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Writing in 1934, Harold Abrahams stated: “It is, of course, a matter of opinion as to who is the greatest sprinter that this country has ever produced, but if we could line them all up together on the track at their best, I believe that Willie Applegarth would flash past the tape first.” That’s quite an endorsement of Applegarth’s prowess, considering it came from the man who, ten years before that article appeared, was crowned Britain’s first Olympic 100m champion. Applegarth was – like Abrahams after him – coached by the legendary Sam Mussabini.
It was in 1912 that Willie established himself as the nation’s premier sprinter – at the AAA Championships he was second to a South African in the 100 yards and won the 220 yards in 22.0. He was eliminated in his Olympic 100m semi-final at Stockholm but made amends by gaining a bronze medal in the 200m. Drawn in the inside lane, Willie ran in storming fashion around the turn and entered the straight slightly ahead but he could not sustain the effort and two Americans surged past. In his eighth race in five days, he clocked a valiant 22.0 in third place after equalling the Olympic record of 21.9 in his semi-final. In between the two individual sprints, he became the proud possessor of a gold medal in company with David Jacobs, Henry Macintosh and Vic d’Arcy. With Willie on the anchor leg, the British quartet won the inaugural Olympic 4x100m relay final by two metres from Sweden in 42.4. The clear-cut favourites, the USA, had been disqualified in the semi-finals.
Willie struck his best form of the 1912 season in September when he set an English 220 yards record of 21.8 and was timed at a world record equalling 10.6 for 100m in Prague, running off scratch in a handicap race (but it couldn’t count as the track was ruled downhill). Next year he became the first home athlete to score a AAA sprint double, his times being 10.0 and a record 21.6. Later in the season he added his name to the English 100 yards record list with a time of 9.8.
He enjoyed an even finer double at the 1914 AAA Championships: the 100 in 10.0 and the 220 in 21.2. The furlong mark, around the sharp Stamford Bridge bends, proved to be the greatest achievement of a distinguished career. It stood as a world record for the curved event until 1932 and as the UK best until 1958! “I was in the crowd as a schoolboy of 14 and watched Applegarth that afternoon,” Harold Abrahams recalled many years later. “I can still see that short, well-built figure travelling round the track at an unbelievable speed and running to an easy victory. I can remember trying to imitate his perfect style but I never, with all the hard work I subsequently indulged in, ever anything like approached to his machine-like precision.”
At the height of his fame Willie turned professional and in no time established himself as ‘world champion’. He settled in the United States in 1922 and died there in 1958 aged 68 … still holder of the AAA Championships 220 yards record .
Jenny Archer is best known as the Londoner who coaches David Weir, and with whom she set up the Weir Archer Academy following their successes, including David’s historic four gold medal haul at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
Jenny is a modern and innovative thinker and coach who, as a former 400m and 800m runner, understands the demands placed on athletes in all aspects of their athletics lives. She’s known as a determined task master quoted as saying, “sometimes people need a kick up the backside and that’s exactly what I give them”.
What may not be well known is that, in 1987, Jenny was approached by Wimbledon FC manager, Bobby Gould, and his assistant, Don Howe, to run a fitness programme for the infamous ‘Crazy Gang’, including Vinnie Jones and Dennis Wise. A historic season followed as they won their first and only FA Cup with victory over that year’s favourites, Liverpool FC.
Jenny first met David Weir at London’s Tooting Bec running track when he was just eight years old. At the time, she was on the lookout for talented disabled athletes to compete at the London Youth Games. Around this time, Jenny went to work with Wimbledon FC and David progressed to make his Paralympic debut at Atlanta 1996 (aged 17). However, unimpressed by the experience he quit the sport soon after.
Following the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, where Paralympic sport was given a higher profile and featured inspirational performances from British athletes, David decided to return to the sport in time for Athens 2004 and contacted Jenny for help. This pairing brought almost instant success, with David winning the London Marathon a couple of months later, before going on to win silver and bronze medals in Athens. It was after Athens that Jenny and David set out to be the best in the World, to break world records and win gold medals.
