Athletes pay tribute to coach George Harrison

Must read

Lizzie Bird, Ellie Baker, Kyle Langford and Marilyn Okoro among those who came under the wing of inspirational Shaftesbury Barnet man who has died aged 90

George Harrison MBE, coach to scores of world-class athletes, including British 3000m steeplechase record holder Lizzie Bird, Commonwealth silver medallist Kyle Langford and Olympic bronze medallist Marilyn Okoro, died in his sleep at home on Sunday January 22, aged 90, writes Rob Draper.

Tributes have poured in from around the world for the former marathon runner and leading light in the British Milers’ Club, who ran for Highgate Harriers and coached at Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers, where he was club president from 2011-2014, from the thousands of runners he has coached over the years, many of whom credit him with turning their lives around.

Commonwealth silver medallist Bird, speaking from the USA where she is training, said: “I was coached by him by two years as a sixth former but it felt like much longer because of the impact he had on my life. I called him right after I won Commonwealth silver medal last summer and he was so excited. You could tell his voice was jumping up and down and he was so proud of me. He was saying: ‘Could you imagine when we met at 16 that you would go and do this?’ And I was telling him it was him who had helped me get there.”

Bird was coached by Harrison at St Alban’s School, where countess students benefited from his advice. “He installed that work ethic into me,” said Bird. “That you show up and you get the work done.”

Lizzie Bird (Mark Shearman)

Not all his runners ended up in athletics. Actor and footballer Vinnie Jones came under his tutelage in his school days, Harrison recalling he was a tough, talented cross-country runner. At the height of Jones’ Hollywood fame, Harrison bumped into him in Kings Langley, the Watford suburb where they both lived. “You don’t remember me, do you Vinnie?” Harrison said. “Yes I do,” replied Jones. “Coach George!”

Ellie Baker, semi-finalist at last year’s world championships over 800m, was also guided by Harrison through her teenage years. “I was going through difficult time because I had plateaued a bit. I moved to training with George at Watford having had three years not progressing and in my first year I won the English Schools and the next year I came second in European Under-20s. He turned my career around.

“He just had unwavering faith in you and because he has been doing it so many years, you just believed what he said. If he believed you could do it, you had to believe it. When you think of the lives he has touched over the years, there’s a whole community pf people has brought together which is an incredible legacy to leave.”

Ellie Baker (Mark Shearman)

His Saturday morning sessions at Watford Town Cricket Club were the stuff of legends, generations of runners having assembled there early morning, including former UK 800m champion Paul Herbert, a 1:45.64 runner and Pat Chester, a 3:59.60 miler. “You never knew who would turn up,” said Bird. “It might be someone who he had coached in the 1980s who had shown up knowing George would be there and would join in. I spoke to him in December and he said he wasn’t missing the cold Tuesday nights at the Woodside track but he did miss the Saturday morning sessions.”

Bird and Baker both recalled his practice of of sending Christmas cards with predicted PBs for the coming summer, invariably a seemingly outlandish target the athlete felt they had no chance of achieving. Come the summer, almost all would have bettered his predicted mark, Harrison having installed in their imagination the first possibility of the talent they didn’t realise they possessed.

“It was pressure that turned into confidence because you felt that if George believes in me, of course I can do it,” said Bird. “And he was just as pleased with athletes who had made county teams or schools teams as internationals. He cared about them all.”

Extremely sad to hear the passing of my coach George Harrison MBE. George influenced thousands of athletes over his 40 plus years of being a coach at Shaftsbury, Highgate & St Albans Boy School. He coached 100+ internationals, a key part of the BMC…

— TOM BEDFORD🇺🇦 (@Tom_Bedford) January 23, 2023

His legacy in his athletes’ lives went well beyond the sport, many testifying that his influence helped them get their life on track as teenagers. Renowned sports’ scientist, former England international runner and sub-four-minute miler Joe Dunbar remembers his first training session at the Woodside track. The brutal reps session had Dunbar, 16 years old and regular smoker at school, spluttering and vomiting. He never smoked again. “I figured that if he was committing the time to me and believed in me, then it had to come from both ends. It sounds dramatic but it was a moment that changed my life.

“I was a bit of a tearaway at 16 and it changed me completely. I got my A Levels, which I don’t think I would have done without running. Then I did a sports science degree and I dedicated my MPhil to him.”

Dunbar was fitness coach to Charlton Athletic in the Premier League, worked with Lennox Lewis and as a consultant in pro boxing, coached Kelly Holmes and runs a physiological testing logistics business now.

George Harrison with Kyle Langford

This author’s first break in journalism came when Harrison was dissecting my most recent 800m race at West London Stadium and introduced me to his former training partner, Olympian Sylvester Stein, founder of Running Magazine and the pair of them sorted out an invaluable summer of work experience post A Levels.

Harrison is survived by wife Sheila and children, Karen and Colin. His family have requested a private funeral service but summer reunion event is being planned by his athletes to celebrate his life and legacy.

» For more AW news, CLICK HERE

» Subscribe to AW magazine here

More articles

Latest article