Dave Laut knew that qualifying for the Oxnard City Fire Department would not be easy, but at 6 feet, 4 inches and 257 pounds, he felt he had all the physical tools necessary to complete the task.
What he never considered, however, was that attempting to meet those requirements might nearly end his career as a world-class shotput thrower.
The former Santa Clara High standout was halfway through a firefighter's agility test--which involved running with one end of a hose until it was fully uncoiled--when he tore the tendons that attach to the quadriceps on both knees.
"My legs hurt at first, but I was more numb than anything else," said Laut, who suddenly found himself on the ground, unable to walk. "I was wearing a pair of sweats so when I looked down I could see a big divot in each leg above the kneecap. I was kind of shocky for a little while, but then I realized what happened and said, 'Well, hell. That's the way it goes.' "
The injury, which took place two years ago, was the result of years of intense weight training. It severed the quadricep tendons in each leg and would have terminated many athletic careers, but not Laut's. The 1984 Olympic bronze medalist in the shotput, Laut will compete in the U. S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Indianapolis on Friday.
Since the comeback, Laut, 31, has failed to match his pre-injury bests. But he has been given an excellent chance of finishing in the top three at the trials, which would qualify him for his second Olympic team.
"He should get a comeback-of-the-year award," said Sam Adams, the coach at UC Santa Barbara and Laut's personal coach since 1979. "If this injury had happened to anyone else, they probably would have retired. But Dave never let that enter his mind. His attitude was, 'I'm going to come back.' There was never any question in his mind that he would return."
This did not mean that Laut's rehabilitation from surgery--which reattached both tendons to his knees--was painless or without tribulation.
He had to wear full leg casts for the first 10 days. That was followed by several months in walking casts, flexible knee braces that restrict the angle of movement in the joint.
"It was a pain," Laut said as he reclined in a chair at his Oxnard home. "For the first 10 days, I was in incredible pain because my legs started to swell up in the casts. The pressure on my Achilles' was almost unbearable."
Despite the pain, the boyishly handsome Laut remained positive on the outside. Inside, however, there was doubt.
"You don't know how many times this past two years I almost gave up," Laut said. "There was always a question in my mind on whether or not I could come back. But I just kept going."
Dave's father, Jim Laut, noticed the frustration.
"There were some days when he was pretty aggravated," he said. "But he said from the start that he was going to come back from the injury come hell or high water."
The only major problem he encountered, Jim Laut joked, was moving a 275-pound man, in full leg casts, to and from the bathroom.
Humor is a common characteristic that helps form a close bond between the Lauts, who still joke about the ambulance ride to the hospital after Dave's injury.
"It was a $192 ride to the hospital, which was about 2 miles away," Dave said. "Hell, I would have walked if I had known that."
Jim was equally humorous when asked why he started coaching Dave when the would-be Olympian was just getting started.
"I was a sucker," he said. "When Dave first started throwing the shot in grade school, he needed someone to throw it back to him and I did that."
But Jim was more than a shot retriever for his son. He coached Dave during an outstanding high school career that culminated in a second-place finish in the 1975 CIF State track and field championships in San Diego.
That was the year Laut began to take the shotput seriously. Before then, he had performed well in the event--he put the shot 59 feet, 7 inches as a junior--but he had never dedicated himself to it.
He was a three-sport star at Santa Clara who was hoping to earn a college football scholarship. But as a senior, Laut dropped basketball to concentrate on the shot and it paid off as he improved to 65-9 with the 12-pound shot, losing the state championship to Newport Harbor's Dave Kurrasch by a half-inch.
Laut played football and put the shot for Moorpark College in 1975-76 but dropped football before transferring to San Jose City College in the fall.
"I figured, why continue to get beat up in football when I was better at track" Laut said. "It was the best move I ever made for my track career. Many of the best throwers in the country were training in San Jose then. Guys like Al Feuerbach, Mac Wilkins and John Powell. I learned a lot from them. It was a great atmosphere for a thrower to train in."
Not coincidentally, 1977 was the first year that Laut made the national list. His 61-9 1/2 with the 16-pound ball ranked 25th in the country.