Michele Hewitson Interview: Arch Jelley

By Michele Hewitson

Optimism and keeping a cool head are hallmarks of a legendary athletics coaching career - and at 90, he can still run up three flights of stairs

Arch Jelley, who coached John Walker to Olympic gold, has invented a new system for playing bridge. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Arch Jelley, who coached John Walker to Olympic gold, has invented a new system for playing bridge. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The legendary running coach Arch Jelley sometimes runs up the three flights of stairs to his apartment, which conveniently overlooks the bowling green at the Green Bay retirement village. He has a coach's eye for spotting ability. He took us up in the lift. He almost never uses the lift. When he doesn't run up the stairs, he walks. He's only 90. His wife, Jean, says he only runs up the stairs when he's showing off. I asked who he's showing off to and she said: "Himself!" at the exact moment he said: "Myself!"

I have a hunch I'm not the first person she's told about this showing off, or that it's the first time husband and wife have given that answer in unison but we all laughed our heads off anyway. I have to say here that Jean is Arch's second wife, because she is, and because he always makes her insert "first husband" when she is talking about her first husband, David, who died in 2000. Her second husband said: "The other one is not dead yet."

He most certainly is not; he is very much alive and still running up stairs and still playing bowls and bridge and teaching bridge and still coaching a young runner, Hamish Carson.

The coach said: "He's not that young. He's 24."

He has an impish attitude to age. He took up bowling when he and Jean moved into the apartment "not very long ago; only 10 or 11 years" when he was "relatively young. I learned when I was only 80".

He looks capable of living forever. He and Jean swim and play bowls and run on treadmills and ride on bikes at the village's gym. Neither of them drink; Jean never has and he has given up "liquor", although a couple of beers is likely to have been his idea of drinking.

He has the look of a man who led an abstemious life. He is lean and still lithe; he is streamlined; he has a tidy runner's body and a tidy mind. You can see why he took to bridge like a duck to water. He likes systems and schedules and has invented a new system for playing bridge. What's it called? "Well, it's not called the Jelley system. It's called Modified Precision." Of course it is. His system is played by only a few people, at his Mt Albert bridge club where he is president. Of course he is. Jean plays his system, but now refuses to play it with him because she got fed up with him ticking her off for forgetting things and correcting her.

Jean: "So I decided I wasn't going to play with him. He wouldn't tell me once. He'd tell me two or three times. He's competitive at everything."

A little later. Me to Arch: "What else are you competitive about?"

Arch: "Who says I'm competitive?"

Me: "Your wife. The second one."

Arch: "Oh. I don't know. If you're interested in something, you like to do that as well as you can."

Quite a bit later. Arch, about the photographer's camera: "That's a better camera than mine, Jean." I think we can take it as read that he is competitive about everything.

There are no prizes for guessing where Arch met Jean: it was over a bridge table. He and his first wife, Rachel, and Jean and her first husband, David, used to go to bridge tournaments around the country together. Arch and Jean would play and Rachel and David would go off fossicking in second-hand shops. But Arch and Jean didn't get together until after David and Rachel died, within six months of each other. "What do you mean, exactly?" asked Arch when I asked, in a roundabout way, how long he and Jean had been together. They married, in 2002, without telling family (she has five children; he has three) because they didn't want any fuss. They have yet to go on a honeymoon. Was he a romantic?

Jean: "No."

Arch: "I'm more pragmatic, I would think."

I was wondering how he managed the proposal and he didn't quite manage it at all, at first.

Jean: "For some reason or other I was taking him home and I was sitting in the car and he was sitting next to me and I was waiting for him to get out and I said: 'Are you going to get out?' I've forgotten what he said, but he didn't ask me to marry him. He just said he was going to come and live with me."

Arch: "I corrected that two days later."

They seem blissfully, competitively, happy together.

You have to ask: Had there been a spark, over those bridge tables, when they were married to other people?

Arch: "No! Not at all!"

Jean: "We never even thought about it."

Arch: "We are very old-fashioned. Ha, ha."

