Now in his seventh decade of coaching nonagenarian Arch Jelley is one of New Zealand’s most successful not to say enduring coaches. Steve Landells chats to the wily veteran coach who currently guides national 1500m champion Hamish Carson.
It was back in 2005 when Arch Jelley received a telephone call out of the blue which was to reconnect him back to the sport.
Retired from coaching for five years – Jelley had seemingly settled on a full but relaxed life playing bowls and acting as chairman of the Mt Albert Bridge Club.
However, the random call from the mother (Julie) of a promising young middle-distance athlete by the name of Hamish Carson piqued the interest of the mentor to 1976 Olympic 1500m champion Sir John Walker.
“She said she was looking for a coach for her son – a coach that wasn’t too autocratic and who could explain what he was doing,” adds the mentally razor sharp Jelley from his the West Auckland retirement village where he now lives. “It was a big surprise.”
He could not resist the challenge. He returned to athletics – a sport which had seen him not only coach Walker but also feature as both a team manager at both the Olympic Games and World Championships and as team coach at a Commonwealth Games.
Nine years on and the pair are still together. Carson has overcome a welter of injuries to become a four-time New Zealand 1500m champion with his next goal to crack the Commonwealth Games B standard of 3:38.60. He is currently in the US in an attempt to achieve the mark. Should his latest protégé make it to Glasgow it will represent another significant achievement for Jelley, who first started coaching in 1959.
Raised in Dunedin, the former Otago Boys High School pupil was a champion featherweight boxer and gymnast as a youngster “I was too small for anything else.” He started competitive athletics aged 23 after returning to New Zealand the end of the Second World War having served in both the Army and the Navy – the latter on Arctic convoy duty.
Good enough to finish fourth at the national cross country championships he described his strength as being “consistent” but insists his track PB’s were nothing special.
“It is rather embarrassing to think Kimberly Smith has quicker PB’s than me,” he adds modestly of the multiple women’s New Zealand distance record holder.
However, despite not being a top-class athlete the former Mornington Harrier says he and his brother, Stan, always had a keen interest in advising and coaching.
“I was always fascinated by a guy called Arthur Newton, who was an English ultra marathon runner, explains Jelley, a former school principal. “His big thing was if you’ve got the speed all you need is to increase your strength. I’d also heard about (Emil) Zatopek (four-time Olympic champion from Czechoslovakia) he was doing huge mileage about 100 (miles per weelk) while we were down at 20, 30 or 40 (miles) a week. We also heard about this crazy guy from up north called Arthur Lydiard.”
Shortly after Jelley moved north to settle in Auckland he met Lydiard for the first time. It was to prove the moment which was to act as the catalyst for his long and storied coaching career.
“I had a conversation with Arthur and funnily enough we never discussed running or coaching,” he explains. “But I thought to myself if Arthur can do it, then I could probably do it too. I could see that the runners he was coaching were doing 100 miles per week. They were running well, so I could see Arthur’s principles were very good.”
In 1959 Arch – then in his mid 30s – started his coaching career and quickly established a reputation as a good communicator who could get the best out of his athletes. He steered Neville Scott to the 1964 Olympic 5000m final. ‘He finished 11th but got hurt before the Olympics, when I thought he could have won a medal,’ Jelley adds.
He also guided Ian Studd to the bronze medal in the mile at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica before he was to establish his highly successful and long standing coach-athlete relationship with Walker.
The pair formalised the uninterrupted 20-year partnership from September 1971 – although Jelley admits his talent was not immediately obvious.
“When I first started coaching him I had no idea he would go on to be a world beater, but the thing which changed by mind was in Tauranga at the New Year’s Day meet in 1972. That day he was up against Dick Quax in the 800m. Now it was by no means Dick’s best distance, but John murdered him that day. It was very impressive.”
The pair quickly worked on a training approach which would aim to maximise Walker’s ability and help the Papakura-born athlete reach peak, physical fitness for the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Jelley found high mileage took a toll on Walker’s body, so worked off a weekly training diet of between 80-90 miles a week with the emphasis on quality.
“I found (as a coach) you have to look at the individual athletes and decide what’s best for them,” explains Jelley. “Rod Dixon and Dick Quax were fantastic runners who could run 130-140 miles per week. If I put Walker on that it would have been suicidal.”
Through the mid 70s, Walker emerged as the world’s pre-eminent miler. In 1974 he won a 1500m silver medal at the Commonwealth Games only missing out on gold because of Tanzanian Filbert Bayi’s scintillating world record run.
The following year Walker was showing all the signs of being a stronger more resilient athlete becoming the first man in history to dip below 3:50 for the mile.
In 1976 Walker executed a flawless tactical race to strike 1500m gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. It was to prove the high watermark in Jelley’s and Walker’s respective careers.
For more than 20 years Jelley remained Walker’s coach until his retirement in 1992. So why was the relationship such a success?
“We are both very loyal,” explains Jelley. “He was a great guy to coach. We’d do a lot of training at Mt Smart Stadium and he was always there on time except on two occasions because they’d been a motor accident on the way there, which I thought was a valid excuse.”
Jelley also coached the women’s New Zealand mile record holder Christine Pfitzinger and advised athletes from across the world including former American mile record holder Steve Scott for a one-year period.
Yet after a long and hugely successful career in the sport he was content to walk away in 2000 (the year of the death of his first wife he has since married his bridge partner, Jean) until the intervention of Carson’s mum and so for the past nine years the pair have worked together.
“For the first two year Hamish has all sorts of injuries and we couldn’t work out what was wrong, but we’ve slowly got on top of it,” adds Jelley. “He’s a very good fellow and now he’s up in Auckland I see him down the track.”
In more recent times the 25-year-old has shown far greater consistency and his eye-catching sprint finish to defeat Julian Matthews and win his fourth national 1500m title in Wellington last month was impressive.
When asked how much longer does he intent to carry on coaching Jelley simply answers “I couldn’t say.”
But while the timing of when he decides to finally walk away from athletics may be hard to predict the man with 55 years of coaching experience and who celebrates his 92nd birthday in August is more than well equipped to answer what is the art to being a good coach.
“I think it is an advantage to have been a runner because this can help empathise with the athlete,” he says. “I’ve also applied the same principles to coaching as I did in teaching. I always try to be positive, never criticise the athletes and look at every athlete as an individual.”