Athletics: Master of the great leap forwards

Stanley turns spring of enduring Edwards and tiro Tomlinson into glorious summer
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Peter Stanley is a civil engineer by trade. He's a director of Graydon Dawson Construction, a company based next to the Tyne at Blaydon. "We dig holes in the ground and fill them up with something," he said for the benefit of his technically-challenged visitor on Thursday lunchtime. It would be fair to say that Stanley has dug British athletics out of a hole, too.

Certainly, the sport would not have been the same these past seven years without Jonathan Edwards taking his quantum hops, steps and jumps on the world stage. Stanley has helped to engineer them, in his role as technical coach to the Gateshead Harrier who stands unchallenged as the greatest triple jumper of all time. He has also helped to dismantle the record that was a long-time albatross to British athletics. Stanley, a genial 48-year-old native of Devon, coaches Chris Tomlinson, the young giant of a Teessider who last month laid to rest Lynn Davies' 24-year-old British long jump record at a minor meeting in Tallahassee, Florida.

Tomlinson will take the top-line billing at the Aqua Pura International at Loughborough University next Saturday, the traditional curtain-raiser to the domestic track and field season. Stanley will be there too. "My wife's just phoned to say I've been named jumps coach for the England team," he said. "It's my first international appointment. I'm really chuffed."

And so he should be. The remarkable thing about Stanley's remarkable coaching success is not simply that he spends 10 hours a day, five days a week working as a civil engineer. Until the summer of 1988 – apart from the long jumping and 1500m running he did at school in Plymouth – he had no involvement in track and field.

It all changed the afternoon he took his daughter, Joanne, to her school sports day. "She was winning everything she went in for," Stanley recalled, "and this guy with a nice, scrubbed face sidled up to me and said, 'My name's Rippon Hall. I coach athletics. I've never been inside Durham jail and I always wash behind my ears. I'd like to coach your daughter, because I think she's talented'.

"So I got all excited thinking my daughter was going to be the next Olympic champion. He said he wanted to introduce her to Elswick Harriers and because she was so young – only 11 – he would be happier if I went along with her. I think it was a bit of a fishing expedition. He hooked me and very gently reeled me in over the course of a few months."

Hall, a survivor of three years in Stalag 4B and an irrepressible bundle of energy and enthusiasm, duly coaxed Stanley into filling a void at Elswick Harriers. The Tyneside club had a talented young triple jumper called Andrew Thornton but nobody qualified to coach him. Hall gave Stanley a grounding in the basics of track and field and got him involved in the club coach education programme. Within a year the coaching apprentice had guided Thornton to a silver medal at the English schools' championships and found himself under the wing of Carl Johnson, the national coach for the North of England and the man reponsible for moulding Edwards from a triple-jumping novice into the 1993 world championship bronze medallist.

By the end of the 1995 track season, working in tandem with Norman Anderson, a strength and conditioning coach, Stanley had put Edwards into the world record books. The three world bests Edwards set that golden summer, culminating in his 18.29m at the World Championships in Gothenburg, came less than 12 months after he had turned to Stanley for help. The engineer-cum-coach revamped his technique and the results were spectacular. "It was like flicking a switch," Stanley reflected. "He just lit up.

"Basically, the difference was balance. Jonathan was always very quick and very strong but he always overbalanced through the phases of the triple jump. The change of technique enabled him to stay balanced and just carried the speed through." It has also carried Edwards to a second world title, an Olympic gold medal and the European title he defends as a 36-year-old in Munich in August – after challenging for what would be his first Commonwealth crown, on home soil in Manchester.

Pondering how someone without a track and field background might have become so effective as a coach, Stanley mused: "I suppose being a civil engineer has helped. I tend to look at things in straight lines and angles – and in terms of conservation of power and maximum explosion of energy."

An explosion of energy would be a fair description of the 6ft 6in Tomlinson launching from the long-jump take-off board. The young man from Middlesbrough is all arms, legs, flailing hair and bursting power. Co-ordinating the components to maximum effect perhaps presents Stanley with his ultimate coaching challenge, though woe betide anyone who suggests to him that Tomlinson is still a raw, leggy talent.

"This 'raw talent' tag keeps following him around," he said, with obvious irritation. "His technique is still... uninhibited... but it's a lot more polished than it was. He's still not the finished article, though. So obviously we still think there's progress to be made." That is a heartening prospect for British athletics, having waited until 13 April this year for the national long jump record to move on from the 8.23m that Lynn Davies leapt in Berne on 30 June, 1968. Tomlinson jumped 8.27m in Tallahassee – watched by Stanley and by Edwards, his hero-turned-training partner.

"Chris and Jonathan are training together twice a week now and I'm hoping they will help each other along," Stanley said. "They did a fast running session together for the first time yesterday and it was excellent. It really was.

"Chris has got tremendous potential. I've never seen anyone with the spring he's got. God has given him springs. He can jump further and it would be really great if he started winning some medals. He is only 20, though. He's got years ahead of him. On the scale of Jonathan, he's got 16 years to catch up."

And Peter Stanley, it would seem, has got years to add to his burgeoning list of achievements. Rippon Hall certainly knew a good coach in the making when he saw one. He was right about Joanne Stanley too. She did have talent as an athlete. Last summer she won a bronze medal in the triple jump at the Scottish championships – another coaching success for her remarkable father.