How a 67-year-old coach turned a schoolboy giant into an Olympic gold medal contender
21:30 GMT, 21 July 2012
Going for gold: Lawrence Okoye is not going just to compete
Eighteen months have passed, yet John Hillier remembers every detail of the telephone conversation. The caller was one of the athletes he coached. He had a friend who wanted to be taught by Hillier.
The coach asked what the friend did: 'He's a discus thrower.' How far could he throw it 'Not very far.' Then, finally: 'What's he like' A pause: 'Big.' A deep chuckle rumbles across the room. 'I wasn't small,' says Lawrence Okoye. 'I was 6ft 5in and about 20st at the time. And I was still at school.'
A meeting was arranged and, using his student travelcard, Okoye caught three buses across south-east London from his home near Croydon before arriving at Hillier's training squad at Sutcliffe Park in Kidbrooke.
'He was hopeless,' says Hillier. 'He had a best of 47metres, and it flattered him. He threw the discus the way Freddie Flintoff bowled a cricket ball.' Okoye nods in bashful agreement.
'As soon as I got there, I realised just how bad I was,' he says. But the coach had seen possibilities; size, of course, but also speed, strength and a willingness to learn. He sensed a raw talent. They fixed up another session, and when it was over, Okoye asked how he had done.
Hillier debated what he was going to say, then he said it anyway: 'Do you realise you could make the London Olympics' In four decades of coaching, Hillier has developed some fine athletes. But he knew, beyond question, that Lawrence Okoye might surpass them all.
If soaring potential should translate into solid performance, then this was the young man whose talent could validate all those years of patient striving. And so they started to work, mostly on technique. 'That's the key,' says Hillier.
'It's easy to get in the gym, work hard and grow strong. But the skill factor has to be there. I tried to pass on a very basic technique at first. It was just a matter of getting him to steer the car correctly. Then, six weeks later, he went out and threw 64m. A year ago, he took the British record with 67.63m. It was unbelievable! Something you dream about.'
Record holder: Okoye took the British record
The sheer scope of Okoye's abilities made him enviable material for a coach. He had received staunch support from his school, Whitgift, as a rugby player, a sprinter, finally as a thrower. Despite his vast bulk, he returned 11.02sec for 100m and he played his rugby on the wing. Hillier shakes his head: 'Imagine having him running at you!'
He also possesses a considerable intellect. His scholarship at Whitgift was awarded on academic grounds and he won a place at St Peter's College, Oxford, to read law. He took it all in his stride.
'You don't want to be an average person,' he says. 'You want to stand out a bit. A school like that, it's full of people who want to be the best they can be.' But for now, all that drive and energy is channelled into the discus, and Hillier is facing a test of his own.
It is a truth rarely acknowledged that British athletics gets a free ride on the back of its coaches. Over the next few weeks, our athletes will declare their remarkable talents, while the men and women who encouraged and polished those talents will take their anonymous seats outside the spotlight's beam; guiding, analysing, occasionally praying.
John Hillier is among the best of that self-effacing breed. He loved his active service as one of the country's leading discus throwers, winning a Commonwealth bronze medal in 1974. But coaching was always his forte.
Down the years, he has spent an uncountable number of winter nights pacing austere weight rooms or standing by a dimly-lit throwing circle. At 67, he has never earned a penny from the sport he loves, and he has never complained.
Smart: Okoye is not just an athlete, he is also intelligent
'Essentially, we're all volunteers,' he says. 'When you look at the successful athletes, the majority of them are coached by amateurs, in the best sense of the word. There are times when you get frustrated, when the athletes lose interest or let you down and you think, “God, the time I've spent on them!”'
'It's cost me a fortune, physically as well as financially. Maybe I should have looked after myself a bit better. But I've loved most of the athletes I've coached and I've enjoyed their successes. I'm told I've coached more English Schools winners than anyone ever; more than 50. I'm quite proud of that. And then, just as I'm coming to the end of my coaching career, someone like Lawrence comes along.'
