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Albert Johnson

The world of athletics will be saddened to have heard of the sad passing of Albert Johnson, who died on Friday 20th May at his home in Tasmania, writes Robbie Lambie.  Albert was 80 years of age and in the end died of pneumonia.  He had been ill for several years and leaves behind a family and his wife Mildred (a Manx lady).

For those who had the pleasure of knowing Albert and who have benefitted from his coaching expertise during their athletic careers, I think many would regard him as ?The Special One? or even ?The Guvnor?.  Over the years he has been described as controversial, outspoken, bloody minded and rather eccentric.  Some of those adjectives may be accurate and fitting but the other and more attractive side of Albert was a man with great communicating and listening skills, sensitive, humourist, a superb motivator who offered encouragement to everyone, a person with integrity and honesty and a man with impeccable manners.  In other words a man of many parts.  He was a real character.  He was certainly never boring and when he had something to say about any subject, even outside the world of athletics, it was interesting and you listened. Though he believed in training hard he always insisted that you had to balance this out with a bit of fun and recreation. Indeed many of the jokes he shared with athletes were invariably at his expense which in many ways was how he liked it.

Albert?s CV was indeed impressive and he was well read and experienced in not only Race Walking, which was his first love, but also in sprinting, hurdling, middle distance and endurance running events.  He has coached male and female athletes i.e. juniors, seniors and veterans in a variety of events in several countries.  Undoubtedly one of his greatest skills and abilities was to sit in a spectators stand quietly watching an athletic event and looking for young up and coming athletic talent.  If a young athlete had potential and promise he could spot it a mile off and knew how to maximise that talent with his knowledge and experience.  Much in the same way a top football scout would be able to spot a young promising teenage footballer.  He was a great observer, a good listener, strong communicator and a tremendous motivator.  He had the ability to make an athlete believe they had the talent to achieve a certain target and always paid particular attention to the mental preparation of an athlete?s ambitions.

Albert was brought up in the steel city of Sheffield and from what he told me many years ago had a tough upbringing. He had sisters and brothers and I am sure he had to leave school early to find work to keep the money coming in for the family, not there was much about just after the Second World War.  He was not a healthy child and I think he may have had some heart defect which was thought at the time would shorten his life.  Indeed he failed a medical for National Service when he was 18 years of age as he had ?flat feet? amongst other things, so clearly the Army didn?t want him.  This rejection spurred Albert on and being a determined and ambitious character set about to take up athletics ?just so he could show them? and really that?s where his walking career started.  His mantra was ? if you want something badly enough the sky is the limit?.

As an athlete he represented Great Britain in the 50 kilometre walk at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics (Melbourne and Rome respectively).  In Melbourne he finished 8th and in Rome was disqualified when sharing the lead with Britain?s Don Thompson in the early stages, who later went on to win the Gold medal.  He also won the Bradford 50km (in around 4hrs 30) and I believe he won the famous Sheffield Star Walk (12 miles) in the late 1950?s, an event which attracted hundreds of competitors (many novices as well as experienced walkers).  Both these events also attracted hundreds of spectators who lined the streets cheering the competitors on.  It was around the mid 50?s when he won National titles that he was nicknamed ?Nid Nod? due to his nodding action when walking.

Albert who had worked in a Sheffield hospital as an orderly decided to come over to live in the Isle of Man in 1963 and fell in love with the Island, a place very different to Sheffield.  Initially he worked at Ballamona Hospital as a male nurse where he met John Cannell who also worked there.  John at the time had been walking along with Graham Young and several other walkers for some years.  Albert drifted in and out of work shortly after that, working in various places like Ronaldsway Aircraft Company, Palace Casino, Royalty Cinema.  However, he then returned to Ballamona  as a psychiatric nurse (from memory around that period he lived in a flat in Christian Road in Douglas).  Indeed I think he remained in this profession right up to his retirement when he later lived in Tasmania.  He certainly had a keen interest in psychiatry and psychology and he used this to good effect with his coaching.  He would always maintain that a lot of races are won and lost in the dressing room, when people would talk to gain a mental advantage over their opponents.  If your head wasn?t right and you didn?t feel positive or focused, then you wouldn?t win, despite all the training and preparation beforehand was philosophy.

He soon made his mark in the local walking scene on the Island.  There were several walking clubs around the late 50?s up to 1961 e.g. Malew Beagles, Onchan Harriers to name just two of several before the Boundary Harriers became the sole club.  Needless to say Albert joined the Harriers and made his mark very soon.  Albert gained selection for the Commonwealth Games in 1966, held in Kingston, Jamaica (known as the Empire Games previously), along with Phil Bannan and Haydn Gawne.  There was a little ill feeling at the time about Albert?s selection as in some quarters he was perceived as a ?comeover? and a has been who perhaps should have ?moved over? and given the local walkers a chance. However, the ruling was at the time that if any competitor lived in the IOM for at least 6 months they could represent the Island in the Empire or Commonwealth Games as it became.   The event was the 20 mile walk.  However, rightly or wrongly, Albert broke no rules in going for selection as he had lived in the IOM for 3 years prior to the Games.

