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December 19, 2008

World Record Holder, Olympian and Naval Academy Track Coach Al Cantello Honored by His Alma Mater, La Salle University

Al Cantello
La Salle Alumni Association President Jim Ahern, '70 (left),
and La Salle President Brother Michael J. McGinniss
present Al Cantello with the John J. Finley Award.

Al Cantello went from working nights at a factory to holding a world record in the javelin, making the U.S. Olympic team and coaching at the Naval Academy for more than 40 years. The bridge between those two lives was La Salle University, which gave him a scholarship. Since then, Cantello has been giving back to his alma mater in many ways, and the University honored him recently with its John W. Finley Award, presented to an alumnus who has shown outstanding service to the University.

“I was working in an asbestos factory for two years after high school, so I’m committed to La Salle for the rest of my life, and maybe after,” says Cantello, who graduated in 1955. “I’m an unabashed supporter.”

A native of Norristown, Cantello “was the oldest surviving son of a widow, and I had to support my family after graduating Norristown High School,” says Cantello. “But I was dumb enough, or cunning enough, to stay in condition in the event that something would break and it did.”

In 1951 or 1952, he attended a sports banquet held at a Norristown firehouse, and met Joe Verdeur, a La Salle graduate who won a gold medal in the 1948 Olympics in the breast stroke.  Verdeur put Cantello in touch with Frank Wexler, La Salle’s track coach.

“He lobbied for me with the University’s President,” said Cantello. “I was probably the first track athlete offered a scholarship.”

“There must be some divine compass or something steering me on the right path,” he says. “If I don’t go to a high school that throws the javelin, I’m selling soft pretzels.”

In addition to the track scholarship, Cantello says La Salle gave him something equally important. “All my friends from high school were at colleges, and I was on a dead-end road, and whatever self worth I had needed to be rekindled, and La Salle did that.”

His contributions to La Salle include the commissioning of a bronze statue of Verdeur, now on display at the Hayman Center, the University’s athletics facility, and helping the University acquire an all-weather track.

While at La Salle, Cantello was twice named to the Track and Field All-American team. He won the javelin contest at four straight Mid-Atlantic Conference Track and Field Championships and three times won the javelin toss at the Penn Relays. (In 1992, Cantello served as an honorary referee at the Penn Relays, an honor only one coach receives at the annual event.) 

In addition to track, Cantello was a diver on La Salle’s swim team, even though he had limited experience when he joined the squad. After only one year, he became one of the team’s top performers

The University’s student newspaper, the Collegian, referred to him as “Mr. Versatility.”

He was enshrined as a charter member of La Salle’s Hall of Athletes in 1961.

After graduating from La Salle, Cantello enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and continued to compete. In 1959, he set a world record in the javelin with a toss of 282 feet and three inches. He made the U.S. Olympic team in 1960, where he finished 10th.  (He was suffering a bout of dysentery and could not use an American style javelin but has no regrets of the experience.)

In 1964, SPORT magazine polled 62 track coaches for an all-time track and field team. Cantello was voted the top javelin athlete.

“Only 5’7” and 163 pounds, Cantello gave away a half-foot in height and 20 pounds to most competitors. But Cantello was known for getting the most out of his limited assets,” the magazine reported. “He was exciting, too, the way he threw his whole body into a throw, sometimes going into a head first landing.”

Since 1963, Cantello has been coaching at the U.S. Naval Academy, as head coach for its cross-country team, as head coach of the entire track and field squad, and now serves as an assistant to current head coach, Stephen Cooksey. His squads had a record of 290-65-4. He was named NCAA Mid-Atlantic Coach of the Year three times.