The challenging training regime that Jenny puts in place, as well as her understanding of performance aspects such as psychology and mental strength, added to her great technical know-how, has proven to be a winning formula. Her brave coaching style has driven athletes out of their comfort zones and encouraged them to find their inner-inner strength. Her catalogue of coaching successes speaks for itself – including coaching three athletes to the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, an FA Cup win with Wimbledon FC, a mass of London Marathon and Silverstone Half Marathon victories plus a multitude of medals across Paralympic Games, Commonwealth Games, IPC European Championships and IPC World Championships.
Following London 2012, Jenny and David created the Weir Archer Academy – a wheelchair racing athletics club that started out providing training opportunities and equipment for new and existing athletes that is now the largest wheelchair racing club in the UK.
Conscious that his best 100 yards time of 9.7 was not fast enough to enable him to excel at 200m, Robbie Brightwell reluctantly decided to move up a distance in preparation for the 1960 Olympics. “If I was good enough in the sprints I would sit tight and count my blessings,” he remarked. However, he lost little time in becoming Britain’s fastest one-lapper at the time. At the Rome Olympics he set a UK 400m record of 46.1 in his semi, failing only by inches to make the final. It was some performance by a 20-year-old in his first year at the event!
Robbie enjoyed a magnificent season in 1962. He won the AAA 440 yards title almost casually in 45.9, worth 45.6 for 400m, for a European record only 0.2 sec outside the World record. He ran another 45.9, this time over 400m, in capturing the European title but an attack of dysentery on the eve of the 440 yards final weakened him at the Commonwealth Games and he was narrowly beaten into second place. A foot injury caused him to miss most of the 1963 campaign although, leading by example, he captained the British men’s team to a sensational victory over Russia in Volgograd.
He made it known that 1964 would be his final season and he trained ferociously that winter, believing that the Olympic victor would be the strongest and not necessarily the fastest man in the field. Concentrating on improving his stamina, early in 1964 he ran 880 yards in an impressive 1:48.1 (worth 1:47.4 for 800m), but his preparations were interrupted as he constantly fought officialdom while campaigning for international athletes’ rights in those days of amateur athletics.
Hopes of a gold medal rose when he won his semi-final in Tokyo in a UK record equalling 45.7, but in the final Olympic nerves claimed another victim. He ran too fast over the first 200m and, although he again clocked 45.7, he finished fourth – a failure in his own eyes. That was his last individual race but, happily, he redeemed himself with a truly heroic anchor leg in the 4x400m relay.
Inspired by his fiancée Ann Packer’s gold medal triumph in the 800m, Robbie was determined to leave with a medal of his own. Despite good work by Tim Graham, Adrian Metcalfe and John Cooper, he received the baton in fourth place some two or three metres behind Trinidad and Jamaica, with the USA well in front. Running with fine judgement and what he termed “cold determination” he caught Jamaica’s George Kerr 55m from the tape and took Trinidad’s Wendell Mottley just 5m from the line in a stirring finish. The crowd rose to Robbie in admiration for one of the gutsiest performances of the Games. From fourth to second in 50m – the British fighting spirit, so much in evidence in Tokyo, had won through again. His split was 44.8 and the team had run a European record of 3:01.6 – inside the old world record.
After the Games Robbie married Ann, who had also brought her running career to an end. They are now the second married couple to enter the Hall of Fame (after Ron and Jean Pickering), Ann having been inducted in 2009.
Paul Dickenson is best known to the public as a long serving athletics commentator for BBC Television alongside the likes of fellow Hall of Fame inductees David Coleman, Ron Pickering, Stuart Storey, Brendan Foster and Steve Cram. In his younger days, he was an international hammer thrower and UK record breaker. More recently he has built up an enviable reputation as a coach of young hammer throwers, passing on his wealth of experience and technical know-how.
