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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | BILL PLASCHKE

Our Hal Getting Close to His Own Centennial

July 28, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

This country's oldest living Olympic medalist cannot read today's newspaper, because he is legally blind.

And it would be difficult for someone to read it to him, because he can hear only with his left ear, and then only if someone screams.

He walks among us blessed, Mr. Hal Haig Prieste, a 99-year-old man whose Olympics consist of kings and jesters, not bombs.

"We didn't tell him," said Carolyn La Maina, a friend and Atlanta chaperone. "And we aren't going to tell him."

During Saturday's post-tragedy madness, Prieste was that breath you needed to catch.

He sat in a chair in a renovated midtown mansion and spoke of the wildest thing that happened to him during his trip to Antwerp, Belgium, for the 1920 Olympics.

That would be when he stole several Olympic flags before outracing the bicycling policemen.

"They were made of beautiful Irish linen, like brand new," he said.

And he's even Our Hal, a Fresno native who dived for the Los Angeles Athletic Club in the Olympics before continuing his Southland career by working with Charlie Chaplin as one of the Keystone Kops.

He later moved into vaudeville, surfing and ice skating before finally . . . well, he hasn't retired just yet.

For two hours every day in his Lindenwold, N.J., home, Prieste works at his job of inspiring American senior citizens.

He exercises.

With hockey sticks.

"I balance them on the top of my head," he said. "I juggle them."

While sitting on the toilet.

Bringing us to his philosophy of life.

"I would not shrink from crucifixion," he said. "No sacrifice would be too great."

It was a pain for Prieste simply to come to Atlanta this week, and not because he couldn't find anything to juggle.

He is not thrilled that the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games did not select him to participate in the opening ceremonies.

That show was stolen by Leon Stukelj, 97, the oldest living Olympic gold medalist who bounded around the center of the field as if he was 27.

Prieste would not have bounded, but he can certainly walk, considering he rides a stationary bike at home.

And think of the hockey sticks. Think of the possibilities.

"They did not use him because they determined he couldn't walk up the steps," La Maina said. "But if somebody was with him to guide him, he could have done it fine. It was disappointing."

But leave it to Prieste to find a bright spot.

"I didn't watch the ceremonies," he said. "I can't see."

La Maina said officials have told her Prieste--born Nov. 23, 1896--is the oldest living Olympian, period.

He certainly could be the only one who shares a birth year with the modern Olympic Games.

He is definitely the only one who has skated with a broom on his head.

"I was a very good ice skater, did I tell you about that?" he asks.

But he will be forever known for his diving, which earned him the bronze after he finished with what he says are four spectacular dives.

He still finished nearly 40 points behind champion Clarence Pinkston, also from the United States.

Prieste was then treated to a royal tour through Europe, which included an interesting dive into the Seine River. Interesting, because the landlocked Eiffel Tower was directly behind him.

"There is a photo of that dive that makes it look like I jumped from the Eiffel Tower," he said.

Setting the record straight, he added, "But I did not."

His departure from Europe was far more pleasant than his arrival, which was on a boat filled with caskets for the bodies of U.S. soldiers still remaining from World War I.

"Caskets all over the boat," Hal said. "And shrapnel still on the ground when we got there."

Our Hal added some flavor to those first postwar Games when he walked up to receive his medal from a king.

"I did a comedy walk and took a pratfall," he said.

A Keystone Kop was born. He was discovered by movie people looking for Southern California athletes, and soon was wearing two uniforms a day.

"We had two because it was rough and tumble, so we tore them all up," he said.

He remembers rehearsing in Balboa, Redondo, Ocean Park.

"All of those places were in the middle of nowhere," he said.

Unlike him, now squarely in the middle of an Olympic history that terrorists cannot diminish.

Hours after the most terrible Olympic incident in 24 years, Hal Haig Prieste's bronze medal had fallen from the arm of his chair and wedged alongside a cushion. The inseam of his pants was split. The TV lights were making his eyes water.

"Who wants to hear about me and the Olympics?" he barked, and there wasn't a soul here who wouldn't want to.

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