OSU athlete copes with shot put death of official

Published 12:47 am Tuesday, June 16, 2009

COLUMBUS — The first time Patrick Whalen saw Paul Suzuki it was already too late.

The 13.2-pound shot put had left the right hand of the barrel-chested Buckeye and started on its trajectory into the southern California sky.

No prayers could alter its three-second flight. No shouts of warning could alert the 77-year-old track official.

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Long ago, coaches had taught Whalen to be careful throwing track-and-field implements used in ancient times as instruments of war. On this day, he had followed proper etiquette, scanning the V-shaped shot-put sector before launching the metal ball.

What he couldn’t account for, however, was the generosity of a longtime volunteer who picked the worst moment to cross the range to assist a fellow official.

‘‘Nobody blamed me, but all I could think about was this one official, this one voice from behind me yelling, ’Oh, no, what have you done?’’’ Whalen said.

Four years ago, on a sun-baked afternoon in Carson, Calif., a shot put hurled in a practice session of a junior national track meet changed the lives of two families.

It also reduced a gregarious Ohio State freshman to a fragile 19-year-old haunted by memories and prone to bouts of depression.

‘‘I don’t think we’ve ever had the same thrower who walked in the door here,’’ Buckeyes track assistant coach Kevin Mannon. ‘‘He has done a nice job getting through it the best he can.’’

Whalen still sees visions of Suzuki. He sees him in the shot put and discus rings as he prepares for meets; he sees him when his mind is unoccupied; he sees him at night when he closes his eyes.

He has wanted to reach out and contact the Suzukis, but has yet to do so. Whalen often thinks of them and has wondered what they must think of him.

Sheila Suzuki had just returned home from teaching school on June 22, 2005, when her mother, Dorothy, called from next door of their West Los Angeles apartments.

There had been a track accident involving Sheila’s father.

Paul Suzuki, a second generation Japanese-American, had devoted decades to volunteering his time to officiating track meets and other sports. A retired landscape maintenance worker, he enjoyed donning his red blazer and working track events throughout southern California.

Suzuki had suffered a heart attack in his 50s and several mini-strokes, but his declining health could not temper his love of community service.

Sheila had understood the inherent dangers of track meets with their airborne javelins and discuses and the organized chaos of hundreds of athletes and officials running from place to place. Nothing, though, prepared Sheila for her mom’s call.

‘‘She told me dad had been hit in the head by a shot put and we had to go to the hospital,’’ Sheila said.

In the late afternoon, Suzuki was standing in the stadium infield at the Home Depot Center as shot putters were taking practice rounds. As he saw a fellow official in need of assistance, eyewitnesses say, Suzuki walked across the sector just as an Ohio State freshman was throwing a shot.

Spectators, competitors and coaches shouted at Suzuki, who wore a hearing aid. The ball struck him on the left side of the head, knocking him to the ground. He was breathing, but unconscious. Medical staff worked on the elderly man as athletes knelt and prayed, according to a report.