As I sat down at my table, I was thrilled to see a placard with his name on it. I was considerably less thrilled when, moments later, someone plucked it off our table and moved it to an adjacent one. In a hall filled with 26 of the most notable track and field gold medalists, ours was, sadly, a table without a legend.
O’Brien sat leaning forward at his table; it gave him a hunched effect: shoulders forward, head down.
O’Brien struck me as a shy man of great depth.
We exchanged greetings, and as he signed my program, I said, “Mr. O’Brien, many of us cringed tonight when the announcer said that there was one person in the building who transformed an event. Everyone knows there are two."
I had not anticipated how deeply this would touch him; I think I had given voice to what he thought but could not say.
With great emphasis, he said, “Thank you.”
He looked down quickly and then up again.
He was trying to tell me something important.
Parry O’Brien, an athlete dedicated to his fitness for his entire life, passed away eight years later at 75 while competing in a masters swimming event in his native California.