The boy who discovered the golden girl

‘LE MAZ’ would have been 100 this year.

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Ace coach: John Le Masurier is widely recognised as one of the best athletics coaches Great Britain ever had. The great Mary Rand had no complaints. (Picture by Mark Shearman)

John Le Masurier, we are talking about here.

He was not the very greatest sportsman to win colours at Elizabeth College, but a very fine one nevertheless – and in terms of overall influence as a sports coach, arguably he is up there alongside the legendary Roger Self – and that’s certainly saying something.

‘Le Maz’ was coach of the Great Britain team at the five Olympic Games between 1960 and 1976 and in recognition of his valued contribution to sport, in his dotage he was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010.

It might shock some to learn that the coaching genius behind Olympic champions, including the legendary Mary Rand, had a fair amount of Jersey blood in him.

He was the middle son of Arthur Le Masurier, born in St Helier in 1880, the son of a wine and spirit merchant who came to Guernsey between 1901 and 1911.

John’s father did not stick with the booze trade and by the time little John arrived in a war-torn world in which Guernseymen were dying in their dozens in France, Arthur had moved into banking as a clerk, having married Ada Rose Martel in 1913 at St Martin’s Church, where the children would later be baptised.

John and Ada had high hopes for their boys and at the age of seven John joined the Elizabeth College junior school for the summer term of 1925. By the time he left in 1936, young John had starred on the football, cricket and hockey fields, not to mention swimming and, best of all, in athletics as a hurdler, where he went out in style in his final year.

It was a miserable late March day 83 years ago when the athletics team, captained by ‘Le Maz’, took the boat to the land of his forefathers and completed a fantastic 100 yards, quarter-mile and hurdles treble before the Bailiff of Jersey handed him the Hutchence Cup.

Poor Victoria had not seen the back of Le Masurier yet.

Come the summer term he was smashing them around the cricket field and splattering their wickets.

As captain he top-scored with 65 in the game in Jersey and back on his home track he ripped them apart with a spell of seven for 32.

Looking back at that summer term, The Elizabethan magazine said of their departing captain: ‘A hard-hitting bat with plenty of good strokes; sometimes loses his wicket by a wild and ill-timed “mow’’. At times bowls very well indeed, a good captain.’

His vice-captain was a man who would, in his own time, make a good story.

Jim Symes, along with Hubert Nicolle, wrote their names into Guernsey folklore when in 1940 they landed secretly as part of a failed commando raid on their German-occupied home isle.

Dressed in plain clothes and landing by motor torpedo boat, the men clambered up the rocks at Petit Port and then scrambled up a pathway to the top of the cliff, using knowledge of the area gained in childhood.

But when the navy’s return vessel failed to arrive, the men found themselves stuck. They were forced to go into hiding for weeks.

In October 1940, Nicolle and Symes surrendered to the Germans. The following month they were shipped out and islanders who had helped the spying officers were arrested and sent to France.

Both were awarded the Military Cross for their dangerous exploits in Guernsey.

On leaving Elizabeth College, while Jim Symes sought a military career, John initially followed his sporty brother Paul to Bristol.

But while Paul trained as a dentist, John soon quit Bristol University and headed up to Loughborough College of Athletics Games and PE, where he obtained a first-class honours diploma.

But, of course, war was around the corner and the teaching was put on hold as John joined the Royal Marines and was promoted to major.

All the while his parents spent the Second World War years under Occupation here in Guernsey.

At the end of hostilities John returned to civilian life, married Blanche and became a PE teacher at The King’s School in Peterborough.

His ability to coach became very well honed, to such an extent that in 1949 John became principal athletics coach for the south of England.

Another important date in his brilliant sporting career was 1961, when he was appointed principal athletics coach for England along with friend Denis Watts.

His own style of training, which he offered Mary Rand, gained her gold, silver and bronze medals at the Tokyo Olympics.

Besides being a sports trainer, John was also a writer.

Le Maz, as he known to everyone on the UK athletics scene, produced athletics books and instructional manuals.

He never forgot the place of his birth, visiting Guernsey on occasions to meet friends and family, all of whom were proud of his achievements in the national sporting world.

He died peacefully in Epsom Hospital on the last day of August 2014.

Bruce Parker, author of the History of Elizabeth College, said that Le Maz had first distinguished himself in Guernsey by becoming the athletics champion at Elizabeth College, winning the coveted historic Dobree belt.