Albert?s experience and knowledge was soon starting to be felt and apart from competing himself was paying more attention to the coaching side.  He was quite outspoken and passionate about race walking and athletics in general but he had the ability to rub some officials up the wrong way.  I    think this was largely borne out of jealously as it was clear his ideas and coaching methods were way ahead of their time and certainly nobody in the IOM could hold a candle to his knowledge.  Don?t forget here was an ex-Olympian who had rubbed shoulders with the best in the world in walking and had gained a vast experience in running also and knew may top endurance runners personally around that time e.g. Trevor Wright, Ron Hill et al.  He was to walking what Arthur Lydiard was to running in the 1960?s.  In fact some of Albert?s methods and ideas of coaching, technique work, schedules still stand up today and have stood the test of time.  Most local athletes around that period not were not familiar with terms such as fartlek, conditioning training, periodisation, repetitions, speed endurance etc.  So for someone to teach us these methods was to say the least an education, especially in the mid to late 1960?s.

It was no time at all that the young walkers on the Island prospered from Albert?s coaching and around the mid 1960?s local walkers like Graham Young, John Cannell, Phil Bannan, Allan Callow, Ian Hodkinson and Haydn Gawne were winning Junior walking titles in the team events.  Indeed Phil Bannan gained an international vest at about 19 in the late 60?s for the under 20?s age group.  Soon after slightly younger walkers were appearing on the scene such as John Wilkinson, Brian Leece, Stuart Comaish, John Reynolds and Robbie Lambie and were all performing in walks in the UK with distinction. John  Wilkinson and Robbie Lambie representing Lancashire in the English Schools Champs.  Make no mistake this was mainly down to the coaching and guidance of Albert Johnson.

It wasn?t just the walking that Albert was coaching as he dabbled in the running events also, i.e. sprinting to middle distance.  He coached young teenagers at the time like, Di Shimmell (then known as Di Deakin), Dave Newton, Dennis Killey, Brian Goldsmith, Philip Walker, Sue Colquitt, Ian Colquitt to name but a few.  Without exception the above runners improved their performances under Albert?s guidance and I am sure they have a lot to be grateful and thankful for.

I recall my first race walk which was a one mile event (under 15?s) around the perimeter of the NSC.  I got disqualified after about three quarters of a mile when leading and the person who ?pulled? me out of the race was none other than Albert Johnson.  As disappointed and hurt as I was, I knew that Albert had done it for my own good and to his credit had handled the situation very sensitively and professionally and just encouraged me to move on and not dwell on that race.  I respected him for that. Although I don?t think Albert was ever a judge, he could quite easily have been one and would have been as good a judge as anyone as he could spot technical flaws in a walker?s technique like no other person and more importantly knew how to remedy it.

I had been a sprinter, middle distance runner (and footballer) prior to meeting Albert but he had influenced me and had sold walking to me so it seemed reasonable to give it a go.  All he said about training and coaching just made sense. So he started to coach me.   I lived at St Johns at the time and Albert would either ride his motorbike out to my house, catch a bus or on several occasions run the 8 miles from Douglas, do  an hour session with myself, Brian Leece, Ray Pitts, David Pitts and several others, towel down and then run back home.  Remarkable that, which proved how committed and dedicated he was to his athletes.  For a bit of variety, occasionally he would train Stuart Comaish, John Reynolds and myself at Foxdale, just so we could train on the hills. Sometimes he would arrange to meet an athlete somewhere and if it was raining he still turned up for the session whether the athlete did or not.  His attitude was ?I must lead by example and if I don?t show up, then what message is that sending out to the athlete, especially if they turn up?

In 1967 he broke the Parish Record when he recorded 15 hrs 54 mins after going off course at Bride.  It was around that time (or possibly the year before) that he was leading in the End to End walk and collapsed at the Shore Hotel with just over 3 miles to go.  He had been walking all over the road for several miles prior to his final collapse.  Clearly embarrassed about his ?Jim Peters? type marathon performance, he emphasised to his training group afterwards, that you must never start off too hard in an endurance event particularly if you hadn?t put the training in. It was an object lesson to all of us and he had paid the price for teaching us that.

