the world, even behind those curtains of iron and bamboo. By constantly and sensationally surpassing himself during the last two-and-a-half years, he has made a usually unspectacular event a thrilling one for the spectators wherever he has competed.
Even the technique O'Brien uses in obtaining his results is spectacular. The shot-put circle is seven feet in diameter and has a toeboard fastened to the front. The conventional technique is for the shot-putter to stand sideways to the toe-board, skip across the circle, then heave, meantime whipping the body around 90 degrees. The O'Brien toss which he personally invented is to start with his back turned to the toeboard. He sets his feet carefully at the circle's rear perimeter, then bends forward. Next he slowly reaches backwards with his left leg until the tip of his left shoe gently touches the center of the circle. Having found its mark, the left leg returns to its original position. Then WHAM! His body whirls 180—instead of 90—degrees. His right foot comes down where his left shoe tip touched, and when he heaves he is like an Atlas suddenly gone on strike, hurling from him the heavens that have burdened him so long.
"It gives you more whip and makes it easier on yourself," O'Brien explains. He has blue eyes, curly brown hair, a fair skin, high cheekbones and an almost permanent deadpan expression which he maintains during competition even though he is boiling inside. It is fascinating at a track meet to watch O'Brien even between heaves. He speaks to nobody. He trots up and down the field, sometimes bending nearly double and revolving his clenched fists swiftly as he gives off a series of ferocious woofs. Sometimes he sits in a sort of trance: "working up to the big one," as he calls it. From time to time he will take a snort of liquid honey from a plastic bottle to accelerate his energy. When he picks up the shot, he flips it several times into the air, as though he were tossing a tennis ball back and forth in his hands. He then moistens the fingers of his right hand, rubs them on the shot, then on the back of his neck.
Parry O'Brien began being internationally outstanding in 1952 at Helsinki when, at the age of 20, he not only won the world's championship in his specialty but broke the Olympic record with a heave of 57 feet 1� inches. It was a great put surely, though not the greatest ever: Yale's Jim Fuchs had previously heaved one 58 feet 10� inches. But in 1953 O'Brien became the first member of the human race to put the 16-pound shot farther than 59 feet.
DOING THE IMPOSSIBLE
Then last May at Los Angeles in a dual meet between UCLA and his own university, Southern California, he broke through the 60-foot barrier, a supposedly impossible accomplishment, like the seven-foot high jump and the four-minute mile. (That same week at Oxford, Roger Bannister, with his 3:59.4, exploded the mile myth.) O'Brien's first actual break-through, at 60 feet 4 inches, did not count because he was still warming up in his sweat suit-the jacket buttoned, the long pants gathered at ankles-when he made it. But after he got the cricks out of his old bones, he peeled down to his underwear, started heaving in earnest and went to the showers with 60 feet 5� inches to his credit. Finally last June, again in Los Angeles, O'Brien topped O'Brien at 60 feet 10 inches for the longest 16-pound shot-put by Homo sapiens to date.
But Parry isn't satisfied. This year he is gunning for 62 feet, although as he puts it, "I don't expect to do better than the low 62s." His start in this direction was halted temporarily by a virus infection, but he recovered in time to raise his world's indoor record by an inch and a half to 59 feet 5� inches at the AAU championship games at New York's Madison Square Garden last month.
This week O'Brien is doing triple duty in weights at the Pan American Games in Mexico City. Standard bearer for the United States team in opening-day ceremonies, he will try for a double in the shot and in the discus. Without having had time to give it his full attention, O'Brien already has one of the longest throws in history, 184 feet 1� inches. But O'Brien is no man to do things by half measures. He will complete the week by marrying his college sweetheart, Miss Sandra Cordrey, and following that may leave on a 28-day good will tour of South America.
It might be gathered from the foregoing that two-and-a-half years of uninterrupted triumphs have swollen young O'Brien's head, but this is not so. True swellheads have lost their faculties of self-criticism, if they ever had any. Although Parry is certainly not hobbled by an inferiority complex, he is self-critical to an extreme degree. O'Brien is never satisfied with what he has already done. It is what he should do, must do, will and shall do next that he is continually concentrating on.