Les Mills may be best known as the “father of fitness” and founder of the iconic gym empire in his name but for athletics aficionados he will be forever known for his feats as a top-class international shot and discus thrower.
A four-time Olympian, five-time Commonwealth medallist and 25-time national champion, Les enjoyed a lengthy career at the top, which spanned three decades and two distinct generations of New Zealand athletics.
Self-coached for much of his career, and with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, Les embraced innovative training techniques throughout his career and such was his all-round athletic ability he also represented his country at the sport of weightlifting.
Born in New Lynn in West Auckland but raised for much of his youth in the central Auckland suburb of Grey Lynn, Les described himself as a “sickly child.” Yet the trajectory of his life was to change at the age of 11 when a recruiter from the newly formed Western Suburbs Athletic Club dropped by to his Sunday School.
“He took the kids outside to race two blocks to the far lamppost and back,” recalls Les. “I set off like a bolt out of the blue and finished 50 yards in front of everyone else. I was then asked to join Western Suburbs, which were to become the strongest club in New Zealand.”
It was to grow to include such talent as double Commonwealth horizontal jumps medallist Dave Norris, the 1966 Commonwealth decathlon champion Roy Williams, 1964 Olympic marathon runner Ivan Keats and 1952 Olympic long jump champion Yvette Williams. Les thrived in the developing environment, embracing the social side of the sport with its handicap competitions and numerous bus trips to meetings.
Naturally fast, he began his athletics journey as a talented sprinter and hurdler but as his body developed he later took up the shot and discus around “the age of 14 or 15” and discovered, “I could pretty much beat everyone.”
Helped by club coach Keith Slatter but mostly self-coached, the Mount Albert Grammar student sought greater knowledge of his craft. Eager to learn more he absorbed information like a sponge and read F.A.M Webster’s book on athletics for children, Dean Cromwell’s flicker books on throws and various other books on how to develop strength.
Through a combination of his self-learning and a fierce desire to win, Les quickly started to make his mark nationally. At the age of 17 he set New Zealand Junior records in the discus and shot, although such was his all-round ability in 1954 he posted a handy 21.6 clocking for the 220yd and he featured alongside Barry Robinson, Morrie Rae and Graham Davy to smash the New Zealand 4x100m record at the 1957 New Zealand Championships in Napier.
He also seriously considered the decathlon but after he opened a shoe shop and home appliance shop in 1954, Les figured he could not devote the time to train as a multi-eventer and opted to focus on the throws.
In 1955 he completed the shot and discus double at the New Zealand Championships to claim the first two of his 25 senior national titles and set about targeting a place on the New Zealand team for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.
However, his plans suffered a major blow after picking up a scaphoid fracture sustained playing rugby league a little over a year out from the Games. With his arm in a plaster cast he was forced into a radical re-think to keep his Olympic ambitions on track.
“At that time I weighed around 15-and-a-half stone but I thought, if I can get down to 13 stone I might make the Olympics as a 400m hurdler,” he explains. “I started off enthusiastically, running 10kms, regular reps of 25x220yd and shed the weight with my arm still in plaster.”
Unfortunately, Les fell well short of his goal, finishing sixth at the New Zealand Championships and despite returning to the shot and discus circle later that year and achieving Olympic qualification marks the selectors overlooked the 6ft 2ins tall Aucklander for the Melbourne Games.
Two years later, Les made his first international championship team – winning selection for the shot and discus - at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. Describing the journey to Wales “as a trip from hell” following a severe sickness bug which wiped out half of the New Zealand team, he escaped the worst of the illness to take silver in the discus with 51.73m and seventh in the shot.
“You need days like that to make all the hard work and long hours worthwhile,” he recalls of winning silver in Cardiff.
Despite working 60 hours a week to support his retail business, Les would often also squeeze in two training sessions a day. Training at Grey Lynn Park and hurling the shot into cloying mud, which required buckets of hot water to clean the shot, was far from easy. Yet always looking for an edge and how to improve his training methods, Les recalls inventing a homemade slider to push weights up a steel high beam to help build strength. Yet for Les there was no short-cut to success.
“I’d throw until my fingers were bleeding and then try and continue throwing with a glove,” he explains. “I had deep calluses in my fingers for more than ten years from all the throwing.
“I worked my training around the principle of leaping loads. I’d worked out that the European throwers were doing periodisation and I later had the chance to chat to the top American throwers like (four-time Olympic discus champion) Al Oerter, Jay Silvester (the 1972 Olympic discus silver medallist) and Parry O’Brien (1952 and 1956 shot champion), I realised that if your body gets used to something it does not respond well. But If I could move the load around and change the quality of training at different times the body responded better.”
Learning from other great New Zealand coaches of the time like Jim Bellwood, who had guided Yvette Williams to long jump gold at the 1952 Olympics, and Frank Sharpley, a Loughborough University graduate like Jim, he continued to improve and in 1960 was selected in shot and discus and also proudly chosen as the New Zealand flagbearer for the Rome Olympics.
Les fondly recalls the gold medal successes of Sir Peter Snell in the men’s 800m and Sir Murray Halberg in the men’s 5000m in Rome but from a personal point of view the big Aucklander had a mixed experience, placing 11th in the men’s shot final with 17.06m and 28th in the discus (50.76m).
“I was not terribly disappointed but I was also not too happy either,” explains Les.
In his desire to expand his athletics education, in 1962 he made the ambitious move to relocate his young family to the US to attend college. Arriving in August of 1962 he initially studied at Foothill Junior College in California and connected with Vern Wolfe, a talented coach who had guided Dallas Long – the 1964 Olympic champion - from a high school athlete into world-class.
