Vale: Albie Thomas

28 October 2013

ATHLETICS: After a year long illness Albie Thomas died on the morning of Sunday October 27, 2013 and the athletics’ world lost one of its greats.

Born in Hurstville on February 8, 1935, Thomas became one of Australia’s greatest distance runners. He broke world records, competed at three Olympic Games, was a dual Commonwealth Games medallist and after his career he coached and worked tireless for his athletics club.

Albert Thomas lost his mother while he was in primary school and was too small for any success at rugby league but in 1951, aged 16 years and while attending Canterbury Boys’ High School, he started to emerge as an athlete. In September at the Combined High Schools state carnival, Thomas won bronze in the open 880 yards and mile races, clocking times of 2:14.0 and 5:01.4. Seeing his talent Denis Wilson encouraged him to join St George Athletics Club and compete in the Tuesday night club races on Hurstville Oval. He initially ran in bare feet until he bought a second-hand pair of shoes. For the next two years Thomas won various club races, clocking cross country times of 10:16 (two mile) and 18:33 (three mile).

Things started to change in 1953 after a visit to Percy Cerutty’s Portsea training camp. Thomas was now following a training program written by Cerutty. He was also making progress in competition when in July 1953 he was third in the NSW junior cross country championship. Over summer he clocked times of 4:29.8 (mile), 9:47.6 (2 mile) and was second in the state two mile championship. During this period he did his six month national service at the RAAF base in Wagga Wagga. In July 1954, competing at his second home, Scarborough Park, he won the NSW Novice Championship, easily beating Pat Clohessy (who at the time was living in Newcastle) who placed third. His times were coming down and in the summer of 1954/55 he recorded 1:54.8 (880y), 4:14.6 (mile), 14:39 (3 mile).Excited about the upcoming Olympic Games, Thomas brought tickets to attend for his girlfriend Nola and himself. He certainly didn’t expect to be competing, however, a little over 12 months later, he would indeed run for Australia at the Olympics.

At the start of the 1955/56 track season Thomas really started to progress running 8:54.0 (2 mile) in December. In this race he beat Dave Power and it ranked him No 2 in Australia for the year ahead of Al Lawrence and Ron Clarke. In February he ran 13:36.0 for three mile, just outside the national record of 13:31.8 and a week later was less than one second behind Al Lawrence in the State Six Mile Chamionship. They recorded times of 28:39.0 and 28:39.8. Although Thomas didn’t compete at the national championships in Melbourne, Thomas was in the thick of things taking iconic photos of the most famous national championship race in history, where John Landy stopped mid-race to help Ron Clarke back to his feet after he had fallen, before going on to win the race.

In June 1956, Thomas was third in the NSW Cross Country Championship, but his attention was soon on track races in the lead up to the Olympic trials. In September Thomas ran a personal best of 14:04.0 in the 5000m and 29:23.0 in the 10,000m. At the Olympic trials he earned selection in the 5000m and was named reserve for the 10,000m. Just 21 years of age at the Olympic Games, he won his 5000m heat and placed fifth in the final. After the Games he won a three mile race at the British Empire Games team V USA meet in 13:43.2.

In the next 18 months there were many more highlights for Thomas, including running 28:30.4 in winning the NSW six mile title, the 1957 national three mile title and over a week late in 1957, a NSW mile record of 4:01.5 and an Australian three mile record of 13:26.0. In June 1958 he was preparing to depart Australia for Europe where he would compete in the lead-up to the Cardiff Commonwealth Games. But before he left, on June 14 1958, he clocked an Australian two mile record of 8:37.8.

In July he started a two month assault on Europe, clocking world records and winning Commonwealth Games medals.  His first race was on July 8 and he won a mile in Belfast in 4:07.4. But the next night in Dublin he set a world record for three miles of 13:10.8, nearly four second under the old record. Two weeks later he travelled to Cardiff to compete in the Commonwealth Games. His first event was the three mile. He led early and although he slowed the field down, no one would take the lead until the later stages of the race when New Zealander Murray Halberg surged to the front and ran away with the win. Thomas had to settle for the silver. He closed the Games with a bronze in the mile, in an Australian trifecta. Still in Europe in August he won a three mile race at White City, London, then travelled back to Dublin where he helped pace Herb Elliott to a 3:54.5 mile world record. Thomas finished the race fifth in 3:58.6. The next night at the same venue, a tired Elliot was unable to provide the required pace (hitting the mile six seconds too slow for Thomas) who was attempting a two mile world record. Taking the lead himself, Thomas nailed the record with a 61 second last lap, an extraordinary achievement. Over the next four weeks he raced in Germany and Scandinavia, including a race in Gothenburg where he again helped Elliott to a world record, on this occasion over 1500m.

