David Hemery: The Extended Interview

The 2011 Sports Personality of the Year award saw 400m hurdle World Champion Dai Greene limp home in ninth place, with a mere 2.64% of the vote. However, if he had won, he would slightly surprisingly not have been the first athlete to have taken the award for that event, for that accolade goes to David Hemery. 

David Hemery, now 67, won the award due to just under a minute’s worth of exertion. Having erupted from the blocks in the Olympic final in Mexico an unknown, he obliterated the opposition, winning by nearly a second as well as smashing the month-old World Record, to become a household name. The race itself is a thrilling watch, an exemplary example of the 400m hurdlers art, and is made all the more exciting by the voice of David Coleman of Private Eye’s ‘Colemanballs’ fame. In fact, according to Hemery, ‘David Coleman added the colour to the race. There was one projector at a school where the sound wasn’t working and the whole thing went flat, and I realised just how much is put into that race because of Coleman’s commentary.’ 

Hemery had crept in under the radar due to a slightly unusual upbringing. His father moved to the US when he was 12, and before his penultimate year of school he had hardly ever gone over a hurdle, the nearest thing being ‘running down the beach over breakwaters while growing up on the east coast.’ Having moved back to England for a few years after finishing school, working in a bank, he then moved back to America for university, enrolling at Boston University at the age of 20, in hindsight a huge advantage as ‘being older my body could take more’. There, he was lucky enough to work with the two coaches, Billy Smith and septuagenarian Fred Housden, who were to shape his future athletics career, as well as his sporting philosophy.

‘I am very much a ‘why’ person’, Hemery told me, ‘and with Fred I had a coach who fully explained the mechanics of hurdling and the methods behind his coaching technique.  Then, with Billy, he made sure I was involved in decision making – I think it’s very important to have a discussion as to what you think would be best for you, as well as what the coach does.’ This also inspired his interest in coaching, and following retirement he spent seven years coaching at Boston University, passing on what he had been taught, before returning to Britain in 1983.

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With regards to the London Olympics, he is ‘inspired by having the games and hopes the athletes can respond to the pressure rather than be daunted by it; it’s a double-edged sword.’ His advice to any potential athlete would be to ‘aim to run a personal best at Games. You can’t guarantee that someone won’t run faster, or jump further, but you can aim to do the best you’ve ever done, and nothing more can be asked.’

In fact, in Mexico, despite being thousands of miles from home and the eyes of the nation, in Hemery’s words ‘I could not have put more pressure on myself. I had never been more terrified as I prepared, thinking ‘Could I put hundreds of hours of work into practice in the next 50 seconds?’ I had the intention to win, but I didn’t know if the time I was aiming for (incidentally, 48.4s, still well inside the then-World Record) was fast enough.’

Looking back  to the Olympics and the events he is most excited about, ‘obviously I’m looking forward to watching Dai Greene (heir to his throne as the world’s premier quarter-miler hurdler) , but in reality I am looking forward to ever British performance, from the intrigue of the distance runners to the multi-eventers, and I wish them well.’

Multi-eventing is a discipline close to his heart; he took up the decathlon during the year after his Olympic victory as ‘I wanted another challenge. I loved the varied training required for every event, and although I was not quite good enough at pole vaulting and throwing to reach international standard I gained huge enjoyment from the experience.’ It was during this time he undertook a PGCE here at Oxford University, setting the university 110m and 200m hurdles records, both of which still stand to this day.

David was elected the first ever president of UKA (the UK Athletics Association) in 1998, a post he held for two consecutive two-year terms. His experience of several high-profile drugs incidents, both internationally and nationally, has left him ‘100% supportive’ of the current BOA policy. ‘It’s a selection policy, they shouldn’t select someone who has intentionally taken drugs, as it takes a place away from someone who hasn’t. I believe in the appeals process, as it ensures only those who have intentionally cheated are affected while allowing those who make genuine mistake (he brings up the famous example of British skier Alain Baxter, stripped of his 2002 bronze medal due to the differences in American asthma medication ingredients) to be welcomed back.’

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Asked for one piece of advice for a budding young student athlete, he told me ‘be really clear about goals and work hard towards them, but ensure that you’re enjoying the process. If I’d broken my leg right before the Olympics I’d have been really upset not to have been able to see if I could fulfil my potential, but I would not have regretted all the effort that had gone in, because the learning was huge and I know I developed as a person through the experience.’

He ended our discussion with an inspiring little anecdote: ‘At the end of my first year at university I ran a relay leg in 50.9 (or something like that) indoors, and as my personal best had been 53.8 and this was a massive improvement I told my coach ‘I don’t think I’ll ever run faster than that’, and my coach just walked away. And when I ran a 44.6 in Mexico (three years later) in the relay it made a mockery of my statement.’

If that doesn’t give hope to any aspiring young athlete, then I don’t know what will. London may be too soon, but as he’s proved throughout his long career, if you believe in your abilities and push yourself, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.