Emily Moss talks to David Hemery about his hurdles history, Superstars and his 21st Century Legacy charity
One thing is certain, with degrees from Boston, Harvard and Oxford universities, David Hemery is never going to be one to sit back and bask in past athletics glories. In addition to his 1968 Olympic 400m hurdles title and world record of 48.12, these include an individual 400m hurdles bronze to go with a 4x400m silver in the Olympics in Munich in 1972, two Commonwealth titles and a European silver in the sprint hurdles.
Instead the 71-year-old is active in a variety of ways, such as running the London Marathon last year in his eighth decade.
Ironically, just as it was the Mexico race and David Coleman’s commentary that arguably made Hemery famous, it was at a celebration for the commentator’s life at the BBC – after his death in late 2013 – that Hemery bumped into Dave Bedford, fellow former athlete and long-time director of the marathon. Although initially brushing 26.2 miles off as too far for a hurdler, he was persuaded when Bedford said him he could maybe raise up to £250,000 for his charity.
He vowed to treat the marathon as an extreme form of interval training: running for 48 seconds, his world record time from Mexico, and then walking for a minute repeatedly for 26 miles and 385 yards, thus taking five-and-half hours.
However, his calf went into spasm eight days before the race and he knew running would not be possible. But as a sportsman, Hemery was not going to give up on his aim that easily, particularly as he had £93,000 pledged for his charity, so he walked the entire distance, still completing the course in under six-and-half hours.
“It was challenging and frustrating. I did it with Toby Garbett, the international rower, my training partner, Ray Ridley, and my son Pete,” explains Hemery.
His training for London last year was very different to that which he did for his specialist event at his peak. In the run-up to the 1972 Olympics for the first three months of winter training, he would do 500 press-ups and 500 sit-ups every day, and run a total of five miles in between, divided into 800m intervals between each 50.
“I learned a huge amount about limits both mental and physical. For ten years after retiring, I missed both the relays and hurdles, believing I could still have run well”
He’s still the same weight as he was in 1968, but he now trains by going out with his wife, Vivian, who drives a horse-drawn carriage across the Wiltshire countryside. “I run beside it, and when I am out of breath, I jump on the back for short recoveries. When I get my breath back, I leap off and run ahead and open the gates,” explains Hemery.
If he wasn’t famous after Mexico, what really made him a household name was the BBC show, Superstars. It attracted some of the best sportsmen of the time and they competed in a range of completely different sports.
The standard of the contestants was high. Alongside Hemery, there was Jackie Stewart, Bobby Moore, Joe Bugner, Roger Taylor, Tony Jacklin and Barry John.
“We were called the magnificent seven. What a great group. I loved it,” reflects Hemery, who not only won the first series, but two others after that too.
They were not paid large appearance fees. “I think they might have paid us £250 to turn up. But I went for the fun and the challenge,” says Hemery definitively.
However, the prize money, for the mid-1970s, was considerable at £4000. “I put a deposit down on a house with my first Superstars win. It was quite a lot of money. I put £2500 down on a flat in North London, in Fortis Green. That doubled in value, which I took to the US and meant we could buy a house there, and that doubled in value which allowed us to put a deposit down here,” he says, referring to his home in Wiltshire, which includes not only a dog and a couple of cats that live in the barn, but a paddock full of 10 alpacas, two ponies, two geese, seven chickens and 120 sheep.
It is quite an idyllic life it seems, but Hemery has always worked hard for his success and that isn’t going to change. “I competed at a time when we were denied the opportunity to earn through our sport endeavours,” he says matter-of-factly.
With the ‘running as a hobby’ philosophy firmly in mind, Hemery qualified as a teacher and taught A-level economics, commerce, and life philosophy as well as remedial weight training, basketball and athletics at Millfield School for two years.
He was subsequently recruited to become the first director of the Sobel Sports Centre in London, then for seven years was head track coach at Boston University, where he taught coaching ideas and ideals in the grad school.
While there – and not content with the three degrees he already had – Hemery studied part-time for his doctorate in education, which was largely social psychology. “I have a huge interest in the power of the mind,” explains Hemery. “The dissertation was based on interviews with 83 world or Olympic champions from 22 sports and resulted in the book, Sporting Excellence – what makes a champion.”
When he returned to the UK, he joined Sir John Whitmore and David Whitaker as performance consultants and after a year of running workshops for various sports on the benefits and skill of mentoring, the trio spent most of their time with blue chip companies, introducing the skill and importance of questioning and listening, to balance the traditional telling style of management.
“I refer to it as ‘the coaching dance’, as both asking and telling is needed. It has been my passion ever since, to have parents, teachers, coaches and managers recognise the benefits and need for adopting this balanced style,” reveals Hemery.
He then goes on to explain his views on an aspect of coaching that remains a topical issue – the extent to which an athlete should take ownership for their training, as opposed to relying on their coach.
