Gold medalist still marvels at haunting encounter

Ralph Fruguglietti in Bakersfield Californian photo by Casey Christie.

Ralph Fruguglietti and family returned from Riccione late last Tuesday. His gold medal in the M50 discus, poised for framing, now rests in his Shafter home in California’s Central Valley. Ralph, 52, is back at work as owner/operator of a popular Italian restaurant, where student-athletes from nearby Cal State Bakersfield carbo-load on lasagna and calzones. But Ralph will never stop savoring the magical events of early September — a cross between “Field of Dreams” and “The Twilight Zone,” when he received crucial advice from a mysterious figure.

Ralph and I chatted by phone for an hour Friday, where he gave the first detailed account of his incredible encounter with an old man at a track between Mestre and Venice in northern Italy. Ralph confirmed and corrected Tom Fahey’s original account, posted here and elsewhere.
If anything, it’s even spookier than first depicted.
Contacted by cell phone at his restaurant, Frugatti’s Italian Eatery, before the dinner rush, Ralph told of his visit to his native Italy — a dream vacation even without the world masters championships. He traveled with a dozen people, including his thrower daughter Katina.
Here is Ralph’s story (updated 8 p.m. Sept. 25):
The Fruguglietti entourage, which included friends and cousins, left for Italy on September 4, reaching London on the 5th and Venice on the 6th — giving Ralph plenty of time to acclimate to the time change. The M50 discus would be on September 10 at Misano Adriatico. Even though his season best in the shot (an indoor 15.87/52-0 3/4) would have won at worlds, he decided to forgo that event, held September 9.

Ralph training at Shafter High School; photo by Casey Christie of the Bakersfield Californian.

When Ralph got into Venice, about 100 miles north of Riccione, he asked a lady at the front desk where he might go to practice, saying, “I’d even take a piece of concrete and grass. Or even just concrete.”
The hotel staffer told Ralph of a place a half-hour away. So at 8 in the morning September 7, a Friday, he hopped a bus west for Parco San Giuliano.
Upon arrival, Ralph was blown away. The park was huge. He had to ask someone where the track was.
“Go over the bridge and 200 meters to the left,” he was told.
“My expectations were so low,” Ralph said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, if I had found a 1 or 2 I would have been happy.” Instead he got an 11. As soon as he turned the corner, and went through the gate, he found a brand new track, even a throwing cage, surrounded by tall evergreens. (Click here to see Google Earth view a couple years ago.)
“Everything is perfect. It was gorgeous” — and all to himself at 8:30 in the morning. Not a soul around.
But he noticed a flaw — the infield grass was trimmed to perfection, but a portion just near the discus ring was 4 inches high. No matter. He began warming up.
“After I take a few throws, I see a guy on a lawnmower,” Ralph recalls. The old man is watching him. After 15-20 throws, the mower “stops between me and where the discus lands, and asks in Italian: ‘How old are you? You have very good technique. But if you slow down out of the back (of the ring), I think you’ll do better.’ ”
The advice not only is stunning in its sophistication — coming from a complete stranger — but also psychic in a way. That previous Monday, Ralph’s world-class coach in Bakersfield — Scott Semar — had told him the same thing: “You rush everything. Slow down in the back.”
Ralph, still amazed at the stranger’s advice, points out. “That’s not what most people would tell you. They’d probably say something generic.” Ralph entertained the thought that Coach Scott back in California had somehow arranged for this park custodian to give him this concrete reminder.
The old man on the mower took off.
After a long last throw, Ralph saw the old mower again, behind the cage.
“He gives me an OK sign and says, Molto bene (“Very good”),” Ralph recalled, deeming this acknowledgment that Ralph had taken his advice.
Ralph saw the old man one last time, which he described in email to me:

The last time I saw the old mower . . . I went past (the dressing room) and did not see anyone near it or in the entrance. When I approached the gate to leave, I turned for one last look and out of the corner of my eye I saw him in the distance in the doorway of the dressing room giving me a final wave goodby and a nod of the head as if to say “You’re ready, good luck.” Then he vanished from the doorway back into the dressing room. That is when I began to smile and shake my head in disbelief of the events that just happened.