Despite being separated by 47 years, each man is comfortable in the other's company. Hillier's methods were rewarded by Okoye pushing his own record out to 68.24m in Halle, Germany, two months ago, which raised him to third in the world and brought the peaks of the sport into view. '
None of this would have happened without John's coaching,' he says. 'It was vital. He's got a real commitment to his athletes. People let him down, but he always bounces back. I couldn't do that. It's a great quality. And all for no pay! That can't be right.'
Hillier shrugs it all off, the praise and the sympathy. 'I used to have six or seven in my training group. Now there's almost a dozen, and all because of what Lawrence has done. I'm no better or worse a coach than I was 10 years ago. I don't know any more than I did. And Lawrence is certainly not the best coaching I've done. He just happens to be the most talented.
'There comes a point when I have to say: this guy is a potential Olympic champion, certainly by 2016. I'd consider my coaching ability was really poor if he couldn't be the world No 1 in another year or so.
Potential: Okoye is not at his peak yet
'Over the past six months, in Cape Town and San Diego, I've talked to all the best coaches, the people who really know discus, and they all say Lawrence is the future. And they're right. He's still struggling for technique, he's not the finished article. But when we get him there, he'll break the world record.'
Yet first, there is London. Hillier believes that his man is a genuine competitor, the kind who will thrive on pressure. 'I've been trying to get him to visualise the occasion,' he says.
'I told him that when a race starts, there's going to be eight runners all going together. But when a thrower steps into that arena, there's just him. And the stadium will be with him, looking at him, screaming for him. Then it's time to perform.'
Okoye seems unconcerned by the notion. He knows that his immediate future will be decided by his performance at the Games. Oxford is alluring, but an Olympic medal would be life-changing. Rugby remains an option, since there is a market for one who now weighs 21st and retains his sprinter's speed. It is a captivating dilemma, but for the moment all his ambitions are concentrated on that discus circle in a stadium in east London.
He is not the favourite; indeed, it would be a major surprise if he were to emerge at the top of the heap. But he is blessed with largely untapped ability, so all things are possible. And he knows it.
'I'm capable of throwing further,' he says. 'How far, I can't know. But I'm fascinated to find out where all the training's brought me. That day in Halle, I was in the zone, laughing my way into the circle. Weird! The day before I wasn't feeling great but suddenly I was ready. Rising to the occasion. That's what the Olympics will do. The stadium will have an effect and I'm strong now. I've progressed. I'm not going to the Games just to participate.'
Hillier listens and smiles. The cat with the cream. This is what he wants to hear. 'He's been great for me,' he says. 'D'you know, he bought me a laptop, so he can send me stuff about training. Bought it out of his own money! I was staggered. He just presented me with it, so I've had to use it. Now I can help him a bit more.'
Okoye gives him a stare. 'He's not easy with computers,' he says. 'He has that kind of old school mentality and I'm new school, but somehow it all gels.'
Hillier is relishing his belated recognition. Last week, he was contacted by Britain's head coach Charles van Commenee and told he was to be a member of the official track and field coaching team. He was more thrilled than he admits.
'Apparently, I can get myself kitted out in the full GB uniform,' he says. And he adds: 'I shall probably sleep in it.' The thought provokes a memory of his first international vest, in the late sixties.
'I had to buy my own tracksuit. True! A man named Cecil Dale was in charge of finances. We all met at Heathrow, and we had to put in travel expenses from home. I asked for 5, Woolwich to London Airport. And Cecil said: 'I've looked it up, young Hillier, and you're wrong. It should come to 4 19 shillings. And that's what he gave me!'
Okoye emits that rumbling chuckle again, even if he seems slightly puzzled by mention of pre-decimal money. 'Never mind, John,' he says. 'You've paid your dues.'
Indeed he has, and not only John Hillier, but all those other coaches without whom the sport could not flourish. Over these next few weeks, when history is written and great deeds are done, we will do well to remember their efforts.