Though it’s a nation of modest success on the track and in the field, Austria has given the athletics world legendary physio Benny Obermüller. SPIKES' good friend Olaf Brockmann talks to the man with the golden hands.
Austria is mostly known as a winter sports nation and does not play a big role in international athletics. That said, this season athletics has been gaining momentum, with discus thrower Lukas Weißhaidinger reaching sixth place at the 2016 Rio Olympics and Sarah Lagger, only 16, winning heptathlon gold at the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz. But even though big successes have been few and far between, the alpine republic has had at least one major export in the world of international athletics – 72-year-old Benny Obermüller, the man with the golden hands.
The Austrian, who calls himself a “fitness coach”, is highly sought after at the international level as a physio and massage therapist. There are plenty of “stars” in his profession, but Obermüller is something of a living legend. He divides his time between Jamaica, South Africa, and Kenya and is of course at work at all the big meetings and championships every summer - sometimes around the clock. He counts many Olympic and world champions among the exceptional athletes who are currently banking on his abilities, for instance Asafa Powell, Elaine Thompson and Caster Semenya.
“To me he is the best, I trust him like no-one else”, says Powell. The road to the top was, however, a long and difficult one for the Austrian.
Obermüller himself was a pretty decent soccer player in Ried in Upper Austria until a long period of injury forced his hand and led him to train as a physiotherapist and massage therapist. After a soccer match in Vöcklabruck in 1979, the then 13-year-old high jumper Sigrid Kirchmann asked him for help. It was his entrance into athletics. From then on Obermüller accompanied Kirchmann’s career, which culminated in a bronze medal at the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart.
His work with Kirchmann paved Obermüller’s way to the international athletics circuit. At a training camp on Lanzarote, Frankie Fredericks and Erki Nool approached him. They were immediately impressed with his art and hired him from then on. A few decathletes soon added themselves to his client list. His roster of world-class athletes kept growing.
“Many of them would get up from the massage table and just say 'thank you, thank you, thank you',” the 72-year-old recalls with a smile. “I must have something that others don’t!” His further training in Chinese medicine must also have helped. He repeatedly attended courses in Schärding (in Austria) and in Shanghai.
And there is another factor that made Obermüller a favourite worldwide: his happy disposition. “I don’t have any negative thoughts,” he insists. He transfers his optimism to the athletes. Always cheerful, always laughing, that is how Obermüller is known. It is unlikely that anyone has ever seen him with a grim face.
And so his path of success continues. Athletes are queuing up to be treated by him, sometimes literally. He just schedules everything and everyone precisely. Everyone gets their turn, even if that means that there is no time left for himself. Always in the service of the athletes, and proud when those golden victories finally happen – and happen they do. Maria Mutola, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Francis Obikwelu, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi, Giuseppe Gibilisco, Lolo Jones, Kerron Stewart, Brigitte Foster, Delloreen Ennis-London and Kenia Sinclair are just some of the names that spontaneously come to his mind when asked who he has worked with over the years.
Obermüller remains restless, torn in a back-and-forth between continents, from one star to the other: a global commuter in the service of athletics. You can hardly tell his 72 years, he is incredibly fit for his age. He has never had to endure a serious illness, never had an operation.
“I have great genes,” he grins. And once again, his laugh is infectious. The man with the golden hands is likely to stay with the athletes for a long time to come. After all, he says, “my father lived to 100!”