Bill Baillie 1934 – 2018

A few years ago – that’s not true. Many years ago, in 1968 or 1969, I had just completed high school in Wisconsin in the United States. Before heading off to Wellington to begin University I was working as a guide in the Waitomo glow worm caves. One weekend I was in Hamilton having a flying lesson. As I drove through town on my way to the airport I passed a large group of runners. I’m not sure of the event. I suspect it was the annual “Round the Bridges” race. Eventually I drove past the race leaders. There, out in front, was the unmistakable Bill Baillie; barrel chested, arms held too high and with a beautiful long relaxed stride, his powerful legs treating the miles with what seemed like effortless scorn.

Occasionally in sport you come into contact with greatness. When it happens it is the most obvious thing in the world. I remember one cold winter’s night at the Meadowbank track in Edinburgh, Scotland. I was there watching Alison’s training. The Olympic 100m champion, Allan Wells, and fellow Scottish sprinter and Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Cameron Sharpe were also doing their training. As I walked back down track Allan Wells came past doing a short sprint. I will never forget the impression of raw power. His spikes seemed intent on tearing great chunks of rubber out of the Edinburgh track. It was like a fast intercity train tearing through an empty suburban station. The presence of greatness, of unimaginable talent, was obvious and unforgettable.

I felt the same thing swimming against the Australian Olympic breaststroke champion, Ian O’Brien. Standing on the inside of the track watching John Walker win a mile race in Gateshead, England provided the same sensation of unbeatable power. But my first contact with Wells-, O’Brien- and Walker-type greatness was in 1960s Hamilton when I saw Bill Baillie leading the “Round the Bridges” road race. I drove on wondering how could anyone beat that?

The truth is, few did beat that. Baillie set world records for the 20,000m and one hour run, came 6th in the Tokyo Olympic Games, competed in four Commonwealth Games and won a New Zealand championship title in every event from 800m to six miles.

After Hamilton I met Baillie on three occasions. Arthur Lydiard introduced us at the Newmarket Olympic Pool.  Jane was there training. Arthur had come to watch and Bill was aqua-jogging, or aqua-running in his case. Bill was typical Bill; far more interested in Jane’s training and discussing how Lydiard training principles converted to swimming, than he was in telling me about his own career. His infectious enthusiasm and support of a fourteen year and her hard work was clearly sincere. There is a common bond among those who share a quality work ethic; a bond that crosses generations and genders.

The second occasion we met was at Arthur’s home in Beachlands.  We had a lot more time to talk. I told Bill that Alison was also a member of the Lynndale Athletic Club. I explained the impression he had made on me in Hamilton. Like champions everywhere he discounted his talent and gave credit to his training schedule. In one nine year period he had run a total of 38,844 miles (62,150 kilometres). That’s a stunning average of 83 miles (133 kilometres) a week, every week, through distance, anaerobic and speed training – bloody amazing. No wonder the man could run.

Finally we met again at a Waitakere Trusts Stadium track meet. We were there primarily to watch Nick Willis and the Robertson brothers compete in a race over 5000 metres. Bill was as infectiously enthusiastic as ever; telling me how impressed he was with the quality and versatility of Nick Willis running.

And I guess that is one of two abiding memories of this great New Zealander. First there is the quality of his career; the life-long impression he left striding through the streets of Hamilton; an example of world class that has never faded. And second his genuine interest in the sport’s careers of others. From helping Peter Snell through the endless miles of a distance conditioning program to sharing his love of sport with a fourteen year old swimmer in the Newmarket Pool. Over the years I imagine a hundred Snells and Janes have benefitted by their contact with Bill Baillie.

Sincere, kind, funny, tough and talented are words that come to mind when I think of Bill Bailie. New Zealand and New Zealand sport are better places for his life and running career. Bill – thank-you for everything.

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