Paul first attracted the attention of Athletics Weekly back in 1965 when he was featured in the ‘Spotlight on Youth’ column and described as “the most exciting youth hammer thrower Britain has ever had”. Although he started his athletics career at 800m and cross country, he was introduced to the hammer by his PE master at Tynemouth Grammar School, Carl Johnson, himself inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017. Carl continued to coach Dickenson throughout his career – early highlights including five consecutive English Schools titles between 1964 and 1968, and becoming AAA junior champion in 1967 and 1968. In 1967, he took part in Britain’s first full junior international match against France, team-mates including Tony Simmons, Ian Stewart, Geoff Capes and Mike Winch.
A rugby injury in 1967 impaired his progress for a number of years and it wasn’t until 1975 that he graduated to the British senior team, placing second in the European Cup semi-final with his first throw beyond 70 metres. The following year he held the UK record for three months with throws of 72.36 in Johannesburg and 73.20 in Kiev. He went on to compete in the 1976 and 1980 Olympics and the Commonwealth Games of 1978 (fourth) and 1982 (fifth).
In 1975, Paul stated he intended to compete “as long as my wife lets me! As a Vet” and would stay in athletics after retirement as a coach. He continued throwing competitively well into his sixties and hammer throwers he has coached include 2018 World U20 champion, Jake Norris, and brothers Taylor and Bayley Campbell.
Previously a schoolteacher, Paul went on to own a gym and health club before starting his BBC television career. His first job was a trackside interview with Carl Lewis at the 1987 World Championships and in 1990 he was promoted to the commentary box at the Commonwealth Games. The first of many Olympics, summer and winter, that he commentated on was Barcelona 1992. Athletics may have been his speciality but he also commentated on rugby, basketball, volleyball, weightlifting, canoe slalom, yachting, Paralympics and a wide variety of winter sports… as well as the World’s Strongest Man, Superstars and The Lord Mayor’s Show!
What’s the secret of good commentating? “You’ve got to sound knowledgeable and you’ve got to make it sound easy. I might be commentating to an auntie or an uncle who might not know anything about athletics, so you’ve got to make it sound very simple. That requires a huge amount of background reading and preparation.”
A World, European and Commonwealth champion, Phillips Idowu is one of the greatest British triple jumpers of all time.
Phillips first attracted attention in 1997 when he placed fourth in the European Junior Championships with a wind aided 16.34 – way ahead of his legal best of 15.86. He went on to excel at the 2000 Olympics, his first senior international appearance, where he qualified for the final with a personal best of 17.12 and was only 4cm short of that in the final. He ultimately finished sixth as Jonathan Edwards took the gold medal. In 2001, he improved to 17.33 but disappointingly managed only ninth place at the World Championships, Edwards again the winner.
His first international medal came at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. In the second round he sailed out to 17.68 to take the lead … only for Edwards to respond with 17.86. However, the European Championships final 11 days later proved even more frustrating. Phillips led the qualifying round with 17.54, a distance which would have won the title, but in the final his opening jump of around 17.50 was ruled a foul by the tiniest of margins and he wound up fifth with 16.92. His next big occasion was no better, the 2004 Olympics, when in the final, after a first round foul of around 17.70, he proceeded to add two more no jumps which ended his bid for Olympic glory.
Bouncing back, his reputation was restored at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, where he trounced the opposition with a leap of 17.45, but inconsistency crept in again when he jumped 17.02 for fifth place in the European Championships. The see-saw continued in 2007, winning the European Indoor title with 17.56 but sixth in the World Championships with 17.09.
Doubts about his big-time temperament were swept aside for good in 2008. He scored a brilliant victory at the World Indoor Championships, breaking Jonathan Edwards’ UK indoor record with 17.75 to become the first British man ever to win a World Indoor field event title. Phillips went on to produce an outdoor personal best of 17.62 to earn a Beijing 2008 Olympic silver medal, just 5cm behind the winner – although a disappointment to him as he fully expected to strike gold.
