Athletics Ireland has been saddened to hear of the passing of 1968 50km Walk Olympian John Kelly.
John was a legend of the sport throughout the 1960s and held the Irish 50km Walk record from 1968 to 1992.
He lived a fascinating, multi dimensional life which has been summarised by well known Olympic historian Michael O’Dwyer.
His achievements, in no small way paved the road for the current generation of world beating Irish Race Walkers and he was a regular attendant at the annual Dublin Grand Prix of Race Walking throughout the 1990s until ill health meant he was confined to his base in the USA.
May he Rest in Peace.
John Kelly was born on 6 OCT, 1929 at No. 7 Bridge, Loughmore [the cottage by the railway line on the Thurles to Templemore Road]. When he was three his family moved to Graystown, Killenaule and while there he was educated at Graystown National School. After a few years the family moved back to No. 7 Bridge, Loughmore and he attended Loughmore National School from 1941 to 1944.
When he finished his schooling he worked near Moyglass on John Joe Lacy’s farm and played Junior hurling with Moyglass. He left Ireland in 1949 when he emigrated to Melbourne, Australia and for the next few years he went back and forth to New Zealand following the construction trade. While in Australia he entered the 1956 Australian Olympic Trials for the hammer but had three no throws [one of which nearly landed in a tram full of people!! - there were no safety nets in those days, only the circle].
At 6′ 2″, John also competed in the ‘56 Trials in boxing - heavyweight and went out with a cut eye in the second round. He had won both light-heavyweight and heavyweight categories in a Golden Gloves Tournament in Melbourne in the early 1950’s, and in New Zealand he was runner-up in the 1957 Senior Heavyweight Boxing Championships. In rugby he played wing forward with Marist clubs based in New Plymouth and Wellington, and in 1954 he won the Moran Cup at Auckland’s Eden Park with New Plymouth, the only time they have ever won it.
After moving to America in 1959, he was training at Bobby Gleason’s Gym in New York six days a week considering a professional boxing career and was offered a pro fight but decided to concentrate on running instead. He finished 7th in brutally warm conditions in the 1964 Yonkers Marathon in New York which was one of two U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials for the 1964 Olympics.
In January, 1965 he won the Philadelphia Marathon in 2:37:23 running the whole distance in several inches of snow, with snow continuing to fall all during the race! In 1970 at Orange County he actually walked a marathon in 3:58:59. His best walking times for 20km and 50km are 1:32:30 [1967 Lawrence to Lowell Race in Massachusetts - setting a new course record] and 4:24:22 [June 1968, USA 50K Racewalk Championship in San Francisco].
John went on to represent Ireland at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City in the 50km race walking event but did not finish, overcome by the flu which he contracted two days before the event. His club at the time was Melrose A.A., based in New York, and after moving to California he competed for the Southern California Striders, Santa Monica Track Club and was coach and member of the California Walkers.
In 1973 he earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records when he walked 120 miles in the notorious Death Valley Desert, California in the non-stop record time of 34 hours 9 minutes and 9 seconds, beating the previous record by an incredible 28 hours 30 minutes. In soaring July temperatures he attempted the feat to free the Forth Worth Five [Irish-Americans wrongly imprisoned in Texas], the ensuing publicity resulted in the dismissal of charges of supplying arms to the IRA and their release from prison - Senator Ted Kennedy and the Archbishop of Texas aided in this effort.
He has also engaged in sport at coaching and administrative levels, and was the race walking director at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics - this entailed not only organizing all volunteers but setting and measuring the course. In New York he completed a high school diploma through home study courses in the 1960’s, and did some classes at Santa Monica City College in California in the 1970’s. He played a role in the musical film Star! featuring Julie Andrews and directed by Robert Wise, and in the mid 1970’s he became a member of the Screen Actors Guild. A well travelled man, he has returned to Ireland to visit many times and has been to over 100 countries. Since 1998 John Kelly and his wife have lived in Prescott, Arizona and in 2003 there was a plaque unveiled in his honour outside Loughmore National School. He was also home for the 2004 Tipperary Sports Awards where he was the Knocknagow Award winner. The award is presented each year to a leading Tipperary sportstar of the past.
He died on November 13th 2012.