Unfortunately, Les ripping tendons in his hand in his early days in the US and arrived three months later for the Perth Commonwealth Games “half fit.” Understandably, given the serious nature of the injury, his hopes of winning two medals withered as he placed fifth in the discus and sixth in the shot.
After Vern Wolfe moved to the University of Southern California In 1963, Les shifted colleges to join him. But after two memorable years in the US and with his New Zealand businesses struggling in his absence he decided to cut short his US experience and head home.
It was a disappointment for Les that he did not complete his studies in the US but he looks back fondly on his time there and insists he improved as an athlete.
“What mainly brought me on is the fact I was surrounded by lots of good throwers,” recalls Les. “I trained with Rink Babka (the 1960 Olympic discus silver medallist), Bob Humphreys (the 1963 Pan American Games champion) and Dave Weill, who went on to win discus bronze in Tokyo.
“The competition made a huge difference. Coming from an environment in New Zealand where I was a champion to be lucky to simply be accepted into competitions was huge. Vern was a good coach but I think I learned much more by talking to the other competitors.”
With the businesses stabilised back in New Zealand, Les could look ahead to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics with enthusiasm. He revelled in the atmosphere of the Games and produced a top quality display in the shot to place seventh with a best of 18.52m.
“Tokyo was fabulous, a marvellous games I loved it,” he says. “Looking back on my career, I think I was more excited about my shot performance in Tokyo than anything else in my athletics career.”
Yet if the shot was roaring success, the discus proved a disaster after he accidentally struck his head on a steel beam while warming up in the pre-event holding pen.
Heavily concussed from the heavy contact, he has few memories of the qualification and adds: “I vaguely remember being led out to the stadium in the group and someone telling me to face the right way in the circle, but that is all I remember.”
Records say Les finished 21st with a best of 51.70m but the unfortunate Kiwi has no recollection of the throw.
Drama continued to followed Les at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica. Going for gold in the discus, the competition was frustratingly delayed for two hours. Les managed to hurl the discus out to a 56.18m to take control of the competition. However, with his fifth round effort he ripped his adductor muscle and crashed to the ground.
“It was then I decided to smartarse my way through the rest of the competition by just sitting there smirking at my opposition as if I didn’t have a problem,” explains Les, who was in no position to take his sixth round throw.
The bluff paid dividends as he remained unsurpassed, holding on to win gold by 24cm from Canada’s George Puce with Kiwi Robin Tait in bronze.
Given pain killers to numb his seriously injured leg, which by now had turned black, he courageously opted to compete in the shot where he bravely went on to win silver with a best effort of 18.37m.
However, following the adductor tear his effort to also compete in the weightlifting competition in Kingston were to prove beyond him.
“I fell over with my first practise lift so we put a line under that,” he recalls.
On his journey to compete in the US v Russia v Commonwealth match in 1967 he stopped by in Honolulu, Hawaii for a competition where he threw a shot PB and national record of 19.80m. It was a mark which was to last 44 years until surpassed by Jacko Gill – an athlete Les was later to assist for a period.
His preparations for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics had been badly compromised by persistent hand tearing. Les opted to tape his fragile hands during the qualification but athletes from the Eastern Bloc nations protested against the move. Officials refused to accept the medical certificate from a Kiwi doctor and competing without tape he placed 11th in the shot final with 18.18m.
Despite his body starting to “break down” more international successes followed. In 1969 he defeated the best US and Canadian throwers to snare a shot gold medal at the Pacific Conference Games in Japan. Later he also performed with distinction at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, winning discus silver with 57.84m and bronze in the shot (18.40m) despite becoming agitated by the Jamaican fans repetitively playing the steel drums.
At the age of 37, Les qualified for his fourth and final Olympic Games in Munich. He had been hitting PB’s in the gym but after ripping off a large chunk of his pectoral during a training incident and later tearing his adductor in a warm-up meet in Germany he was well below par in Munich, placing 14th in the discus and 23rd in the shot.
He controversially missed out on selection for the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games – where he would have joined his wife, Colleen and two children, Phillip and Donna, who had also, remarkably, qualified in the New Zealand athletics team.
“I had all sorts of injuries but I still think I could have finished top eight, which was better than half the team,” he says of the 1974 Commonwealth Games. “I think my non-selection was pay back for being quite outspoken over the years at some of the selectors’ decisions.”
Apart from one brief flirtation with competitive athletics at the World Masters Championships in 1975, Les Mills called time on his lengthy career in the sport.
Setting up his first Les Mills gym in 1968, his fitness empire for the past 50 years has become a byword for health and fitness in New Zealand. He also later moved successfully into politics and served as Auckland Major for eight years from 1990 to 1998.
Les also remained connected with sport. He was national sports director in Papua New Guinea for a spell and from 1977 to 1979 was Director of Coaching at Athletics NZ.
He later enjoyed a successful period as a coach, memorably guiding Beatrice Faumuina to the world discus title in 1997, the 1998 Commonwealth crown and New Zealand discus record.
He also coached the current New Zealand men’s discus record-holder Ian Winchester and Jordan Vandermade to decathlon bronze at the 2006 World U20 Championships.
Today aged 85, Les is retired and lives in the Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier with his wife, Florence, a former New Zealand basketball international. He has two children, Phillip and Donna, and four grandchildren. His first wife, Colleen, died in 2005. She also enjoyed a stellar sporting career representing her country at athletics and basketball and later winning 12 world titles as a masters athlete.