A Senior Moment – Dinner with 3-Time Olympian and American-Record Hammer Thrower Ed Burke

Almost every athlete who attends the annual U. S. National Track & Field Outdoors Masters Championships has had their day in the sun. Maybe it was in high school, college, or on the professional circuit, but almost all of these men and women have experienced success at some level of competition.

It is why more than 1,000 masters and senior runners returned to the 2009 National Championships in Oshkosh (WI), to step back on the track or field once again and test themselves. To try and catch a firefly in a Mason jar on a hot summer night.

Ed Burke is one of those athletes. Burke was a standout at San Jose State University from 1960 to 1962, setting a school record with a throw of 192-feet-3.5-inches in 1962 that would stand for 16 years.

He competed for the United States in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and 1968 Mexico City Olympics, and then retired. After 12 years, he came out of retirement and failed to make the U. S. team that was boycotted from the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In 1984, at the age of 44, he made the team for the Los Angeles Olympics.

It had been 20 years since his first Olympic competition in Tokyo, and perhaps more important, Burke was selected by the U. S. team captains to carry the American flag during the opening ceremonies. It was truly an Olympic moment that Burke will never forget.

His personal record of 243-feet-11-inches was thrown at Stanford in 1984, and remains as the American record for the 40-44 age group.

After retiring a second time, Ed Burke is back at it again. In his first competition in 21 years, he threw the hammer 175-09, breaking the world and American records for the 65-69 age-group. Burke, now 69, won the hammer throw at this year’s National Track & Field Masters Championships in Wisconsin.

Burke is from Los Gatos, California. I flew from Lacey, Washington to Midway Airport in Chicago, was met by my best friend John Shaw of Davison, Michigan, and we drove to the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh for the meet. John and I have been friends for 49 years.

We both ran cross-country and track for Flint Central High School and Michigan State University. John is the former cross-country and track & field coach at Goodrich High School, where he experienced a lot of team success and produced some great college talent.

We blew into Oshkosh and, after cruising around a bit, pretty quickly determined that the best place for dinner the night before the meet was Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant on the scenic Fox River. With a microbrewery, boat dock, live music and outdoor dining, it was THE place to be in Oshkosh.

Having been born and raised in Michigan my first 21 years, it did not take me long to remember my Midwest roots. The people of Wisconsin were friendly, casual, confident and purely Midwest.

You remember the Midwest. It was the same place that gave us Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Disney, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Buffett, Paul Harvey, Charles Schultz, Carl Sandburg, James Dean, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Qunicy Jones, Ronald Reagan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnny Carson, the Wright Brothers, Benny Goodman and Bob Newhart. No wonder the Midwest is a special place; some call it the salt of the Earth.

We liked Fratellos so well we returned 4 consecutive nights for dinner. On the last night, we were chatting with our food server Jon, a recent University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh grad looking for a job, and Ed Burke strolled in alone. Burke overheard our conversation (turns out Jon was a runner in high school), and asked if he could join us.

We had never met Ed Burke before, but he was clearly a masters competitor, especially when you found out he threw the hammer, saw the size of his hands, and checked out the Olympic ring on his finger, which could have easily been mistaken for a Super Bowl ring.

Both John and I had a great time swapping war stories with Ed Burke. We talked a lot about the great San Jose State track coach “Bud” Winter, who coached Burke and earned San Jose State the nickname “Speed City”. Winter developed Olympic medalists and social activists Lee Evans, John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Carlos and Smith are perhaps best remembered for giving the raised fist salute from the medalist’s podium during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

We also talked about how growing old is not fun, that getting into shape to compete and recovering from injury at our age takes so much more time. A high school athlete can get into great shape in 12 weeks; it takes us at least 12 months to achieve the same kind of progress.

As we talked and consumed more liquid refreshment, the sun began to set above the Fox River. John and I were celebrating his silver medal in the 2,000-meter steeplechase, but our after-dinner time spent with Ed Burke reminded us again just what the U. S. National Meet was really all about—camaraderie. You come for the competition and stay for the camaraderie.

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