ALLAN (AL) LAWRENCE (9 July 1930 – 15 May 2017)
Athletics Australia advises with sadness of the passing in the United States this week of Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist, Allan Lawrence.
'Al' was born in Punchbowl, Sydney and grew up in the suburb of Matraville during the Great Depression.
After seeing a film of Cornelius Warmerdam setting a world pole vault record at Madison Square Garden, New York, Lawrence decided to become a pole vaulter and break the world record himself. At age 13 he was encouraged to join the Botany Harriers, running both cross-country in winter and vaulting during the track season.
In 1944, the legendary Cecil ‘Chick’ Hensley, after whom Australia’s first synthetic track is named, began coaching Lawrence and became a profound influence on the young man from then on.
Lawrence improved slowly with his distance running as his vaulting waned. It was not until 1952 that he had his first major success when he won the NSW cross-country championships. A year later, he won the state 6-mile championship in a new state record of 31:02.
His first Australian Championships appearance came in Perth 1953 and on a very hot day he took silver in the 6 miles and fourth place in the 3 miles. He also ran his first marathon that year for a third placing again in hot weather.
Six weeks later, Lawrence backed up with the Australian Marathon Championships in Sydney, where he took third in 2:26:43 behind Roly Guy and Keith Ollerenshaw.
The 1954 Australian Championships were held on the Sydney Cricket Ground, where Lawrence won his first national title - the 6 miles in 29:38.4. He and also collected silver in the 3 miles with 14:16.4, and gained selection for the 1954 British Empire Games in Vancouver, Canada.
With limited funds the Australian Empire Games Federation announced that selected athletes had to raise their own fares. Lawrence was fortunate in that his employer the Australian Paper Manufacturers responded and his quota was quickly raised.
In Vancouver, Lawrence’s races didn’t go as well as he had planned – he finished eighth in the 6 miles in 30:18.8 and 10th in the 3 miles in 14:16.
He also ran in the marathon in Vancouver, the infamous race in which Englishman Jim Peters held a huge lead before repeatedly collapsing from heat exhaustion. Lawrence too, was running well and was in the placings at the 20 mile mark but the extreme heat and blisters to his feet took their toll and at 23 miles he was done.
In 1955, Lawrence dropped back to middle distance races and finished third in the mile at the Australian Championships in Adelaide with 4:14.8. Though the foray into middle-distance racing didn't last long, with Lawrence taking gold in the 6 miles at the 1956 Australian Championships in Melbourne in a time of 29:05.2. Lawrence also took another bronze in the 3 miles in 13:45.
Later in the year at the Olympic Trials, also in Melbourne, Lawrence won both the 5000m in 14:03.6 and the 10,000 in 29:31.2. He was in the right form at the right time.
At the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne the 10,000m was on the first day of competition and was billed as the big match-up between Soviet champion Vladimir Kuts and Britain’s Gordon Pirie and for most of the race it was Kuts surging and slowing until he broke Pirie.
However behind them, a two-man battle was developing between Lawrence and Hungarian Jozsef Kovacs. They started to gain on the leader even though Lawrence was having trouble with his calf. Kuts pulled away again but Lawrence and Kovacs fought on in a desperate battle for the minor medals - with Kovacs getting silver and the plucky Australian taking bronze in 28:53.59.
Taking pain killers to mask his injury, Lawrence was able to run in the heats of the 5000m a few days later. Running against Kuts once again, Lawrence prevailed and won in 14:14.67 but to his detriment. Lawrence had further aggravated his injury and a torn calf muscle meant he would not appear in the final.
Around this time, Lawrence began coaching, starting out with two youngsters Dennis Moore and John Lawler. It was the genesis of a passion that endured for the rest of his life.
In April 1957, Lawrence was one of five invited to compete at the International Youth Festival in Moscow, coming away with a silver and a bronze. At the following year’s Australian Championships in Brisbane, Lawrence was beaten in the 6 miles by Dave Power and then took bronze in the 3 miles, which won by Albie Thomas. Despite taking the minor medals, Lawrence was surprisingly left out of the Australian team bound for the Cardiff Empire Games.
Looking toward the future, Lawrence applied to enter the University of Houston on the urging of friend and fellow team mate Pat Clohessy. Although he had not finished high school and was approaching 27, he was granted an athletic scholarship.
He adapted well to the US College system, not only earning a degree but also enjoying an outstanding athletic career. Lawrence set a world indoor 2 mile record at Madison Square Garden in a time of 8:46.7 in 1959, before lowering the mark in Los Angeles the next year to 8:46.0 Later in the year, he then broke the world indoor 3 mile record at the AAU Championships in New York with 13:26.4.
He also won the NCAA and AAU Cross-Country title double on two occasions.
Lawrence set his sights on the 1960 Rome Olympics and ran a qualifying time of 29:35.4 before returning to run in Australia at a special trial in Sydney which he won in 29:55.4.
Unfortunately, the Rome Olympics did not go well for him. He did not qualify for the 5000m final despite taking fourth in his heat. Similar bad luck followed in the 10,000m, when Lawrence was knocked off balance by one runner, fell heavily as another competitor trod on him. He got to his feet and over the next few laps caught the lead group but his injuries caused him to withdraw.
Dissatisfied with his efforts on the track, Lawrence enquired about taking a spot in the marathon. His request was granted, but without being fully prepared, went out too hard too early, only to drop back due to dehydration. After sitting down on the cobblestoned gutter at 22 miles, a friendly Roman approached Lawrence to give him a drink which turned out to be wine. With renewed confidence, Lawrence set out again to finish the race in a somewhat inebriated state to place 54th in 2:38:46.
Lawrence continued to race in the USA after his final Olympic appearance but ongoing achilles problems required surgery. He returned to Australia in 1963 but he had fallen love with the USA, and soon returned to Houston to work as an assistant to his American coach Johnny Morriss. He continued to coach thereafter until he passing this week, also dabbling in masters running.
A beloved coach and mentor to many athletes in Houston, Lawrence leaves a legacy of generous support and appreciation by his athletes and many friends.
At the end of his career, Lawrence’s personal bests provided impressive reading: 3000m – 8:10.8s; 2 miles – 8:46; 3 miles – 13:26.4; 5000m – 13:54.2; 6 miles – 28:10.4: 10,000m – 28:53.61 and for the marathon – 2:26:43 but crowned by his fine Olympic bronze at home in Melbourne in 1956.
Click here to watch footage from the Australian Olympic Committee of Lawrence's 10,000m race in Melbourne.
Paul Jenes OAM
Athletics Australia Historian and Statistician