- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Early one morning in the spring of 1951, a former minor league baseball player named William Parry O’Brien Sr. was awakened by the sounds of grunts and thuds in a vacant lot next to his home in Santa Monica, Calif.

Upon investigating, O’Brien found his 19-year-old son, Parry Jr., tossing a 16-pound iron ball by street light after turning his back away from the target area and spinning his body 180 degrees before each launch.

“Hey, Dad, look what I’ve discovered!” the boy exclaimed, releasing the ball once more.

Indeed, what young O’Brien had discovered was a new technique for putting the shot — one that would revolutionize the sport. And when he died April 21 at age 75 after suffering an apparent heart attack during a 500-meter masters swimming event, he was universally hailed as one of the sport’s greatest performers.

As a freshman and sophomore at Southern Cal, O’Brien had been unable to surpass 55 feet. The day before his personal athletic epiphany 56 years ago, he had lost in the shot put finals of the Fresno Relays to Otis Chandler, later publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Mulling over the defeat, O’Brien wondered why shot putters tossed the ball from a stationary position rather than generating some momentum before letting fly.

So he put his own spin on the put, literally.

O’Brien began his athletic career as a good high school football player, but he lost his taste for the game after being kicked in the stomach during a practice.

“I wanted to be able to take the credit or blame for what I did myself,” he once said. “I always wanted to be a soloist.”

So he became a great one. After perfecting his new technique — ultimately known as the O’Brien Glide — Parry was virtually unbeatable. At his peak, he won 116 consecutive competitions, plus gold medals in the 1952 and 1956 Summer Olympics and a silver in 1960. All told, he set world records 16 times from 1953 to 1959, extending the standard from 59 feet, 1/2 inch to 63-4. In 1959, he won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s best male athlete. Yet through it all, he was never overly impressed with himself.

“The [116-match] winning streak does say something about my consistency,” he once conceded. “But back when I was doing it, I would win again and just think to myself, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice?’ I was just trying to get better.”

Few other performers changed their sports as much as O’Brien. Babe Ruth did so in baseball and Dick Fosbury in the high jump, but after that the nominees are few and far between.

O’Brien used his intellect as well as a 240-pound body in developing his method. In a 1956 cover story, he told Time magazine, “[The glide] is an application of physics which says the longer you apply pressure or force to an inanimate object, the farther it will go. My style is geared to allow me to apply force before releasing the shot.”

Fine, but O’Brien also achieved greatness through mental discipline and hard work, “digging deep into what you might call an inner reserve of strength.” Track historian David Wallechinsky recalled how O’Brien used to sneak over the fence at the closed Los Angeles Coliseum late at night and practice by moonlight — putting the shot as many as 150 times in a single session.

“I don’t quit until my hands bleed,” O’Brien said years later. He also studied yoga, aerodynamics, various religions and anything else that might help him propel the shot farther.

As a 20-year-old junior at USC, O’Brien set an Olympic record of 57-11/2 at the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, Finland, He described the aftermath as “the greatest moment of my life when I stood on the victory stand [with two other U.S. medalists] and saw the American flags go up and heard the band play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”

In May 1954, O’Brien became the first shot putter to surpass 60 feet, though it was somewhat overshadowed by Roger Bannister’s feat two days earlier of becoming the first miler to break the four-minute barrier. O’Brien added another gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, but was beaten by U.S. teammate Bill Nieder four years later in Rome.

In 1966, O’Brien achieved a personal best of 64-71/2. He still holds the combined (right-handed and left-handed) world record of 106-101/2 and is a member of the National Track and Field and Olympic halls of fame.

After retiring from competition, O’Brien had successful careers in commercial banking, real estate and civil engineering. He never lost his zest for athletic competition, but after a spinal fusion in 1992, he was forced to channel it into swimming.

“I had participated in masters track and field for years, but eventually I realized how hard it was becoming on my body at that age [60],” he said. “Swimming isn’t like that. In fact, it’s the only sport I’ve found where you feel better after a workout than when you started.”

Fifteen years later, Parry O’Brien died doing what he liked best — competing. And perhaps that’s the way he would have wanted to go.

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