Real Life

Running to Rio: Arch has still got it

The ageless sports legend could be the Olympic’s oldest coach

If we needed a reminder that Arch Jelley is not your usual run-of-the-mill 94-year-old, it came when the Auckland-based athletics coach proudly showed off his latest gadget, a Fitbit.

“I’ve set myself a goal of 8000 steps a day,” says Arch, who looks a good 15 years younger than his real age. “The American Medical Association recommend 10,000 steps (a day for most adults) – perhaps they’re more lenient considering my age.”

Age is the real reason we are here to speak with Arch, who last month created history by coaching middle-distance runner Hamish Carson – 67 years his junior – to the Rio Olympics. Many believe he is the oldest coach in history to have achieved the feat.

“I don’t think it is anything too unusual,” says Arch, who began his coaching career seven decades ago and memorably guided Sir John Walker to the 1976 Olympic 1500m title. “If you have the knowledge, are still keen on the sport and work with a good quality athlete, it is possible.”

Based out of a retirement village in West Auckland, where he lives with his second wife Jean (83), Arch left his coaching career in 2000 only to receive an unexpected phone call five years later.

Coach Jelley, pictured with wife Jean, will be cheering his protégé on from Auckland.

It was the mother of a promising 16-year-old middle-distance runner from the Kapiti Coast called Hamish Carson looking for “a non-authoritarian coach who could explain

things clearly”.

Arch couldn’t resist the tempting offer. His protégé Hamish describes his coach as “a really nice man”, and for 11 years, the partnership has flourished.

From a family who has lived long lives – Arch’s younger sister Mary is aged 92 and younger brother Stan, 90 – he has never smoked and rarely drank alcohol. He walks up to an hour every day, and up until a heart scare two years ago, he used to run up the four flights of stairs to his apartment.

“He is a good boy now, he only walks,” smiles Jean. The pair, who play and teach bridge at the Mt Albert Bridge Club four or five times a week, met across the bridge table in the early 1990s.

Back then, Jean was married to David and Arch to Rachel – although the two of them were the more motivated players of the foursome.

“We used to go away to tournaments together and while we’d be playing, Rachel and David used to potter around the second-hand shops and art galleries,” explains Arch, a former school principal.

In a tragic symmetry, both Arch and Jean’s long-term partners died of cancer within six months of each other in 2000. Two years later, Arch and Jean became a couple.

“We thought about whether it would be disloyal to our ex-partners to come together,” explains Jean. “We had both had very happy marriages, but we both agreed life goes on. We’ve since done many things together that we wouldn’t have been able to do alone.”

With Hamish who he‘s coached for 11 years.

In 2002, they married at a neighbour’s house in front of a financial advisor and the cat. “We weren’t particularly interested in having a great

big do,” adds Arch.

Jean says he’s “unromantic”, which her husband prefers to call “pragmatic”. Both describe each other as a little “obstinate” but the pair, who between them have eight children, 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, are clearly blissfully happy.

He is a big fan of gadgets and regularly uses an iPhone Touch and iPad. As an ex-teacher and athletics coach, he likes to be around younger people and as Jean comments, “He complained when we first moved into the retirement village because he said there were too many old people.”

Arch’s protégé, Hamish, (wearing purple far right).

Carrying out much of his coaching via email, Skype and phone because Hamish is based in Wellington, the nonagenarian has also opted to remain apart from his athlete during the Rio Olympics, preferring to watch from the comfort of the communal lounge at the retirement village.

He says he is proud of Hamish’s accomplishments and hopes his 27-year-old protégé, who has overcome a range of setbacks in his career from a vocal cord problem to two fractured wrists, can progress through to the semi-finals in Rio.

When told his name had recently cropped up on American radio, he says with a laugh, “They like a gimmick. The other day, I passed a lady who remarked, ‘You’re the oldest coach in the world.’ I’d never even met her before. I thought what a cheeky devil.”

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