A case of what might have been for my Beagles triple jumping hero uncle Ray!
PUBLISHED: 17:00 08 July 2020
As a journalist I was fortunate to cover the London 2012 Olympic Games in a working capacity during a never-to-be-forgotten 19-day period eight years ago.
But it turns out that my uncle Ray had the potential to actually compete at that rareified level back in the 1960s.
I’d known from a young age that he had been a triple jumper for the Essex Beagles at Mayesbrook Park, close to where my grandparents lived.
And I learned a whole lot more talking to him about those days, while he was at home in Bournemouth during lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It turned out his first passion as a youngster was music, not sport. He said: “I could sing and had lessons with a famous opera singer, Ethel Giles, when I was at Ripple School.
“I joined the choir at Dagenham County High and was the first boy soprano, then took up the cello and played for five years.
“After my first two years there I had to choose which subjects I wanted to do to put me on a path for work and I chose music but was told I couldn’t. Our teacher had gone to Australia and the new one didn’t know the syllabus.
“I wasn’t very happy and my mum and dad didn’t have the money to send me to private tuition, but I kept it up and after four and a half years of playing I was asked if I wanted to join the Essex Symphony Orchestra as there was a position.
“But when I was 12 or 13 we had competitions in the jumping pits and I found I could triple jump. I think it was a rhythmic thing. So I decided to give it a go and the Beagles were only over the hill at Mayesbrook Park.
“I went to try and was told I had to join the club and the annual subs were six shillings, I think. We didn’t have the money, but my great uncle Jim and his wife knew I was interested and had an aptitude for it and gave me my first year’s subscription, so I joined and met Dave Green.”
Born in 1946, Ray was aged 13 at that time and would compete in the boys’ category, before moving up to youth (15-17 years) and junior (17-19 years).
“Dave was the best coach ever. When I joined he coached the middle-distance runners, there wasn’t a jumps coach, but I got introduced to Dave and he took me under his wing and produced me. He loved athletics,” he added.
“I didn’t get much competition as a boy, was Essex and Southern champion as a youth but didn’t do the English Schools’.
“I blossomed after I left school. But I only got one year as a junior as the age range changed. I broke the British junior record twice, but neither counted!”
Ray revealed how he went to Dusseldorf when he was 16 or 17 with the first GB junior team to travel abroad and, despite having struggled with injury prior to the trip, managed to finish second.
“I was going to the athletes’ hospital in Camden weekly for treatment and really struggling. I was only five foot eight tall and you had to be stronger than your average lanky athlete,” he said.
According to the records, a leap of 14.80m (48ft 6ins) was ruled ‘downhill’ at a track in south London and could not be entered into the record books, with a later jump of 14.95m (49ft 0.75ins) being wind-assisted – “by 0.1!” – and also struck off.
Officially, his best jump was 14.58m (47ft 10ins), but he added: “There was a long jumper who was looking to qualify for an important international competition who set a new British record on the same runway.”
Then, in the spring of 1965, now competing as a senior, he had to settle for the runners-up spot at the county championships.
“The Essex Champs were held at Mayesbrook Park but Fred Alsop came home from the Tokyo Olympics, where he finished fourth, and jumped 15 or 16 metres, it was huge!” he added.
“He was in really good form and had jumped 54 feet (16.46m) in Tokyo, but I was just 19 and should’ve still been classed as a junior really.
“We trained together at Mayesbrook Park with his coach. He was very supportive of youngsters and his take-off leg was much bigger, more muscular, than the other. It makes sense, but you don’t see it often.”
Ray was also third at the Indoor AAAs at RAF Cosford as a junior in the senior competition, jumping 14.23m behind Derek Boosey (14.72m) and Hornchurch AC’s Alsop (15.51m).
But he was on the right path, adding: “I was classed as a potential Olympic athlete just before Tokyo and had a stint at Lilleshall. I was thrilled to bits. I trained with Lynn Davies and Mary Rand, who both won gold in the long jump, and we were looked after by them and trained on technique.
