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Sunday, 23 November 2014

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Copeland's Olympic legacy

TWO of Copeland's Olympians - Mike Cowley and John Kirkbride - reflect on their Games glory and heartbreak.

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So near and yet so far: Mike Cowley pictured in 2007

Two Copeland athletes of yesteryear – cyclist Mike Cowley and middle distance runner John Kirkbride – were right at the top of their respective sports when they competed in the Olympics of 1972 and 1964 respectively. Both experienced heartbreak, but for them, it was the glory of taking part in the Olympic Games. Alan Irving looks back....

AT the age of 25, as one of Britain’s top middle distance runners, racing with the likes of Brendan Foster, John Kirkbride competed in the Olympic Games of 1972 in Munich.

Leading up to his selection, no one had made greater sacrifices to represent Great Britain and to run in an Olympic Games than this former member of the town’s Murray Boys Club.

Whitehaven and West Cumbria was known as an athletics wilderness. But sheer determination, blood, sweat and no little tears, saw him overcome all the training difficulties to fight his way right to the top.

Unfortunately, John failed to make the Olympic 1,500 metres final. He was knocked out in his heat after being tripped, but to be there was an achievement itself against all odds.

On his return home, John said philosophically: “The glamour is over and it’s now back to the grind but I will have to think seriously about how I am going to overcome all the problems caused by living in West Cumbria. The nearest indoor facilities are at Wolverhampton and it is no fun training at home in freezing temperatures.”

This was his rueful reflection of the 1972 Olympic heartbreak: “I just couldn’t believe I’d been knocked out of my heat.

“There were four fast finishers as well as myself and I made up my mind how I was going to run. It was a slow pace which suited me fine. Then, just as I was about to make my effort 150 yards from home, I was tripped and pushed sideways facing the crowd. I literally stopped and lost 10 to 12 yards. I got back to within four yards of the first three but I just couldn’t close the gap.”

The last straw for John came when he had to hang around for 90 minutes for a dope test. “It all seemed so pointless,” he said ruefully.

Before and after the Olympics, the mayor of Whitehaven, Jimmy Johnston, gave John a civic reception. A cheque for £133 was handed over to offset the young hero’s out-of-pocket expenses incurred in preparing for the Olympics!

“Whitehaven is behind you all the way,” said the mayor. “You have given outstanding service to athletics and great recognition to your home town,” he added. Although John represented Blackpool Athletics Club, he always made a point of telling reporters that he was from Whitehaven.

“I go to great pains to point out where I live,” he said. “If Whitehaven had a well-organised athletics club, with people who could give me competition, I would represent that club.”

John was accompanied in the Town Hall by his wife, Linda, and his equally proud parents, from Mirehouse.

A few days later came the AAA Championships at Crystal Palace – dubbed an Olympic trial. He was racing against Brendan Foster, Peter Stewart, Douglas, Wilkinson and Mapleton in the 1,500 metres.

John said he felt stronger and faster than ever. No wonder, he had trained incredibly hard all winter for what was looming as the race of his life. For seven months, he was running 75 miles a week in his spare time, sometimes 100.

Although finishing third to equal the previous British record of 3 mins 38.7 secs, it wasn’t good enough. Then came another chance, a triangular international match in Finland. It was ‘Last Chance Saloon’. And in Helsinki, with only four hours’ sleep, John had to battle against his friend and rival Brendan Foster for the remaining place in the British 1,500 metre squad. The legendary Foster got the place.

After the Helsinki disappointment, John and his wife Linda, a great inspiration, shed tears. But then the Gods of Olympus suddenly lifted the couple from the depths of despair. Peter Stewart, who had just created a new British record of 3 mins 38.2 secs, pulled out through injury.

John heard the news while training in Blackpool but refused to believe his good luck until he had telephoned the secretary of the British Athletics Board, and soon the Distington Engineering contracts engineer was on his way to St Moritz in the Swiss Alps to join the rest of the British athletics team for altitude training.

John’s head, however, was not in the clouds. He said at the time: “The fact that I am a replacement has taken some of the glamour away but once I got on the plane I think the feeling that I am actually going to run in the Olympics will finally sink in.”

With wife Linda proving a great mentor, often sharing cold, wet nights at Whitehaven county sports ground clocking her husband’s times, John often trained alongside a youth called Bill McCourt, of Whitehaven Murray Boys Club. It helped him bridge the gap between leaving Overend School and breaking into more competitive athletics with Blackpool and Fylde AC.

