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Al Oerter: Weak Heart in a Strong Body

Al Oerter won the gold medal in the discus throw in four consecutive Olympics over a span of 16 years. Each time he:
• was not the favorite to win,
• was beaten by another American in the Olympic trials,
• beat the world-record holder and broke the Olympic record for the discus.
His winning throws were 184'11" in Melbourne in 1956, 194'2" in Rome in 1960, 200'1" in Tokyo in 1964, and 212'6" in Mexico City in 1968.

He suffered from very high blood pressure all his life and it damaged his heart. He was the picture of health and threw the discus world-class distances into his sixties, yet in 2003, at age 66, he collapsed and stopped breathing. His heart had to be shocked three times to make it start beating again. Doctors suggested Oerter undergo a heart transplant, but he refused. He died at the very young age of 71 from cardiomyopathy, a heart that was too weak to pump blood through his body.

Born to be the Best Discus Thrower
Oerter was born in 1936 in the Astoria section of Queens, NY, and grew up in New Hyde Park on Long Island. In high school, he went out for the track team as a sprinter and then a miler. One day he was standing on the track when a discus landed near him. He threw it back further than the team discus thrower had thrown it The coach told him to forget about being a mile runner and he went on to set the national high school record in the discus. Hal Connolly, the 1956 Olympic hammer thrower champion and a four-time Olympian, had a similar story. He played football at Boston College and was on the football field when a hammer thrown by one of the track athletes almost hit him. He threw back the hammer further than the track team thrower had thrown it. Of course the track coach begged him to give up football and train for the hammer throw. Hal and Al Oerter both went on to the Olympics and were on three U.S. Olympic teams together. Hal and his wife, Pat (a three-time Olympian), used to ride tandem bicycles with us. Hal told me that Al Oerter was the greatest field-event athlete of the 20th century.

In 1954 Oerter was recruited to go to the University of Kansas, the same year that Wilt Chamberlain went there to play basketball. He won two N.C.A.A. titles, six national championships and broke the world record six times. After his fourth Olympic gold medal in 1968, he said he would retire from competition. However, in 1980, at age 43, he threw 227'11", his furthest official throw ever, and the second-longest throw in the world that year. He finished fourth in the 1980 Olympic trials and failed to make the Olympic team. In September 1982, at age 45, he threw the discus beyond 240’ but it was not an official throw. In competition, it would have been a world record. He retired again, but showed up at age 47 for the 1984 Olympic trials. He reached the finals, but tore his calf muscle before his last three throws. At age 50 he quit elite competition forever because virtually all of the throwing athletes were taking drugs to be competitive. At age 61 he entered the World Masters Games for older athletes and threw the discus 204 feet. Second place was 120 feet.

Weak Heart in a Strong Body
In 2003, at age 66, at a condominium board meeting in Fort Myers Beach, FL, he became very short of breath, broke out in a cold sweat and passed out. An ambulance rushed him to a hospital and his heart stopped beating. His wife was told that he was not likely to survive. He was placed on a respirator and his heart had to be shocked three times before it started to beat again. In three different consultations, cardiologists told him he would need a heart transplant. He refused and had a defibrillator-pacemaker installed in his heart instead.

To help reduce the shortness of breath that he felt from his failing heart, he and his wife, Cathy, moved from the oxygen-sparse air of the Colorado mountains to sea level in Florida. For 10 months he stopped lifting weights, but then he resumed lifting because he had done it all his life. On October 2, 2007, Al Oerter died from heart failure in a hospital near his home in Fort Myers, Florida.

How could one of the strongest men in the world have a heart too weak to pump blood through his body? We don’t know what weakened his heart to cause him to die of heart failure. He was diagnosed with high blood pressure in college and took medication to treat high blood pressure for most of his life. He was told by the doctors on every Olympic team that his blood pressure was way too high. At age 61, he was told that his heart was damaged because it was enlarged and thickened. His heart was failing because it had to work so hard to push against the extremely high blood pressure. Hal Connolly spoke at his funeral and said that "he was not just a great Olympian but Zeus himself."

Drugs that Make you Stronger Can Damage your Heart
In the late 1950s, athletes from Eastern Europe started taking anabolic steroids, a class of drugs that helped them recover faster to make them much stronger. Many U.S. athletes quickly followed their example. The athletes then went on from anabolic steroids to large doses of growth hormone as well. You have to damage a muscle to make it stronger, so athletes take an intense workout that damages muscles, feel sore and take easier workouts on the next day. When the soreness lessens and their muscles recover, they take their next hard workout. Anything that helps athletes recover faster lets them take their next hard workout sooner so they can become stronger.

Anabolic steroids and growth hormones do not come without side effects. The heart is a muscle and growth hormone enlarges your heart muscle as well as your skeletal muscles. However, it does not enlarge and extend the nerves that tell your heart when to beat. That means that people who take excessive doses of growth hormone are at increased risk for suffering irregular heartbeats that can occur even thirty or more years after they have stopped taking the drugs. Large doses of growth hormone also raise blood sugar levels to cause diabetes, and raise blood pressure to cause high blood pressure and its consequences.

Oerter's Campaign Against Drugs
Al Oerter knew that these drugs were dangerous, so he retired from elite competition because he did not want to take any more of the drugs that were being used by his competitors at the highest level. He then competed only in the Masters games for older athletes where he could be successful without having to take drugs. He spent more than 30 years warning athletes not to take drugs. He told younger athletes "What sense do you have of yourself when you're cheating? It can't make you feel good. Why would you do that? Develop some self-esteem. Not say that I'm a cheater and know how to beat the system."

Learning from Al Oerter’s Story
High blood pressure can kill you, even though you may be taking multiple drugs to lower it. Anyone who has systolic blood pressure above 120 just before going to sleep at night should get blood tests, renin and aldosterone, to see if the cause is in the kidneys or adrenal glands. Usually these tests are normal. The most common cause of high blood pressure is a high rise in blood sugar after meals. If you have high blood pressure, follow all of my recommendations in my recent report on High Blood Pressure Increases Stroke Risk Even When Controlled with Drugs. In many people, high blood pressure can be cured by lifestyle changes. It is never cured with drugs.

Al Oerter
September 19, 1936 - October 1, 2007

June 14th, 2015
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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