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parents and their infants. It proved so popular, he was given his own weekly show on a Sherbrooke television station.
He retrofit snowshoes with a complex system of twine and fasteners and broke the 800-metre world record in the sport. He ran cross-country ‘ beer miles’ decades before the current track craze.
In his 20s, he became a nationally-ranked marathon runner.
One particular run stuck with him. He was out for his morning jog when he heard the familiar roar of motorcycles behind him.
The biker g a ngs who cont rolled Quebec’s eastern townships had been tormenting Fitzgerald all summer. The bikers would ride up from behind and, one by one, they’d slap Fitzgerald in the back of the head as they passed.
Fitzgerald decided he’d had enough; that day, he looked back, noting exactly how many bikers were coming for him. He absorbed the slaps, counting down in his head. When the last one got close, Fitzgerald turned and threw all his weight into the biker’s chest, knocking him from the motorcycle. Fitzgerald ran into the bush and escaped.
He couldn’t run on that road anymore, but he didn’t care. He had pushed back against the bullies. Fitzgerald has applied the same stubbornness to fight for his athletes.
He soon gravitated to coaching track instead. His rapidly-growing training group collected one gold medal after another in Quebec school and club meets. He was picked to take a course in Ottawa. He thrived because the instruction was oral and hands-on rather than textbook-based. He stayed for several years to work with a host of future stars including Olympic marathoner Bruce Deacon.
After more study in Britain with Peter Coe – the father and coach of multiple world record holder Sebastian Coe – Fitzgerald was recruited to become Saskatchewan’s provincial distance coach. He brought his unorthodox methods to Saskatoon.
Other distance coaches pushed their runners and walkers hard every day. Fitzgerald forced his to take regular off days, and would send someone home to rest mid-session if they looked tired or injured.
Instead of assigning 400m or mile repeats, he’ d give his athletes a steady diet of box jumps, medicine ball t hrows and technical drills. In t he winter, t hey’ d pull Fit zgerald ’s kids up a steep toboggan hill with specially-made belts tied around their waists.
“Not a lot of people were doing those things, but I was never a by-the-book kind of guy,” he said with a laugh.
On long, cold runs, he’d drive his minivan in front of Berrett or his marathoners to shelter them from the wind. When he saw them falling off the pace, he’d roll down the window and turn the car stereo to full volume playing Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues or Eric Clapton’s Layla.
His methods produced athletes like Colin Mathieson, a high school runner from Moose Jaw, S ask. who sprinted to 1,500m gold at the 1989 Canada Games in his home province.
In the months leading to the race, Fitzgerald knew Mathieson was fast. But he’d lost races because he wasn’t aggressive enough.
So one practice, he lined Mathieson up on the t rack 10 metres behind a large pack of runners for a series of 200-metre sprints. Mathieson had to elbow and fight his way through the walls and out of the boxes and get to the front. It worked.
At the same time, he pioneered techniques for blind and wheelchair Para ly mp ian sin several sports. Cyclists, tr ia th let es, soccer players and even shot putters came to him for tips.
“You do whatever you can,” he said. “You always think ‘What can make the difference for this person, on this day, in this weather?’”
After t he provincial position was cut, Fitzgerald stayed in Saskatchewan, teaching in northern towns and on First Nations. He continued to coach Berrett, Olympic race walker Ann Peel and others from a distance.
Soon, his students were dominating provincial track meets and volleyball tournaments, even on reserves with next to no infrastructure.
His mentorship of First Nations coaches and athletes is still paying dividends. Team Saskatchewan now dominates the medal table at the flourishing North American Indigenous Games.
“It’s a different situation everywhere, but you can usually get people to produce,” he said.
“Once we did his workouts, we felt we could do anything... He prepared us to be good people that contributed, that produced in life.” — Tim Berrett, five-time Olympic race walker
He considered winding up his coaching career, but that changed when he got an offer in 2001 to coach the Australian national team.
For the first time, he was given a nearly unlimited budget and access to some of the finest technology and expertise on the planet.
Altitude camps in the mountains of Mexico or Switzerland, sensory deprivation chambers and $100,000 equine treadmills, a team of physio and massage therapists, doctors, nutritionists and sports psychologists; Fitzgerald said it was like a candy store, but that was part of the problem. Many of the previous coaches were over-reliant on the data. They forgot that coaching is also an art.
Fitzgerald used some of the gadgets and stripped away others. After some adjustment, his athletes started to respond. Just as he did in Lennoxville, in Ottawa and on that northern Saskatchewan lake, he knew something special was happening.
But just months before the 2004 Athens Olympics, tragedy struck in the Australian Institute of Sport’s weight room.
Fitzgerald dropped to the floor unconscious. Thankfully, a doctor was in the building and recognized the urgency. An ambulance arrived almost instantly. Surgeons operated for most of the night, sewing the massive rupture in his aorta.
He survived but had to leave Australia and return to Saskatchewan. Three of the Australian athletes he groomed would later stand on the Olympic podium.
Fitzgerald was slowed by the heart condition but still worked for several years with Berrett and a handful of distance runners. Today he helps youth and masters athletes in Saskatchewan.
A Career Filled with Fond Memories
Fitzgerald said the Hall of Fame ceremony in Toronto was special. He had a chance to connect with old friends, including Berrett and Sebastian Coe. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of races and personal bests – but those aren’t his fondest memories. Fitzgerald beams about Annie, one of his first athletes. The 12-year-old girl was born with no arms because of the thalidomide drug scandal of the 1960s. Fitzgerald not only taught her to swim, but she was soon passing some of the able-bodied swimmers with her modified dolphin kick.
“She could dive for pucks on the bottom of the pool better than anyone,” he said.
Ask him about Berrett and he’ll mention their joint family ski trips to the Rockies. When he talks about his Australian Olympic gold medalist Jared Tallent, it’s about all the times the young man visited him in hospital.
He can list his athletes who’ve overcome sexism, racism and disabilities, or became doctors and teachers.
Berrett said it’s great Fitzgerald is being recognized for his contributions to sport, but his legacy goes far beyond that.
“Once we did his workouts, we felt we could do anything,” Berrett said. “He prepared us to be good people that contributed, that produced in life.”
Jason Warick is a CBC reporter and former member of Canada’s national team in the marathon. Like many of Fitzgerald’s other athletes, Warick now coaches distance runners in Saskatoon.
ABOVE John Fitzgerald (bib 1447) at a marathon in the 1970s
LEFT Fitzgerald with his female IAFF World Race Walking Cup athletes, who won bronze in the women’s team event in 1985