Hemery continues: “If we only tell and solve the performer’s problems and do the thinking for them, they become dependent, which is the opposite of what we want when they compete on their own. If we only ask questions, we frustrate them and undervalue our own experience and insights.
“Hence the need to dance – asking and involving them and becoming co-responsible. For several years I ran the coach education workshops, teaching these mentoring skills to many UKA coaches.”
“I was lucky enough to have helped Sally Gunnell and Debbie Flintoff-King use visualisation to assist their results prior to their Olympic 400m hurdles wins. There is no substitute for consistent hard work, but my experience is that the mind is key”
In 2008, Hemery started the charity ‘21st Century Legacy’, under which they run the programme ‘Be the Best you can Be’.
Hemery explains: “It is run as a social enterprise, as we pay our special speakers, usually Olympians or Paralympians, to go into schools and to share their inspirational life stories. We ask young people to follow their own dreams, having a plan ‘A’ and a plan ‘B’. The intention is to inspire, engage and empower young people and awaken them to their potential.”
It seems, therefore, that Hemery wants to instil into today’s youngsters some of the drive and aspiration that he arguably possesses intrinsically, in order to help the next generation achieve their potential.
“I was lucky enough to have helped Sally Gunnell and Debbie Flintoff-King use visualisation to assist their results prior to their Olympic 400m hurdles wins. There is no substitute for consistent hard work, but my experience is that the mind is key,” reiterates Hemery.
Although he avoids the after dinner, pure entertainment speeches, he has been doing public speaking ever since his Olympic title, preferring to communicate motivational, educational messages woven into life stories.
Hemery also enjoys the more ‘hands-on’ coaching side of sport too. “I am also still coaching and as my third term as vice chairman of the British Olympic Association has just come to an end, I would like to get back to more trackside coaching,” he explains.
However, arguably what he likes most about his life today is being in charge of his own diary. Having been self-employed for over 30 years, Hemery likes the fact that every work day is different.
Locally, he coaches hurdles on weekends, but travels all over the country going into schools or working for his charity. He also enjoys spending time with his family. Both sons – Adrian and Pete – are in their early 30s, with Adrian having inherited his father’s athletics genes and enjoying a stint as a GB international decathlete as a student. He now teaches maths at St Paul’s in London, while Pete works in computing for an engineering firm near Cambridge.
“We enjoy sharing jokes!” says Hemery. “In fact both boys blame me for their enjoyment of puns.”
Vivian, meanwhile, also keeps busy looking after the horses and working as a homeopath. However, the couple find time for cultural enrichment outside of work. “We took a sabbatical 18 months ago and went on an amazing trip to spend a month on each of the New Zealand islands driving and walking,” reveals Hemery.
“Although I have four degrees from Boston, Oxford and Harvard, I learned just as much from my experiences in and through sport”
Although his London Marathon attempt was a disappointment, due to the fact his calf muscles cramp when running on roads, Hemery still enjoys running. He explains: “We’re lucky, as for 30 years we’ve lived on the edge of the Marlborough Downs, where there are miles of open grassy country tracks. Sustained running is only possible at very low speeds and I love the feeling of flowing at a decent pace, especially on a downhill run, so it’s running and walking – fartlek – that I do mainly. I occasionally do some weight training or just body weight exercise and I try to retain flexibility.”
It is clear that Hemery really enjoys pushing himself – in every walk of life – and undoubtedly this quality is what made
him the athlete he was, but also led to his success on Superstars as well as in his academic and professional life.
Reflecting on his time as an athlete, he again reiterates how in his time, athletics was a hobby as opposed to a job, even for the very best athletes.
“Although I would have really valued remuneration for all the training and results, I wouldn’t swap the experiences. I enjoyed pushing myself to get daily training PBs. It had to be intrinsically worthwhile or what’s the point. I learned a huge amount about limits both mental and physical. For ten years after retiring, I missed both the relays and hurdles, believing I could still have run well,” he reflects.
Looking ahead to the future, Hemery is reducing the number of days he works with the charity and is contemplating running a few management development workshops and writing some more, having already written numerous books including an autobiography. “The book I am happiest to have written is ‘How to help children find the champion within themselves’, as it provides coaches, teachers and parents with suggestions on how to help young people to empower themselves.
“If I could ask for a legacy gift it would be that adults recognise that effective questions unlock ‘choices’ and these can release the potential and magic that sits in every young person,” says Hemery.
Arguably one of Hemery’s key messages is emphasising just how much youngsters can learn through sport. He finishes on a philosophical note, summing up his attitude to the sport he loves and to life in general.
“Although I have four degrees from Boston, Oxford and Harvard, I learned just as much from my experiences in and through sport,” he explains. “There is no doubt that winning the Olympics gave me opportunities and I am aware that these generate responsibility. It is a big challenge to all of us, to be aware and responsible and aim to be the best we can be.”