While heated arguments can be made about who the greatest native Queens athlete of all time is, there is no debate the late Al Oerter is the greatest Olympian to hail from our borough.
Oerter, who was born in Astoria and lived as a child right next to the Ditmars Boulevard elevated train station, won the gold medal for the discus throw in four straight Olympic Games, 1956 through 1968. Even more amazingly, he won with longer throws in each succeeding Olympics.
He retired after the 1968 Olympics and wanted to attempt a comeback at the age of 43 in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but the U.S. boycotted the games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, ending his shot at a fifth gold medal. He was determined to take part in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles but tore some leg muscles while in training, which ended his discus career.
If Oerter had accomplished his amazing feats in the 21st century, he certainly would have been a well-compensated athlete besieged by corporations seeking endorsement deals. But when he competed, Olympians had to be considered amateurs and couldn’t be paid. Oerter worked as a computer engineer at Grumman’s Bethpage, LI headquarters and was involved with designing the lunar module that transported Neil Armstrong to the moon’ s surface in 1969.
Al’s widow, Cathy, recently spoke exclusively with the Queens Chronicle about her husband from her home in Fort Myers, Fla. “Al always enjoyed the thrill of competition,” she said. “Ironically, his joy was not competing against other athletes but rather against himself to do better. That’s what motivated him.”
Why discus? Cathy explained that after her husband’s family moved to New Hyde Park, he played on the Sewanhaka High School football team. One day he was running around the track when a discus landed at his feet. He threw it back to a kid on the track team, but it went way over his head. The track coach called Al over and “The rest is history!” she said with a laugh.
Cathy said that Al always credited playing stickball in Astoria for developing his reflexes. “Al was an outfielder, and it was his job to catch that pink Spaldeen while avoiding both the trucks on 31st Street and the stanchions from the BMT elevated train line,” she said.
Oerter not only was respected in the world of sports but in the modern art world as well, where he was renowned for his abstract paintings. Surprisingly, a number of other Olympians prided themselves on their artistic creations, including Oerter’s USA track & field gold medal-winning teammate, Jamaica High School alum Bob Beamon. Al created Art of the Olympians to showcase the creative side of his fellow athletes.
Though an Olympian, Al had high blood pressure from a young age, causing a lot of wear on his heart. He died of heart failure on Oct. 1, 2007.
Today Queens residents can stay at their physical best at the Al Oerter Recreation Center in Flushing, which has the best in fitness equipment and classes for a very low membership fee.