Athletics: Coach's epic battle

By Anendra Singh

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Allan Potts with a photo of wife, the Late Sylvia Potts, who ran the last leg of the Queen's message to signal the start of the 1974 Commonwealth Games and the classic trophy. Photo / Warren Buckland
Allan Potts with a photo of wife, the Late Sylvia Potts, who ran the last leg of the Queen's message to signal the start of the 1974 Commonwealth Games and the classic trophy. Photo / Warren Buckland

Perched comfortably in a leather chair in the corner of his living room, Allan Potts gently rolls his hands, sporting a poker face but his eyes sparkling.

"My goal is to go to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in Scotland in July but it seems to be a pipe dream," says the 79-year-old Hastings Athletics Club coach not long after revealing he's battling bone cancer.

Setting incremental goals, Potts believes, is very important to his recovery process.

"My goal was to leave hospital and return to 214 Terrace Rd and I did that," says the former New Zealand athletics representative runner who was admitted to Hawke's Bay Hospital in Hastings for three weeks before Christmas after he fell out of his bed.

With the 15th Sylvia Potts Memorial Classic meeting at the Hawke's Bay Regional Sports Park in Hastings tomorrow from 5pm, he is preoccupied with making it to the pavilion to watch the annual event dedicated to his wife, the late Sylvia Potts, who tragically succumbed to cancer on August 31, 1999.

"It's the first time I'll be going there not as an administrator or official. It'll also be the first time I'll be there just watching so I'm not sure how that'll go," he says with a grin.

A Sylvia Potts Trust was established in tandem with the Hastings club's meeting. The trust donates $1000 every year to the HB Cancer Society plus anything it receives from the gold-coin donations at the gate.

A 1968 Mexico Olympic Games athlete, Sylvia Potts went down in athletics history for a heartbreaking fall just metres short of the tape in the 1500m finals of the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

Sprinting to a narrow lead in the home straight, she was in front two metres from the finish when her legs gave way from sheer exhaustion.

She fell and lost a certain gold medal.

It didn't embarrass Sylvia that she made it into the Minties Moment advertisement on TV but what rankled with her was she got famous for what she didn't do rather than what she did do.

The Potts couple was awarded the Order of New Zealand for Merit in 2005, a recognition that marked one of the greatest husband-and-wife partnerships in the history of New Zealand athletics.

Allan Potts, who trained Sylvia before marrying her, is hoping he'll be okay to move around the park tomorrow to see Angie Smit, of Christchurch, lift her fifth consecutive title in the premier, last 800m race for women or if double silver medallist at the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games Nikki Hamblin, on a comeback trail following an earlier injury, will burst the affable 22-year-old's bubble.

"I have to be very careful how I walk. If I fall over I'm going to be in trouble. If I break a bone then it won't mend," he says, adding X-rays had revealed black spots have riddled his body which has shed 18kg.

"Everything is okay at the moment, touch wood."

Four years ago he thought he had won his battle with prostate cancer.

"I understood I was on top of it but about 18 months ago they found it in my bones."

Steroids have given him a boost but because of the cocktail of other drugs he isn't allowed to drive.

The former coach, who was once in the same national team as Sir Peter Snell in a Melbourne meeting where he was named to go to the Rome Olympics to clinch gold, is understandably taking his lack of mobility hard.

"I ran in 1960 in the 1500m event in Invercargill where I finished second behind [Sir] Murray Halberg."

Potts went on to win the NZ 10-Miler in 1965 in the Bay although he was living in Dunedin at the time.

"I got married and returned soon after that."

Having had a "pretty good life", he considers himself fortunate. Ever since Sylvia died, Potts has lived on his own in his Hastings home.

A man who cooked his own food and took pride in coaching athletics to countless children at parks now concedes he has lost his independence.

He thanks Meal on Wheels for their five-day service and labels magnificent what the hospital staff, Cranford Hospice and Cancer Society have done for him.

His former proteges, based in Auckland, have paid him a visit through the Christmas break.

Son Nicholas Potts, 35, was here for five weeks, visiting him at the hospital and celebrated Christmas before returning to his Scottish wife, Shona, and his stepson, Lewis, 9, in Glasgow.

"Nicholas really loves his cricket," says the Hillend Cricket Club coach.

He lauds elder son Richard, 42, for organising things this year while putting his building business aside.

"I'm very proud of him," says Potts, also saluting Sylvia's Oxenham family.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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