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A true knight’s tale

BY ROMY UDANGA
Last updated 05:00 02/06/2009
Photo: SHANE WENZLICK

EACH DAY COUNTS: Sir John Walker came from humble beginnings to triumph in athletics. Being made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit caps what he calls a “simple life dedicated to making good”.

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Manukau’s John Walker, one of New Zealand’s greatest sporting legends, has been knighted in the Queen’s Birthday honours list.

The Olympic gold medallist, champion athlete, children’s advocate and Manukau city councillor has been made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to sport and the community.

He was the only man honoured with the title in yesterday’s list and it officially entitles him to be referred to as Sir John Walker.

But the man who was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1992 for his services to athletics says he never expected the ultimate honour.

"It is just plain out of the blue. I had no inkling about it but it is such an honour."

Sir John enjoyed one of the world’s longest careers in international athletics.

At eight years old he started running as a junior harrier and quickly attracted media interest and newspaper headings like: Watch this midget go.

He started running seriously in 1969 when he was 17 but missed out on selection for the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The next year he went to his first overseas competition and ran his first sub-four minute mile in Canada at just 21. He went on to become the first man to run 100 sub-four minute miles.

"Mine has been a good career. It’s peppered with accolades but I consider breaking the 3m 50s for the mile as my greatest sporting achievement."

That came when he ran 3.49.4s in Gothenburg, Sweden, on August 12, 1975.

Sir John competed for New Zealand for 17 years until he was 38. In 1992, on his birthday on January 12, he tried to become the first 40-year-old to break four minutes for the mile. But he had torn an achilles tendon and had to postpone the attempt twice. In the end the injury became too severe and he retired a month later.

From then on he immersed himself in boosting the morale of children and raising funds for charities.

He was president of Variety – The Children’s Charity when it started in 1998 and led it until 2001.

Despite being diagnosed with parkinson’s in 1995, he has refused to give up his passion for sport and contributing to the community.

"That was 14 years ago. I thought the whole world would come to an end. But I managed it day-by-day and lived each day fully."

Part of "living fully" was running for – and winning – a seat on the Manukau City Council in 1997.

Among the programmes he’s established with the council is the Find Your Field of Dreams project.

Now known as the John Walker Find Your Field of Dreams Foundation, it gives Manukau youngsters the chance to engage in sport and supports community sports clubs and programmes that help young people – including after-school sport, physical recreation and learn-to-swim programmes.

But he wouldn’t have achieved all that had he not trusted in fate and taken his opportunities, he says.

"As a young boy I grew up in Manurewa, coming from an impoverished background. I succeeded the hard way – by hard work and determination. At the start somebody invited me to join the sports club and I said yes. It was there that I was introduced to Arch Jelley who would coach me through the years."

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But the most significant "yes" he said was when he was invited to a party more than 30 years ago.

"I used to work at a radio station and one time I was invited to a party. I wasn’t going to go but a friend said I might enjoy it and that was where I met Helen."

The couple married in 1979 and have four children, Elizabeth, 29, Richard, 25, Timothy, 21, and Caitlin, 17.

Now Sir John encourages young people to make every day count.

"Say yes and make it happen. Others may be able to show you the way but only you can make it happen.

"Take the opportunity, make the first step. If you don’t, you may regret it for the rest of your life."

Career highlights:

In middle distance running, John Walker rates as one of the greats.

He was the first man to crack the 3min 50s barrier for the mile, running 3.49.4s in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 1975, and the first to run 100 sub-four minute miles.

In a career spanning 20 years he won an Olympic gold medal and three Commonwealth Games medals.

Career highlights:

• First sub-four minute mile at Victoria, Canada, in July 1973 – 134 more followed

• Silver in the 1500m and bronze in the 800m at the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games

• Gold in the 1500m at the 1976 Montreal Olympics

• World record for the 2000m, running 4.51.4s in Olso, Norway, in 1976

• Broke the 1500m indoor world record with a time of 3.37.4s in 1979

• Silver in the 1500m at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games

• Ran 100th sub-four minute mile on his home track at Mt Smart in 1985

• New Zealand sportsman of the year in 1975 and 1976

• Sportsman of the de-cade for the 1970s.

- Manukau Courier

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