His greatest moment occurred in 2009 when he was finally crowned outdoor World champion. An emotional Phillips commented “it’s been a long time coming”. The 6ft 5in striking character produced an outdoor best of 17.73 despite giving away 20cm on the take-off board.
His next major goal was to become the third man in the world to jump 18 metres, but it never quite happened. In 2010, he captured the European title with 17.81, proving to be his lifetime best. He had another excellent performance at the 2011 World Championships, jumping 17.77 in response to an inspired 17.96 by USA’s Christian Taylor, to finish second. Injury ruined his chances at the London Olympics, failing to reach the final, and his career came to an end in 2014.
Christine Ohuruogu succeeded where Ann Packer and Lillian Board narrowly failed… to become the first British woman to win a global title at 400m. In fact, she won three of them – at the 2007 World Championships, 2008 Olympics and 2013 World Championships – and came so close to another at the 2012 Olympics. Add a Commonwealth Games victory in 2006 and no fewer than 13 major 4x400m relay medals and it’s clear why she’s regarded as one of the highest achieving British athletes of all time.
A netball international for England at U17 and U19 level, Christine showed early promise as a 19-year-old in her first season as a serious athlete. She won a bronze medal at the European Junior Championships in 2003 – her time was a modest personal best of 54.21 but, in 2004, she by-passed the 54 and 53 sec barriers by improving in one fell swoop to 52.20. Then, even more remarkably, she surpassed the sub-52 milestone, taking the AAA title in 50.98. She ended that season with 50.50 in her Olympic heat before being eliminated in the semis.
That ability to peak when it mattered most was evident at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, where she pulled off an unanticipated victory in 50.28, down to her trademark powerful finish. She also anchored the England 4x400m team to what appeared to be an easy victory but a second victory wasn’t to be as the team was disqualified for a faulty change-over. The following year also saw Christine’s undeniable talent on full display – she was picked for the 2007 World Championships and grasped the opportunity by going on to be crowned champion! Again, she surpassed herself on the big occasion by clocking 49.61. A second medal, this time a bronze, followed in the relay as the team set a UK record of 3:20.04.
Her superb pace judgement came into play on the biggest stage of all the following year in Beijing. Her best time that summer was 50.80 which ranked her ninth among the Olympic entrants. However, once more she peaked perfectly, winning the coveted gold medal in 49.62. The last British athlete to win an Olympic 400m title had been Scotland’s Eric Liddell, of Chariots of Fire fame, in 1924.
Injuries subsequently took their toll and it wasn’t until 2012 that she broke 50 seconds again, but it was worth the wait. Ranked ninth on time that season with 50.42 before the London Olympics, she clocked 49.70, moving from sixth to a close second in the finishing straight. Better yet was 2013, where she not only reclaimed the World title but, in doing so, broke Kathy Cook’s 1984 UK record by 2/100ths with 49.41. What a big-time competitor she was!
There was a time when British steeplechasers were among the best in the world. John Rimmer, Arthur Russell and Percy Hodge won Olympic gold medals between 1900 and 1920, Tom Evenson finished second at the 1932 Games, John Disley was third in 1952, Chris Brasher unexpectedly triumphed in 1956 and Maurice Herriott was runner-up in 1964. Since then only one Briton has won an Olympic medal in that event … Mark Rowland.
Originally, football was Mark’s first love but after being rejected by Southampton and Brighton & Hove Albion he turned his attention to middle distance running in 1983, motivated by the example of local (Brighton) hero Steve Ovett. After clocking 3:42.6 for 1500m in both 1984 (ranking 30th in the UK that year) and 1985 (21st) he jumped to ninth with 3:37.2 in 1986 on the way to a 3:52.99 mile. This was a gratifying improvement but it still left him well behind the three legends who dominated in that era – Seb Coe, Steve Cram and Ovett.