Ralph threw for Italy internationally in the late 1970s and won two silver medals in the NCAA championships as a USC discus thrower, but the park training session beat all.
“I’ve gone to practice thousands of times,” Ralph said. “It was almost an out-of-body experience. . . . Everything was so surreal. Literally, it was like I walked into a discus-throwing Pleasantville.”
When Ralph ran into Tom Fahey, a fellow thrower from central California, Ralph said: You’re not going to believe this. He told Tom the story of the old man’s advice.
Tom asked: “Did you get the guy’s name?” Ralph had not.
Soon afterward, Ralph began an Internet search, and discovered that an Italian discus thrower named Adolfo Consolini had won gold in the 1948 London Olympics and silver in the 1952 Games. He bettered the world record three times between 1941 and 1948.
Consolini was born in 1917 in Verona, Italy — only 60 miles away from Park Sanjuliani.
On the Net, Ralph found a picture of Consolini, and it looked a lot like the man giving discus tips at Parco San Giuliano. The man on the mower appeared to be in his early 60s.
But Ralph was stunned to learn that Consolini had died in 1969.
Had he been coached by a spirit — or Consolini’s son?
No time for further research. Ralph had to refocus.
On September 10 came the trials of the M50 discus, where he was in qualifying Group A. On his lone throw that morning, Ralph went 56.51/185-4 — easily the best mark in qualifying.
In the afternoon, however, Ralph was shocked to learn that 20 of the 42 entrants made the final — everyone who exceeded 40 meters. This meant a change in strategy. Even though throws were being measured by laser ( instead of tape), Ralph realized he wouldn’t step into the ring but every 20 to 25 minutes. So rather than worrying about warming up again and again, he resolved to make his first effort his best.
“You have to go all-out,” he said.
And that he did — with the winning 59.61 (195-7).
As it turned out, the 2-hour final saw him exceed silver medalist Neville Thompson on four of his five legal throws. The Briton Thompson (57.01/187-0) — the defending M50 champion who stands 6-7 and weighs 300 pounds — and bronze medalist Gejza Valent of the Czech Republic (56.66/185-10) both threw personal records, Ralph says.
Eight days later — after visiting Florence, Rome and two dozen relatives in southern Italy from Naples and his old hometown of Grumento Nova — Ralph and family were back in California. In the meantime, I had posted Tom’s account of Ralph’s ghostly training session, and had written to at least five news outlets. I had hoped that, at least, his hometown paper would contact him. They didn’t.
A features writer from the USC Daily Trojan (the student newspaper) expressed interest, and wrote me for Ralph’s contact information. I directed her to his Bakersfield restaurant. But as of Friday, she hadn’t talked to Ralph either.
So when I phoned Ralph two days ago, I didn’t know what to expect. Certainly, he’s one of the best masters throwers in the world. But was he a flake? Would this be a case of overactive imagination?
Neither, I learned. Speaking with no Italian accent (since he moved to America at age 6), Ralph spoke intelligently and rationally. He’s as amazed at his story as others have been. (And some have been outright dismissive).
After jotting down details of his Riccione experience, I asked how the world masters meet compared with his other major events. Ralph said, “This was a little bit different.”
He competed for Italy in the European championships, but 30 years later, he was wearing a U.S. uniform for the first time. He became an American citizen only five years, ago despite growing up here, getting a business management degree at USC and starting three restaurants (two of them now sold).
“For me, that was a really neat experience,” Ralph said of representing the United States at words. “I had never worn a USA uniform” in international competition, he said.
I asked about how his family came to America.
Ralph says his father was a cabinetmaker who was held as a German prisoner of war in Albania for three years. Surviving the Nazis but not the postwar economy, Ralph’s father moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1956, then brought Ralph’s older sister in 1958 and finally Ralph and his wife in 1960. They settled in the East Bay town of Albany, near Berkeley.
Ralph (born 3/12/1955) lucked out in Albany. His first-grade teacher at Cornell Elementary School, a Mrs. Marini, spoke Italian, helping Ralph make the language transition. (Ralph says he maintained fluency in his native tongue because his father spoke only Italian until his death at age 91 four years ago.)
Ralph won a four-year track scholarship to the University of Southern California, and despite his 6-1, 255-pound physique was not asked to try out for football. (Ralph says USC respected the sports of its athletes in those days.)
After graduating from USC with a business management degree in 1976 and getting engaged to Anne, his California-born and raised bride, Italy called. They wanted him to move to Milan and train for the Italian Olympic team. But Ralph had just started work for IBM and opted against the move.
Ralph says that 10 years ago, when one of his sons began throwing at a small private Christian school, he volunteered to help coach.
“Hey, I can throw this thing pretty well,” he discovered after demonstrating the discus. He began entering masters meets, winning bronze in the M40 discus at the 1999 Orlando nationals and golds in the M45 shot and discus at the 2000 Eugene masters nationals. Soon he was among the top-ranked throwers in the world. At the 2005 nationals in Hawaii, he took the discus title.
Today he’s busy with the Bakersfield restaurant, a successful enterprise. He’s hired some very good managers for the business, who afford him time to train. He also boasts a “very good chiropractor” and acupuncturist, and complains of few problems but a weak back.
Next season, Ralph wants to update his shot technique — moving from the traditional glide to the new spin. He figures he has an advantage as a discus thrower. He says he’s now 6-1 and 265 pounds — and stronger than he was at USC, when he threw the 2-kilogram disc 202 feet. But he admits to having lost fast-twitch fibers, so he’s happy to be throwing nearly 200 feet with a 1.5-kilo implement. (And still squatting over 600 pounds.)
At Frugatti’s Italian Eatery, he says the specialties are “really good steak,” lasagna, calzones and a “killer garlic chicken fettucini.”
When his Riccione medal is framed and hanged at the restaurant, however, he’ll have something else on the menu — delicious proof of one of the greatest masters track stories ever told.

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September 23, 2007

3 Responses

  1. Tom Fahey - September 23, 2007

    Well done!
    Tom Fahey

  2. Francis A Schiro - September 24, 2007

    Im in total agreement with Tom..GREAT JOB Ken!! and great job to Ralph and Tom as well.

  3. Mike Budincich M50 - September 26, 2007

    Ralph was my teammate at USC and have remained in close contact. Hard worker extroirdenaire. Disciplined. I wish I would have been there with him to see the 195+ throw, and been able to throw in M50 shot. Maybe next year Ill be in better shape.

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