It takes so much work and time to train to become outstanding at any endeavor that there are very few people who have risen to the top of the world stage in more than one field. One of the most impressive people who ever lived was Micheline Ostermeyer of France. She was born in 1922 and died at age 78 in 2001, and was a concert pianist who won three Olympic medals in the 1948 Olympics.
Double Olympic Champion
On the first day of the 1948 Summer Olympics, the 26-year-old Ostermeyer went from third to first place with her final throw in the discus. A few days later, she won the shot put by more than two feet, and on the last day of the competition, she placed third in the high jump behind American Alice Coachman and British Dorothy Tyler. Her high jump was good enough to establish a French national record. She celebrated her Olympic victories with a piano recital at France’s team headquarters and went on to become a famous concert pianist.
Ostermeyer said that playing the piano gave her “strong biceps and a sense of rhythm.” Today, great shot putters and discus throwers are huge women who usually take male hormones or have polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that causes a woman to have huge bones and muscles and often a lot of fat. Today’s top female shot put and discus throwers are well over six feet tall and almost all weigh more than 200 pounds. Ostermeyer was only 5’10” tall and weighed only 160 pounds.
Victor Hugo’s Genes
She was a great-niece of the French author, Victor Hugo, and niece of renowned composer Lucien Paroche. She was born in Pas-de-Calais in 1922 to a musical mother and an athletic father. Her mother taught her how to play the piano and her father taught her how to run and jump. She spent her early childhood in Tunisia and returned with her family to France. However, the Ostermeyers were Jewish and the family fortunately escaped back to Tunisia and avoided Hitler’s holocaust during World War II. In 1941, at age 19, she played the piano weekly on Radio Tunis and won five individual Tunisian national athletic championships.
After the defeat of Hitler, Ostermeyer returned to France where she resumed her training in both music and sports. She practiced on the piano five hours a day, and won 13 French national titles in the shot put, high jump, 60 meter dash and heptathlon. She was graduated with highest honors from the National Conservatoire of Music in Paris three months before the 1948 Olympics. After winning two gold and one bronze medals in the 1948 Olympics, she gave a Beethoven recital to the French national team and their officials. On the world stage, she was overshadowed by Fanny Blankers-Koen of Holland, who won four gold medals at the same Olympics.
No Such Condition as “Muscle-Bound”
How could a person with muscles so large and strong that she is the best female shot putter and discus thrower in the world still have the extremely fine coordination required to be an outstanding concert pianist?
In 1937, Dr. Peter Karpovich of Springfield College in Massachusetts published a ground-breaking paper showing that lifting weights helps men and women improve their coordination. His paper was ridiculed by most athletes in professional sports. At that time, baseball players who ruled the radio waves never lifted weights because they thought that large muscles would interfere with their ability to catch and hit a ball, and the prevailing attitude was that lifting weights made you “muscle-bound.” Today, people who require extraordinary coordination and dexterity to do their jobs — violinists, pianists, watchmakers and so forth — should know that there is no such condition as “muscle-bound.”
Lifting Weights Improves Coordination
Training for strength improves coordination. Your brain is a master switchboard that coordinates your muscles. Lifting weights does not interfere with brain function; it improves coordination in events that require strength, such as playing sports, doing carpentry, opening a stuck door or beating a drum. Strength training makes you faster. Muscles are made up of slow and fast twitch fibers. The slow-twitch fibers are used primarily for endurance: running long distances or performing continuous work. The fast-twitch fibers are used primarily for strength and speed. The same fast-twitch fibers that are strengthened by weight-lifting are used for speed, so the stronger your muscles are, the faster you can move them.
Lifting weights improves performance in every activity that requires power. It can help you to run faster, jump higher, throw farther and lift heavier. High jumpers do squats with heavy weights on their shoulders. Javelin throwers must strengthen their arms and legs, and sprinters need to focus on their legs. Baseball players from the 1930s could not compete in today’s professional leagues because they didn’t lift weights. Babe Ruth, the greatest home run hitter of his day, probably would not even make the team now because compared to today’s players, he was too small and too weak.
Future Champions Often Start Young
At her mother’s insistence, Ostermeyer began playing the piano at age four (I do not know how old she was when her father started to teach her to run). Many notable athletes and musicians have started training at a very early age. Some doctors believed that lifting weights at an early age could stunt a child’s growth, but this is not true. The best time for future Olympians to start training is while their bones are still growing. Today’s future champions are likely to start training before puberty, practicing seven days a week and twelve months a year in their chosen sport or activity. It also helps to be more talented and genetically gifted than your competitors.
Others Who Excelled in Two Fields
Excellence requires so much time and effort that it is very rare for one person to rise to the top in two fields. The only people I can think of who compare with Michelene Ostermeyer are Paul Robeson and Kent Wilson. Robeson was an All-American football player at Rutgers, a Phi Beta Kappa (tops in his class) graduate of Cornell and one of American’s greatest opera singers. Kenneth Geddes Wilson was on the track team with me at Harvard in the 1950s. I knew he was a great athlete because he won the Ivy League outdoor and indoor two-mile races in 1954, 1955 and 1956. We both majored in math, but I never had classes with him because while I took undergraduate math courses, he took only graduate courses. I was shocked to learn that in his senior year of college he won the Putnam Competition, one of the most prestigious mathematics competitions in the world. At age 47, he won the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physics for combining quantum field theory and the statistical theory of critical phenomena of second-order phase transitions.
Death at Age 78
After her performance in the 1948 Olympics and winning two medals in the 1950 European Championships in Oslo, Ostermeyer retired from sports to concentrate on music. She spent much of the rest of her life touring Europe as a concert pianist and teaching, and died at age 78 on October 17, 2001. The cause of her death was not reported.
December 23, 1922 – October 17, 2001