His elder brother had won the Dobree the year before him.

‘He inspired many island athletes such as Vernon Collenette, who later had a huge impact on island athletics,’ said Parker.

‘Le Maz must be ranked as one of Guernsey’s most distinguished sports people. He was hugely respected in the UK, not only for his versatility in the athletic disciplines, but as the Mr Polite of the sport – mild mannered, laid back, but at the same time ruthless and successful.’

To Old Elizabethan Rob Langlois he was something of an idol, Rob being a noted island athlete himself.

‘I met Le Maz three times in all,’ he said.

‘The second occasion was far more individual. In 1958, while working in the City of London I joined Hercules AC, whose base was at the Tooting Bec Stadium, Wandsworth.

‘I used to train there three or four times a week after work. I became a regular member of the club’s first team and often found myself competing against internationals or county champions.

‘One evening I was quietly training under the tutelage of Arthur Gold [later to become one of the AAA’s best-known officials and be knighted for it], when along comes John Le Masurier with a bevy of lady sprinter-jumpers.

‘Apparently, he used to go round the grounds in turn with groups of his proteges.

‘On this occasion they included the then 18-year-old Mary Bignal, later to become his greatest coaching success.

‘Arthur Gold, knowing I came from Guernsey, specially took me over to Le Maz and introduced me as a fellow Guernseyman and, as speedily became evident, a fellow Old Elizabethan.

‘The immediate response was an invitation to join in his coaching session and so I found myself practising starts alongside the future Mary Rand, Britain’s eventual first lady Olympic Champion and “Golden Girl”.

‘Afterwards, Le Maz took me back to Arthur Gold, and I distinctly remember him saying, “Look after this young man, Arthur”.

‘I guess it was the “old boy network” in action, but he really was charming and displayed a genuine interest in me.

‘During that year I succeeded in becoming the Inter-Banks Long Jump champion at Motspur Park, as well as City of London Long Jump champion.

‘The third meeting took place many years later, in 1998, long after “Le Maz” had retired as AAA national coach.

‘We met in the lounge of the Havelet Hotel, where he stayed every year, and he received myself and Ray Hollis with the utmost grace.

‘We spent a fascinating hour over coffee [his treat] talking about his part in our story as a young man and being given behind-the-scenes insights into the Olympiads he had experienced.

‘He seemed genuinely pleased that we had sought him out and we were able to tell him much about how the sport had evolved in Guernsey in post-war years. We both felt privileged to have so closely socialised with such a famous athletics figure.

‘In 2010 John Le Masurier was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame. He was too old and infirm to attend the presentation ceremony, so his trophy was taken to him at home. I watched the resulting short video at the time, from which one could see that, although ailing, this distinguished Guernsey-born gentleman still retained that mildness and gentility for which he was so well known at the height of his coaching career. Truly, an archetypal Old Elizabethan.’

Le Maz’s time at Elizabeth was very much Francis Hardy’s time, a principal of high morals and who cracked the whip from the first day he walked up those famous steps and in through the creaking front doors.

Hardy thought a lot of himself and not much of his predecessor, that much is very clear.

Hardly had he been at the college a year when young John arrived and the new man in charge was scathing about just everything that he found and he shunned the island social scene.

‘I had no time for cocktail parties or other such attractions,’ he said years later as this plainly difficult man looked back at his 15 years in the big chair.

‘Le Maz’s’ thoughts on Hardy are not recorded, but two OEs very much of his era – the late ‘Griff’ Caldwell and one-time Lt-Governor Sir Peter Le Cheminant – both men of real substance and who put up with the grit and grind of army life, gave him both the thumbs up and the thumbs down.

Caldwell said of the man nicknamed Felix: ‘a remarkable man who was tough, just what a headmaster should be. I liked him, but he was not really a likeable man’.

Sir Peter said he was ‘an enormous personality who struck fear into all of us, including some masters. Popular he was not, but an effective principal. He once caned me for breaking a rule that I didn’t even know existed – that of travelling in a car driven by another boy.’

Meanwhile, Mrs Hardy gave the future Lt-Governor a classic piece of advice on the day he left.

‘Don’t be taken in by all those nude women in nightclubs, they’re not nude really – they’re all wearing body stockings.’