Around 1972 Albert left the Island to move back to Sheffield.  He  got married to Mildred and soon started a family.  He moved to Parsons Cross which was quite close to Hillsborough.  He trained a squad of walkers who trained around the football ground in a road circuit which was probably about 1.5 miles.  It was during this period after staying with Albert and Mildred (and their 2 young girls) that I got to know some of the Sheffield and Yorkshire walkers like Jake Warhurst, Mike Holmes, Peter Ryan to name a few. Albert had now become the National Coach in Race Walking.  Walkers were already reaping the rewards of his coaching skills as some of his training group i.e. Jake Warhurst, Roy Thorpe and Graham Young had all excelled in the 1974 Commonwealth Games held at Christchurch, New Zealand.  Jake won the gold, Roy the silver and Graham finished in 4th place in the 20 mile event.  I believe Jake had finished 4th place in the European 20 kilometre Champs just prior to the Commonwealths.

Several years later Albert decided to emigrate and he and his family moved to Tasmania to take on a new life.  Albert always liked the Australians and the way they spoke freely about things.  I think the seeds were sown when he went to Melbourne at the 1956 Olympics.  He soon got into the coaching after finding employment in psychiatric nursing.  After doing some coaching in walking he drifted into coaching running with success.

Few of us heard of him from him on the Island for about 15 years or more until one evening down the NSC in 1997 I spotted a couple walking round the NSC track.  The man was wearing a fedora and I thought ?I know that man?.  It was Albert Johnson who had brought along Mildred to watch a local track meet.  It was such a shock to meet the great man as it nobody had known he was coming to the IOM. They had both come over to the Island for 3 weeks to look up old friends, probably realising it was really their last chance to see Manx friends.

After talking to him for a while I was pleasantly surprised and impressed to hear that he had taken on coaching jobs in sprinting in Australia.  He had moved on and had kept up with the modern methods of athletics and was making a name for himself ?down under?.  I think Albert?s frankness and honesty went down well with the Aussies as clearly they respected his achievements and training methods.  In fact I have read some touching testimonials by some of the Australian athletes and officials regarding Albert and it is clear that he was very popular and well respected.  In reality he had carried on his success helping athletes in Australia to win National titles. 

It must have been a sight to behold for him when he walked round the track at the NSC those 14 years ago before watching the Steve Jacobs mile handicap race.   All his hard work in the campaign, along with people like Arthur Currie, Peter McElroy, Denis Lace and Brian Whitehead to get an all weather track in the IOM had eventually come to fruition.  A bit late for some of us but I know that the above personnel tried desperately to get a track laid way back in the 1960?s.

Albert returned to Tasmania with Mildred probably a little sad but I am sure that Albert in particular will have been proud with what he saw with all the juniors running and walking still active in the local scene.  He had left Manx athletics in good and safe hands. This is mainly down to the efforts of people like Di Shimell and Allan Callow who have coached junior athletes over the years with great success, winning titles and helping athletes to gain Commonwealth Games selection and in some cases internationals.  On the walking front, Allan Callow in particular deserves great credit as he became National Walking Coach (after Julian Hopkins and Peter Markham) and has given so much time to devote to these athletes and I am sure Steve Partington, Steve Taylor, Mike Karran to mention a few of many who have prospered under his encouragement, experience and knowledge.  Though I am sure Allan would in his typical unassuming and modest way just say ? don?t thank me, thank Albert Johnson.  It was down to him that I got interested in walking in the first place, he taught me all I know.

Local walking owes a lot to Albert Johnson and with walkers who were coached, influenced  and guided by him such as Graham Young, John Cannell and Allan Callow, has produced a ?knock on? effect? with younger walkers and the whole local scene has snowballed.  Where else can you see in Great Britain and possibly the world fields of nearly 1800 walkers lining up to do an 85 mile walk?  Not to mention attracting top athletes and celebrities over to either compete or give motivational and inspirational talks, such as Roger Black and Steve Backley.  These situations have to start from somewhere and I would suggest the seeds were sown nearly 50 years ago, partly down to a Yorkshireman coming over to the Island and spreading the word.  Indeed an ex Olympian who couldn?t even pass a medical when he was 18 years of age.

I think Albert Johnson must be right up there with the best athletic coaches that we?ve seen which includes the likes of George Gandy and Harry Wilson who have also passed away.  He was definitely in the Premier League.  It?s just a shame we will not see his like again but he has left a legacy and he has certainly made his mark in a powerful and positive way.  We all him owe so much.

Sympathy and condolences are expressed to Albert?s family and close friends and especially to his wife Mildred, a lovely lady born in the Isle of Man, who in Albert?s words ?had to put up with a lot? but rarely complained. 

Rest in Peace Albert.

Robbie Lambie

Albert Johnson with John Reynolds, Stuart Comish & Robbie Lambie at Onchan Park in 1967

British Olympic walker 1956 (8th) & 1960

Parish Walk winner in 1967 (still 15th fastest time ever of 15:54:51)

Manx resident 1963 to 1974 – coaching legend bringing walkers together in single club

Born Sheffield – died Tasmania to where he emigrated from Isle of Man



Parish Walk

Easter Festival

Marathon & Half Marathon

End to End Walk

Isle of Man Mountain Ultra

No rest for the wicked

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