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John Walker & Parkinson's

John Walker & Parkinson's

30 June 1997
If there is a mountain, climb it. If there is time, beat it. If there is a problem, deal with it. Two years after being diagnosed as a sufferer of Parkinson's disease, New Zealand's former athlete of the decade, John Walker seeks no sympathy.

Get a job, he will say, get it done. "Set your sights too low and you become mediocre". With John Walker, mediocre never entered the question. The question was never how good - it was how great :

  • Great enough to win the Olympic 1,500m gold medal in 1976
  • Great enough to be the first man break 3min 50s for the mile
  • and then when the challenge had been set, be the first person to run 100 sub-4 minute miles

In his decade, and make no mistake, it was his decade, John Walker was middle-distance running's man of steel. They called him Mr Invincible, but that was a mistake. For one of the traits supporters admired even more than Walker's athletic prowess was his character. Within. While he proved himself better than the next man on the running track, off it he accepted he was no different. And he acted accordingly.

Just six months after he publicly acknowledged his illness, Walker is fighting as you might imagine. With grit and, more importantly, with grace.

When he was first diagnosed with the disease, Walker said he heard reports that Parkinson's was brought on by high-performance sport. He admits he knew of only two sufferers. He was one. A man called Muhammed Ali was the other. He has since discovered he has "5000" teammates in New Zealand alone.

"I didn't know what was wrong with me, the brain just switches off. Rumours were starting to go around New Zealand that I was dying .. that I had cancer. People would walk up to me in the street and say "John, I am so sorry...". I had to come out and say I had Parkinson's disease".

He has been told that he will end up in a wheelchair. He hopes that is not for another 20 years. Today, he struggles to control movements to the right side of his body. He can no longer tie his own shoelaces, clean his teeth or use a knife and fork properly. He uses his left hand for just about everything. And, as he says, he is bloody hopeless with that.

Walker made his name as the last of New Zealand's three Olympic champion runners, following behind Jack Lovelock and Peter Snell. But Walker's was not to follow, it was to lead. He created history when he became the first aathlete to crack the elusive 3:50 for the mile.

He says athletics no longer remains a significant part of his life. His home at Manurewa on the outskirts of Auckland boasts few photos of his illustrious career. There are no medals on exhibition, no trophies. Walker says his memories of the past stay in the past. It is his future he strives to confront and overcome. His life with wife Helen, his children, his horses and Parkinson's disease.

"When I was a youngster, I used to dream wht it would be like to go to the games .. what it would be liketo stand there with a medal around your neck, standing on the dais. Not now though. The pictures are of my racehorses, my family, maybe one of me running. NO medals".

Walker says he has received thousands of letters, faxes, get well cards and suggested cures from friends and strangers. But one thing Walker says he does not want is sympathy. "I lost my best friend last week from a heart attack. He was 47. He just dropped dead. Life has to go on".

This page last updated: Saturday 20 March 2010

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