1959 TO 1965
Back in Australia, Thomas took up more of a family life, marrying Nola, working fulltime and starting a family.
On the track, there would be many more highlights including:
·       Competing at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics and 1962 Commonwealth Games
·       Winning four consecutive Australian mile titles from 1962 to 1965.
·       In 1959 running on the Australia team which broke the 4x 1 mile world record
·       In 1960 running the first sub-4 minute mile on grass in NSW, clocking 3:58.8
·       Setting Australian records: 1962 three mile (13:21.6), 1963 5000m (13:51.4) [In this era Australian records had to be set in Australia]
·       Commonwealth and Australia record: 1963 two mile on Chatswood Oval (8:33.0), Sydney.
·       World Indoor record in 1964 – three mile, in Toronto Canada (13:26.4)
·       In 1963 winning the NSW marathon title (2:29.04) and Australian mile title just three months apart.

Thomas achieved so much on the track, in an era where Australian distance running was at an all-time high. He was competitive with Herb Elliott, Ron Clarke, Al Lawrence, John Landy, Merv Lincoln, Trevor Vincent, John Murray, Denis Wilson, Dave Power, Dave Stephens, Robert Vagg, John Plummer, Keith Ollerenshaw, Graham Thomas, Tony Cook and Dave Chisholm.

After the 1965 season Thomas’ elite career started to wind down. In 1966 he started a 27 year career with Qantas.
However he continued to run regularly for his club and in 1972 ran the famous Bay to Breakers fun run. In 1975 he competed at the inaugural World Masters Track and Field Championships, where he won the 1500m (3:58.2) and 5000m (14:49.8).

Albie launched into coaching and increased his involvement with his club and was officially the club distance coach from 1973. He was still club President at the time of his death.

He coached a number of elite athletes including James Nipperess and Bridey Delaney and also guided many club athletes.

Nipperess, a dual World University Games representative, was coached by Thomas from 2003 to 2008.
“I would never have persued athletics as a sport outside of school competition if not for his offer to coach me,” Nipperess said.
“I owe all of my early success to him and his passion for the sport. He worked tirelessly for the St George community and was both an inspirational mentor and a friend.”

One of his favourite people was Bridey Delaney. This year she achieved something which had eluded him, when she won the National Cross Country Championship. Thomas had placed second in 1961 and 1963 and 50 years later Delaney went one better.
“I first met Albie when I was 11 years old. He coached me throughout my teenage years,” she said.
“To me Albie and Nola were surrogate grandparents. They played an important role in shaping the person I am today. Albie’s training environment was perfect for nurturing athletes through their youth. Albie was the perfect role model, not just because he was a legend of the sport but because he had a big heart. He gave so much back to the community. I have learnt a lot from Albie, which I will take with me throughout life. I will miss his mischievous grin, cheeky nicknames and sense of humour.”

The honours for Albie were many and well deserved. One of the highest and proudest achievements was the awarding of an OAM in June 2013. As he was unwell, Governor Marie Bashir visited his home on August 23, 2013 to present the medal to Albie. He would wear it every day.

Albie Thomas was a special and rare person. He was a world beater in his sport and following his retirement  gave back enormously through coaching, administration and inspiring the next generation for 50 years after his racing career ended. The sporting community send our condolences and deepest sympathies to his wife, Nola; daughters Robyn and Patricia; and four grandsons, Thomas, Mark, Liam and Mathew.

To read a more comprehensive tribute to Albie Thomas, please follow this link to the Athletics New South Wales website >

Funeral details are as follows:
Thursday 31 October
West Chapel, Woronora Cemetary
Linden Street, Sutherland (NSW)

With thanks to David Tarbotton and Ron Bendall

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