Super coach Arch Jelley still taking his athletes to special places at 93 years young

Coach Arch Jelley and athlete John Walker relive the good old days of their enduring partnership.
JOHN SELKIRK/FAIRFAX NZ
Coach Arch Jelley and athlete John Walker relive the good old days of their enduring partnership.

As an athletics coach, Arch Jelley is all about the numbers. Except the one that changes each year he hits his birthday. That he's long past caring about.

In fact, Jelley doesn't really get the fuss as we media types marvel at his feats of longevity on this day that the New Zealand athletics squad for the Rio Olympics has grown by four.

Among the additions for the 1500m is 27-year-old Kapiti Coast ecologist Hamish Carson who just happened to be coached by the 93-year-old Jelley, who will be 94 by the time his man runs the heats in Rio.

Ninety-four. Think about it. At an age when most are content to make the trip from bed to the La-Z-boy, he's still setting programmes, getting to the track, plotting pathways and gauging trends. That and competing in lawn bowls and coaching bridge.

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You might have heard of Jelley, an Aucklander who guided the fortunes of none other than John Walker, possibly New Zealand's second finest middle-distance athlete of all time.

Walker's finest hour was, would you believe, 40 years ago at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal when he won New Zealand's third gold in the 1500 metres. "It's only once in a lifetime you have the opportunity to coach someone like that," reflects the coach.

But Jelly's legacy goes back a lot further than that. Sixty years ago he guided his first 1500m athlete to a spot in the Olympics, when Neville Scott went to the 1956 Games in Melbourne.

He thinks Carson might bookend his Olympic achievements. But won't say so for sure. "You never say never," says the spritely nonagenarian.

It's been a while since he got an athlete to the Games (5000 and 10,000m runner Robbie Johnson was his last, to the 1992 and '96 Olympics), but he says it's just as big a thrill as it ever was.

"Hamish has worked very hard, especially after his disastrous year last year (when he broke both wrists in a bad fall). He's trained well, stuck to his programme and he raced very, very consistently, just like John used to do."

In fact, with his tall build and flowing locks, there's a touch of Walker about Carson.

"They've both got the flowing locks, but John was a wee bit faster," notes Jelley. "They've both got very good race temperaments, they concentrate and they're hard to beat."

Jelley firmly believes his age is irrelevant when it comes to coaching. "If you've got the knowledge and keep up to date with new techniques, it doesn't matter how old you are," he shrugs.

He says he "probably" won't coach anybody after Carson, whom he's guided since 2005, but "I'll keep coaching the bridge players at the Mount Albert club".

He's not going to Rio ─ "You see a lot more on TV, and it's safer too" ─ and says he won't be nervous when Carson lines up for his first Games appearance.

"We've done all we can, and he's in fantastic shape. The hardest part is the heats, because you're not sure what you've got to do. He'll have to treat the heat as a final, and do whatever is needed to make the next round."

Carson, for his part, says it's inspiring to think of his coach's history in the event.

"He has so much knowledge to draw upon, I'm lucky to be able to draw on that.

"He sent me a really nice email this morning and he's really happy I've made it. It's been a long journey to get here, and I'm really happy I can pay him back in a way by finally making it to the pinnacle event in our sport."

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