As his trainer, Matt Patterson, moved to Norway at the end of 1986, Mark considered moving up to 5000m and asked the experienced coach Alan Storey if he would help. Alan’s response was basically “what about trying the steeplechase instead”. It proved to be an inspired choice. With his 1500m speed and 5000m stamina (second to Jack Buckner in the 1986 UK Championships) he had the equipment to shine in the 3000m steeplechase if he could master the hurdling aspect of the event.
In June 1987, Mark made a sparkling steeplechase debut, clocking 8:26.76, but experienced disaster in his next outing, at the AAA Championships. Hoping to ensure selection for the World Championships in Rome, he lost ground when tripping over one hurdle and then fell over the final barrier, failing to finish. However, his potential became obvious later when he ran 8:21.03 to rank second in Britain that season.
It all came together in 1988. On the flat he ranked fourth in the UK with 3:34.53 for 1500m and second at 5000m with 13:21.83. Over the barriers he improved to 8:16.34 but hopes of an Olympic medal looked unrealistic as he ranked seventh on time that season prior to Seoul. Every athlete’s dream is to compete at an Olympics and exceed all expectations … and that’s what happened to Mark.
His semi-final time, although quick at 8:18.31, was only the tenth fastest of the round, but what a race he ran in the final. Sixth at 1000m, fifth at 2000m, he covered the final kilometre in a scorching 2:39.00 to place third behind two Kenyans in 8:07.96 and become the fifth fastest ever steeplechaser! More than 30 years later only five Europeans have bettered that time and so far in the 21st century no Briton has run inside 8:20. It’s already the third oldest UK men’s record in a standard event and likely to remain unbeaten for many years to come. Two years later he ran his second quickest time of 8:13.27 for silver at the European Championships.
After retiring in 1994, Mark became a coach. In 2008 he was appointed head coach of the Oregon Track Club team and has since guided several runners to international honours.
No other area of women’s athletics in the UK has generated as much success as the multievents and Kelly Sotherton, the Isle of Wight’s gift to international athletics, merits recognition for her significant role in this success with her sequence of medal winning performances.
Kelly won English Schools’ AA titles in 1992 and 1994 but it wasn’t until 2002, aged 25, that she captured her first significant senior title – the AAA Indoor pentathlon. That summer she exceeded 5700 points in all five of her heptathlons, with a best of 5794, but the real breakthrough came in 2003 when she not only scored 6059 but made massive progress in the long jump, from 6.23 to 6.58 and a wind assisted 6.68, to rank second in Britain in both events.
Having ranked 23rd on the world heptathlon list for 2003, few could have imagined that Kelly would stand on the medal rostrum at the following year’s Athens Olympics. However, a personal best score of 6424 saw her finish third behind Carolina Klüft and Austra Skujyté. It was a superb performance and one that saw her produce an 800m PB of 2:12.27.
The highlight in 2005 was increasing her best score to 6547 when placing a much closer second to Klüft in Götzis. Then, in 2006, she won the Commonwealth Games title with what she regarded as a disappointing score of 6396, brought down by what she described as an abysmal javelin throw of barely 32m. Self-criticism aside, achieving gold in a Commonwealth Games was a proud moment and one to be treasured.
Perhaps the finest performance of her career was her pentathlon silver medal at the 2007 European Indoors in her home city of Birmingham. She pushed Klüft all the way, the Swede winning by just 17 points, and Kelly’s score of 4927 was a Commonwealth and UK record, ranking her third on the world all-time list. A further major medal came her way outdoors – bronze at the World Championships with her second highest total of 6510.
Another fine campaign followed in 2008, with a World Indoor pentathlon silver (just 15 points behind the winner) and fifth place at the Beijing Olympics (6517), which was later adjusted to a deserved bronze due to doping disqualifications. She picked up another bronze medal in the 4x400m relay, running out of her skin to clock 50.35 on the second leg. A back problem led to her retirement in 2012 – bowing out with an impressive collection of personal bests including 23.39 – 200m, 2:07.34 – 800m, 13.18 – 100m hurdles, 1.88 – high jump, 6.79 – long jump, 14.66 – shot and 40.81 – javelin.