First again: now Walker's a knight

By Phil Taylor

Athletics great John Walker is New Zealand's first knight under the new royal warrant that restores knighthoods in the Queen's Birthday honours after a nine-year absence.

The knighthood completes a set for NZ's living Olympic running champions.

Sir John (1500m, Montreal, 1976) joins Sir Murray Halberg (5000m, Rome, 1960) as a knight.

Dr Peter Snell (800m, Rome, and 800m and 1500m Tokyo, 1964), who was appointed a Distinguished Companion of the NZ Order of Merit in 2001, will officially become "Sir Peter" on July 1 as a result of the Key Government restoring the titles of dames and knights dropped by the Labour Government in 2000.

The other New Zealander to win Olympic gold on the track, Jack Lovelock (1500m, Berlin, 1936), died in 1949.

The sense of completeness is not lost on Sir John. "Peter was my idol. I would have been very disappointed if he'd not got one or I'd got one first."

Sir John says news of his knighthood came out of the blue. "Everyone says that but it did. The letter came to the shop [Stirrups, an equestrian supplies business he owns with wife, Lady Walker]. It said I'd been selected for a knighthood.

I put it in a drawer and thought about it for a while."

The Government announced in March that titles would be reinstated and that 85 New Zealanders who had been appointed Principal and Distinguished Companions could opt to become knights or dames by the end of this month.

Sir John, made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1992, is honoured for services to sport and the community, particularly his beloved Manukau City.

He accepted it as recognition of a long career in athletics and in his roles as a councillor, establishing the children's charity Variety and now with the John Walker Find Your Field of Dreams Foundation.

But you don't do things in life or go into careers for recognition, he says. "You go into it because you love it. If you go into sport, or anything really, just for the rewards, you are going to fall on your face. I ran for the sake of running, because I loved it. I wish I could have done it until I was 60."

Sir John, 56, was diagnosed with the nervous system disease Parkinsons 15 years ago, soon after hanging up his racing flats.

Seven years spent heading Variety was rewarding, humbling and also helped his own battle with illness. "I'd had this great career in running and then to go into the hospitals and to see kids with leukaemia or heart problems, well, it makes you think. It helped me tackle Parkinsons because ... you realise there are people, kids, much worse off.

"I can get up and go to work, I can enjoy a meal. And though I'm a bit slower and it is frustrating, with [the help of] my tablets, I can still do it."

He says everyone he approached to be a trustee of the Find Your Field of Dreams foundation unhesitatingly said "yes". They did so because they share a passion to get kids off the streets by giving them opportunities through sport and recreation.

The Walkers plan a family celebration later in the week when daughter Elizabeth (the oldest of four children) returns from Europe. Sir John's mother, Leah, 79, will be there. His father, Roy, died three years ago.

"It's just a pity my Dad is not around to see it. It would have been a real feather in his cap because we came from a simple background. There wasn't much money.

"Dad was a fantastic sportsman but he came through the Depression and didn't have a chance. He was shovelling coal [for a living] at 15," says Sir John. "That's why Field of Dreams is so good. You don't have to have money to participate in sport. It's about giving the kids a chance.

"Yes, Dad would have been very proud."

- ADDITIONAL REPORTING: NZPA

- NZ Herald

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