Going to Loughborough College accelerated John’s athletics rise.

This was also the scene of one of his most memorable races – running for the AAA against the then European champion John Whetton, who was representing Loughborough.

The nonchalant Whetton was the home crowd favourite and a big cheer went up as he sailed past the young West Cumbrian. However, the slight 5ft 8in challenger showed he was made of that stern stuff.

“I just switched on to the outside lane and burst straight past him. Honestly he couldn’t believe it, he nearly fell over — nobody had really out-kicked him like that before.”

And a last word from John, on his return from Munich: “There is no reason why a Cumbrian or anyone else should not be an Olympic champion — but a lot more money must be put into preparations.”

MIKE Cowley, from Thornhill, Egremont, was the old county of Cumberland’s first Olympian.

This crack racing cyclist competed in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Mike rode in three Tours of Britain leading up to the Olympics with two stage wins in ’64 and finishing fourth overall.

There was also a creditable performance in the San Sebastian world championships – but the Olympics was the culmination of a spectacular career where mental toughness and dedication were as strong as his famed pedal power.

During an interview five years ago, Mike told me: “When the muscles are screaming, you just had to hurt yourself to keep ahead of the pack carrying on until you drop – if that’s your chance to get a win then that’s what you have to do.”

Mike made the individual men’s final; he didn’t win a medal but could easily have done so but for a crash which destroyed his dream of gold, silver or bronze.

This is how Mike described the closing moments of the race of his life:

“I was highly motivated, wanting to be at the front, as I was most of the way, but with a mile to go there was a hill just before the finish. I was a climber more than sprinter but when it got to the last hill I thought my best chances are on my own.

“With only half a mile to go, I attacked on one side of the road, on the other side there was another rider, he was going as strong as I was. I switched across the road on to his wheel, another rider joined us and we were pulling away from the main group.

“We came to a left-hand bend about half a mile to go moving away. Unfortunately the second rider came crashing down. I was third at the time and he brought me down with him.

“The guy left was none other than the Belgian Eddie Merckx – probably the greatest ever – and he just got caught on the line. I managed to pick myself up and finished about 53rd.

“I was left limping for a few days feeling sorry for myself – after all I still had strength in the legs, I still had power and was going all out for the finishing line with a good chance of an Olympic medal.”

Two years later, another unfortunate (more personal!) incident prevented Cowley from fulfilling one of his dreams – taking part in the Tour de France.

“It was nearly but no,” said Mike, who raced both as an amateur and professional.

“In 1966 I was still an amateur, the year Tommy Simpson died, the last time amateurs and professionals could ride together in the Tour de France. I was selected to ride for Britain but unfortunately I got boils in an embarrassing place – saddle boils.

“I just couldn’t sit in the saddle and had to give up my place, you can’t ride three weeks with boils where they were. I would love to have taken part because stage racing was my thing.”

There were plenty of consolations, however, like riding for Great Britain in the World Championships in San Sebastian.

“There was no heat to contend with, it rained very heavily washing a lot of sand and gravel into the road, it wasn’t too dangerous and I was pleased to finish 30th out of 200 top international riders, especially as it was actually considered reasonable for a British rider to finish at all over 110 miles.”

Eventually Mike gave up his amateur status to turn professional with Carlton Cycles, part of the Raleigh Group.

“I rode for them for two years, then got a contract from a London firm and rode for them for another two years before retiring in 1970. The most I ever earned was £50. When I was an amateur we could never accept money but we were offered bikes. I was given a frame by the legendary Reg Harris who had his own cycling business.”

Recounting the early part of his career, Mike told me how he persuaded his mother to take him to Beckermet to buy his first bicycle for the princely sum of £1.50; he was 13 years old and had never ridden a bike before.

“I didn’t have £1.50 but I asked my man if she would give me the money. I started riding out on my own until I met another lad, Jimmy Kitto, from Scurgill. We joined Solway Cycling Club in Whitehaven, we’d ride up Loop Road, join the club runs for a bit of fun – I said I definitely didn’t want to race.”

Within a few years, the Sellafield apprentice instrument mechanic was a star of the Derwent Valley Wheelers, earning rave notices for his “devastating pedal power” as he entered the British top 12 – then came the Olympics when he was at the absolute peak of his powers.

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