Queen St Golden MileOn Easter Monday there is a big running event in Auckland: the Queen St Golden Mile. The last time this race took place was in 1983. It has been revived by a chap called John Walker. On the wall of the Jelley apartment is a photograph of John Walker running. "And the chap with the big mouth behind him, that's me," Arch said. He's calling Walker's times.

Walker is of course his most famous runner; and they are both most famous for that gold medal, won in the 1500m at the Montreal Olympic Games of 1976.

"Well, I coached him for the odd year or two." How many years? "Only about 20."

It is his gold medal too, or at least he is at least as proud of it as Walker is. "Oh, too right. I mean, he broke world records too, but that Olympic gold is far more prestigious, really."

Too right. It's history.

So is this: on Easter Monday, the PR bloke emailed me, "A man in his 91st year will have an athlete 65 years his junior running in an event revived by his famous protege - who he coached to an Olympic gold almost 40 years ago."

This typo got me into a slight bit of trouble. He's not 91. "Certainly not!"

If you had to guess what he'd been, other than a legendary coach, you might well arrive at headmaster - and you'd be correct.

He has always been an amateur coach and so has never made a cent from coaching. His first wife once calculated that all the money he'd spent on travelling and other associated coaching costs would have bought them a second house. He didn't care about the money then and he doesn't now. He has never resented either time or money spent. "I can't be bothered thinking about it."

Runners get the glory; coaches, generally, don't. In a way he has always lived in the shadow of his most famous runner, Walker, but to ask if this has ever rankled is a very silly question. He has never bothered thinking about this, either.

He was a runner too. Why was he unable to coach himself to be an Olympian? "I did coach myself. I wasn't good enough. I wasn't talented enough."

You'd think that when he realised this, it must have come as a crushing blow. He thought this was just about the funniest thing he'd ever heard. "It wasn't a crushing blow at all. Ha, ha. I remember it was the Empire Games and this is going back a long way, to 1950, and at that time I was running pretty well and I could have been going for a place in the New Zealand team. And I went to Melbourne."

Jean: "Chasing a girl!"

Did he catch her? "No. I came back empty-handed."

Perhaps he didn't want the sporting glory enough? "I did. But I knew I wasn't of that calibre."

Even the girl outran him. "I know!"

He said of Walker: "He's quite good." He meant he liked him. Could he have coached somebody he didn't like? "Difficult." He has never turned away a runner who has asked him to coach, so he must like almost anyone.

He is an optimist. He said, in a hopeful way: "Do you have a sporting background? Were you a runner?"

He showed me his bridge system. It made my head ache. He said: "You could master that in no time, I'd think."

Optimism and keeping a cool head are hallmarks of his coaching career. On the day of what would be Walker's great race, they were rooming together. "And in practice that means that I occupy one-eighth of the room and his stuff occupies seven-eighths - it's strewn all over the floor." He knew he'd done all he could and that Walker had done all he could to prepare. So he suggested that they have a little snooze. He set the alarm clock and they lay down on their respective beds and slept for two hours. This probably says quite a bit about both of them, and about their coach/runner relationship. "Oh, probably. It probably says that he's quite happy with the way things are going."

And the coach was too? "Yeah." Nothing much makes him nervous. "Not to any great extent."

Perhaps that's his great talent: to be able to impart calmness and confidence. I left almost believing that I would be able to master his hellish bridge system in no time at all. But not that I would ever be able to trump him.

He's proud of his coaching history, but he's not in thrall to it. Big egos belong to the sports stars, not the star-makers. I said: "Have a good time on Monday," and he said, "What's on Monday?" The big race event. He was only going, he said, because Jean had told him he had to. He'd had to cancel a bowls game and he wasn't too happy about that. Do I believe this? I believe he's not too happy about having to cancel a bowls game but I also believe he wouldn't miss it for the world. He knows his place in running history. Why make a fuss about it?

Queen St Golden Mile races on Monday start from 1pm at Mayoral Drive and finish on Queen's Wharf.

- NZ Herald

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