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“I would go to Crystal Palace every month with other potential internationals for training weekends and the group became close knit through the winter. It was good.”
Javelin thrower Dave Travis and pole vaulter Trevor Burton were two of the other youngsters mentioned and would go on to compete at Commonwealth Games, with Travis winning gold and silver.
Sadly, injury problems meant Ray did not get the chance to fulfil his own potential and he added: “I was very injury prone and injured my ankle. I’d suffered with bruised heels, it’s quite a common thing, but you can’t walk and I got fed up with it after a while.
“When you land your heel flattens and splays out. You’re coming down with four times your body weight. Most of the runways were cinder, not rubber. They looked like broken roads! It was horrendous.
“When rubber became available it made such a difference in every event. They were so much better for jumpers, you don’t see so much now about bruised heels.
“I remember going on a Beagles trip to Copenhagen (in 1963) and we got a bus into Sweden for a training session at the Malmo Stadium. It was fantastic, the track around the football pitch, with great jumping pits.”
But he remained part of the Beagles family, coaching the likes of John Davis, Trevor Wells, Tony Benton and a certain Daley Thompson, and even returned to competition with gold medal success some years later.
“I helped Daley with his long jump and he borrowed a few 10ps off me! He was only 15 when he came to the club and what a lovely man,” he added.
“I helped coach John Davis, who is coaching at Basingstoke now, and Trevor – three internationals – and I started jumping again at 27.
“I could do 47 feet with my eyes closed and I was county champion two years in a row, Fred Alsop had retired by then, and I was jumping again at 37 at Newham & Essex Beagles.”
But one couldn’t help but think it was a case of what might have been for my uncle. If only he had recovered from that ankle injury in the mid-1960s, he might have gone on to compete at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico?
There were Commonwealth Games in Jamaica (1966), Edinburgh (1970), Christchurch, New Zealand (1974) and Edmonton, Canada (1978) – after all, Jonathan Edwards showed you’re never too old when winning gold aged 34 at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
A leap of 18.29m at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg remains the all-time record and Ray added: “He was such a floaty runner, nobody can touch him. It was out-of-this-world jumping.
“My two world bests were (two-time Olympic champion) Jozef Szmidt from Poland. He was the world record holder (first to pass 17m), but not as good as Jonathan Edwards. And the Russian Vitold Kreyer (two-time Olympic bronze medalist) was the same height as me, stylish, with the best technique of anyone until Edwards. He jumped 54 feet back then and it was almost balletic.”
Which brings us back to music and a funny story about Ray appearing in the local newspaper.
“The Beagles turned me into some sort of star at one point,” he said.
“Someone came up to me once and said ‘I’ve seen you in the paper, when did you start doing ballet?’ and I didn’t know what they were talking about.
“The headline was ‘Ray’s secret is ballet’ and Gary Havers, who did the reports for Beagles, said to me ‘it attracts interest’.
“What happened was, I’d bought a pair of red tights when I was in Copenhagen to keep warm and wore my shorts over the top. I played along with it and it went on for ages! Nobody had written about Billy Elliot then!”
It was inspiring to hear him talk about his exploits and I asked who had been his biggest influences.
As well as Beagles coach and now president emeritus Green, he added: “George Knight was absolutely the greatest person I was inspired by more than anyone else.
“He was kindness personified and gave me every bit of encouragement. He was the hardest-training athlete I’ve ever seen and best supporter of the club you could imagine.
“He just loved running and with his work ethic, he was the perfect athlete.
“Colin Young also gave me great encouragement. He was a top-notch distance walker, just amazing, who would do ultra distances, 100k.
“He was a complete enthusiast about all athletics and when you’re 17/18 you look to these people for inspiration. How would you get on without them achieving, to point you in the right direction? I’ve never forgotten them.”
Now, having finally learned the full story of my uncle’s athletics career, I don’t think I will forget it.
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