Recollecting the life of a Borders athletics legend

One of the most influential figures in world athletics in the first half of the last century is celebrated in a new book.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 10th September 2020, 5:55 pm
The cover of Craig Statham's new book about Jimmy Curran
The cover of Craig Statham's new book about Jimmy Curran

Author Craig Statham has brought Galashiels-born Jimmy Curran to the attention of a new audience with ‘Jimmy Curran – Scotland’s Greatest Athletics Coach’, which goes on sale this month.

As the writer says, Curran is an obscure figure now – but was a giant when alive.

He trained five Olympic gold medallists and numerous Olympians.

The book, at over 400 pages, is built around research undertaken in Scotland and America, plus numerous interviews.

It follows Jimmy’s life as a youth in Gala, a soldier in the Boer War, his time as one of the finest half-milers in the world, and more than 50 years coaching teenagers at one of America’s premier prep schools.

“I was inspired to write the book about him because he wasn’t just a coach,” said Statham. “He undertook a number of personal challenges – many of them walking long distances. He was also much, much more to the boys he trained than just a coach. He was a mentor, and gave them a road map for later life.”

Jimmy was born in 1880 and grew up in Galashiels.

He joined army at end of 19th century and served in Boer War. Here, he met and trained Wyndham Halswelle, who went on to win a gold medal at the 1908 Olympics (only athlete to run a final against no opponents).

Jimmy (inset) returned to Gala in 1902 and became an amateur athlete, winning the Border Mile Championship. He trained in Eastlands Cemetery, where the gravel paths measured almost the same as a 440-yard track.

He soon became a professional and by the time he emigrated, in 1907, he was probably the finest half-miler in Scotland, if not the UK.

He left the Borders mainly to benefit from the huge sums to be made on the east coast pro circuit.

He ran against Alfie Shrubb on at least three occasions. Shrubb is still considered one of the greatest runners ever.

Jimmy took up a job as a puddler’s assistant in a steel mill but quickly found work training athletes at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1910, he became head coach at Mercersburg Academy, a prep school for the sons of presidents and industrialists. Within two years, he had trained Ted Meredith, who went to the 1912 Olympics and won two gold medals.

He went on to train a further three gold medallists – Allen Woodring, Bill Carr (two golds) and Charlie Moore (two golds and a silver), as well as numerous other Olympians.

He was twice in Ripley’s Believe it or Not, a syndicated cartoon – in 1930 for kicking a football 50 yards in bare feet, and in 1938 for playing 290 holes of golf in one day.

He retired in 1961, after 51 years in charge, and died in 1963. The track at Mercersburg is still named after him.

Statham added: “I wanted initially to write a book about Wyndham Halswelle but didn’t feel there was enough there to do it. But I found Jimmy lurking in a few newspaper reports about Halswelle’s death. So I did some research on him and started the book in 2015.

“I interviewed family and friends, and many of his former athletes remember him so fondly. One even still takes quick afternoon naps that Jimmy taught him when competing.

“He returned to Scotland 17 or 18 times over the years.”