Their Bests

By David

Most good athletes provide their coaches with a host of special memories. It is also not unusual for one event in an athlete’s career to stand out above the rest.

In Alison’s running career, her victory in the UK indoor 1500 meter track championship is most memorable. Her 1978 1000 meters in Berlin is still the New Zealand record for that event. Her Commonwealth 1500 meter run so soon after suffering a serious pulmonary embolism was a special occasion. Her surprising wins in two Scottish cross-country championships and fifth place in the Montreal Worlds were also important. But as a complete demonstration of all that was good about Alison’s running, the Cosford UK Championship stands out.

The Cosford indoor track was not the most propitious location. At the time it was the UK’s only indoor track. A fast tartan and wood 200 meter circuit built in an old Royal Air Force aircraft hanger. Alison’s light, bouncing stride was well suited to the track’s pliant surface and tight bends. I didn’t think she had any chance of winning the race. All Britain’s best 1500 meter runners were there; the stamina types who loved a fast pace and the sprinters who looked forward to using their speed at the finish. Whatever the tactics, Alison was going to be out run – or at least that’s what I thought. Alison sat comfortably in second and third through the early laps. With 600 meters to go the pace lifted as the runners prepared for their run to the finish. Alison looked fine but Colbrook and Dainty were just behind her and were noted international fast finishers. With 200 meters left I noticed Alison move into lane two. And then she was gone. In 100 meters she opened a ten meter gap on the field and strode easily to the finish. It was a rout. The 300 mile trip back home to Scotland was a happy occasion.

Toni had her fair share of good races. She was third in both the World Short Course Finals and the Pan Pacific Games. She swam in the Barcelona Olympic Games and won the Oceania Championships. For me, however, her best race was a 100 meters freestyle she swam at the 1990 New Zealand Commonwealth Games trials. She had only joined our team six months earlier and at the time was not a serious contender for the Game’s team. In fact we already had Michelle Burke, New Zealand’s fastest sprinter, on our squad. However, as the trials drew closer I noticed Toni getting nearer to Michelle’s training times. It seemed it would be just a matter of time before Toni became New Zealand’s fastest swimmer. Before the Trials 100 meter final the TVNZ broadcaster, Keith Quinn, called to find out what I thought Michelle’s winning time would be. I told him Michelle would be second. The race would be won by Toni. He said I was the only person in New Zealand who thought that would be the result. Fifty six seconds later Toni was the new national champion. She had won the race with a terrific sprint after the turn, in the third 25 meters. I think it was the elements of surprising the New Zealand swimming community and Toni’s clinical execution of her race plan that make this race special. I was certain she would go on to have a successful international career. Keith Quinn rang me minutes after the race to say he too had become a believer.

Nichola won New Zealand open titles, Australian age group titles and New South Wales open and age group titles but the race I remember most was one she lost, at the 1995 New Zealand nationals in Hamilton. The day before, Nichola, Toni Jeffs and I were driving to training when a utility truck pulled out of a side road in front of us. We hit it at 100kmh. Toni went to hospital with a partially crushed vertebrae, I felt as if a herd of elephants had tramped over me and I know Nichola felt the same. We could hardly move.

Nichola’s 50-metre race was important. It offered the prospect of her first open title and selection for her first national team. She had bettered the Pan-Pacific Games qualifying time two weeks earlier but the selectors said she must qualify again in Hamilton or miss selection

Although I knew Nichola felt terrible, she would not hear of the suggestion that she should withdraw from the event. Discussing the final, we determined that to win meant beating Alison Fitch and Sarah Catherwood, who were seeded in the lanes beside Nichola. On the way to the pool, I told her, “Don’t worry about the time, just beat Alison and Sarah and you’ll win the race.” I could see and feel her gearing up for that one task.

She swam amazingly well. She beat Alison and Sarah but she was still second — away out in lane one, Melissa Bishop swam the race of her life. She had never swum as fast before, she has not swum as fast since. The injustice of it all was overwhelming; not because Melissa won — she deserved to — but Nichola had done more than anyone had a right to ask of her. She had delivered on what she was told to do but a freak circumstance robbed her of the tangible reward.

Nichola’s reaction was revealing. I expected enormous and justified frustration. A flood of tears and recrimination would have been excusable. Those of us who knew her best saw the hurt in her face but there was no complaint, no expression of injustice. Whatever she does, she will never display better character or more courage than she showed that night, in the way she swam and in her dignity and control when she learnt that what she had been told would be enough was, freakishly, still short of the mark. A top person.

Jane too had her share of memorable races. Her New Zealand IM record in Berlin was unexpected. Her 2.14 win in the Minneapolis 200 yards breaststroke to qualify for the NCAA finals inducted her into the small group of New Zealanders who have swum in that prestigious event. Her first NZ National Championship win in Rotorua was very special as was her 2.30 New Zealand record in the 200 meters breaststroke in the tiny New Zealand town of Waipukurau. But the swim I remember most wasn’t even a race. When Jane was three years old I used to take her swimming most days. Much of her time was spent riding the Moana Pool’s huge hydo-slide. I would tell her stories of my swimming days; of when I got my 800 meters certificate when I was only four years old – all those patriarchal tales. Some of it must have registered. On the way to the pool one Saturday morning three year old Jane said, “Can I swim 800 meters this morning?” Now, I must tell you that every Saturday morning New Zealand’s best swim coach, Duncan Lang, converted Dunedin’s Moana Pool to 50 meters. It seemed to me 16×50 meter lengths might be a bit much for a three year old. But I said, “If you must.”

An hour or so later she finished the 800 meters, 16 lengths, without a stop. Duncan had taken time out from training Danyon Loader to watch Jane’s swim. Anyone who has met Duncan knows he was never one to exaggerate. On this occasion however he muttered an extravagant, “That’s very good.” Years later Jane was on several New Zealand teams coached by Duncan Laing. Each time they met at the airport, Duncan would begin the conversation with, “G’dday blondie. Do you remember that time you swam 800 meters when you were three?” He hadn’t not forgotten and neither have I. I wonder if Jane remembers?