By Bob Burns
Ed Burke turns his back on the hammer circle for decades at a time. He’s done it twice, in fact.
But whenever he decides to come back, the old feeling awaits, greeting the grand master with open arms.
“When your name is called and you know the throw is going to count, you’re nervous. It’s the same as it’s always been,” Burke said. “You step into the ring and it feels great.”
Burke enjoyed that feeling as one of the world’s top hammer throwers in the 1960s. He won the second of his three straight U.S. titles in 1967 with an American-record throw of 235 feet, 11 inches. Following a disheartening showing at the 1968 Olympics, he called it quits.
His daughters weren’t even aware that their father had been a two-time Olympic hammer thrower until they watched the 1979 World Cup event on television. He filled them in as they watched Sergei Litvinov of the Soviet Union, the world’s top thrower, spin like a top across the ring.
“One of my daughters said, ‘You did that?’” Burke recalled.
Ed’s wife and longtime coach, Shirley, marveled at Litvinov’s modest size. Giant-sized men ruled the event in the years following her husband’s retirement. Despite the fact that he was pushing 40, Burke decided to give the hammer another whirl. Within a couple of years, he was throwing as far as he did in his prime.
In 1984, he threw a lifetime-best 243-11 and made his third Olympic team at age 44.
While he didn’t qualify for the final, he was selected by the other team captains to carry the U.S. flag into the Los Angeles Coliseum during the opening ceremonies.
“That’s what I’m known for,” Burke said. “It’s one of those quirks of fate. People can’t remember who won the gold medal, but they remember the guy who carried the flag into the stadium.”
Having become the first U.S. track and field athlete to qualify for Olympic teams 20 years apart, Burke settled into his second prolonged retirement. He tended to his business as owner of the Los Gatos Athletic Club. He did say involved in the sport, however. Along with Olympic discus champion Mac Wilkins, Burke formed Explorer Post 813 in San Jose as a way to introduce youngsters to the joys of throwing. The hammer is not allowed in California Interscholastic Federation events due to safety concerns.
Burke and Wilkins constructed throwing cages next to Highway 85 and enlisted the help of other world-class athletes training in the San Jose area. Two of their hammer throwers, Dave Popejoy and Kevin McMahon, later qualified for U.S. Olympic teams. Thirty of the Explorer Post throwers competed at Division I schools.
Burke took up surfing and became an avid mountain biker and golfer. But as his 65th birthday approached, he took stock of his declining health and decided it was time to get back into shape. The stronger he got, the greater the itch to throw again.
“I like training, but I like training for a purpose,” Burke said.
In 2005, in his first competition in 21 years, Burke broke the world and U.S. records in the 65-69 age class, throwing the 11-pound implement 175-9. He extended the record to 182-10 in Sacramento the following year. He is the defending U.S. champion and recently threw 169-6 to win the Pacific Association title in Folsom. He plans to compete in the World Masters Athletics Championships this summer in Finland.
“I don’t really care far I throw,” Burke said. “I like the movement. It’s a puzzle. It’s been a puzzle my whole life.”
The Napa native entered San Jose State in the late 1950s on a football scholarship. He discovered the hammer while in college, switched sports and soon became a national-class thrower.
Burke placed seventh at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. He continued climbing the ladder, ranking fourth in the world in 1965 and 1966. When he set his U.S. record of 235-11 at the 1967 AAU Championships in Bakersfield, he moved to second on the all-time world list.
“That was the high point of my career, throwing-wise,” Burke said. “I threw a meter farther than anyone else in the world that year. I felt like I’ve got it.”
The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were the low point. Considered a medal contender entering the final, he twice started turning in the slick circle but aborted the effort to start over. Twice an official called him for a foul, even though the rule had been changed to allow a thrower to start his motion over, provided the ball didn’t touch the ground outside the circle.
Despite Burke’s protestations, he didn’t get a do-over, and he finished 12th.
“It was a nightmare,” Burke said. “I thought, I’ve spent my entire life for this? Forget it. I can start a family and start a regular life.”
The lengthy retirements allowed Burke to live a regular life. He and his wife sold the athletic club a couple of years ago. They’re skipping this year’s USA Masters Championships to go on a family vacation.
“I’m a full-time granddad and a part-time vintner,” said Burke, who lives in the hills above Los Gatos.
Perhaps, but there is nothing ordinary about the contributions he’s made to the sport over the course of his stop-and-start career.
“Ed is very passionate about throwing and the benefits it brings to young people,” said Wilkins, who now coaches track at Concordia University and runs the Oregon Throwers Academy. “He’s also a very competitive guy.”
Burke looks forward to competing in the 2010 USA Masters Championships and 2011 WMA Championships, both of which will be held in Sacramento.
“I’ll be 70 by then, and it’s fun to set records in a new age group. But I’ve got Tom Gage lurking behind me,” Burke said, referring to the 1972 Olympian who recently entered the 65-69 age classification.
When his grandkids and their friends come to play, Burke is thrilled to see them want to imitate the way Mario throws the hammer in the popular video game, “Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games.”
“The kids go out back and throw rubber balls that have ropes attached to them,” Burke said. “They want to be like Mario. Maybe this computer game can revolutionize hammer throwing.”