Athletics memories of John James (JJ) Williams MBE
The extraordinary number of tributes on TV, in the press and online to the late JJ Williams, who died on October 29th aged 72, have quite rightly concentrated on his legendary rugby feats. These included 7 appearances for the British Lions scoring 5 test match tries, and 12 tries in 30 consecutive games for Wales during the time the Principality dominated European rugby.
But in this personal tribute from Clive Williams remembers what a great athlete and unofficial athletics coach he was.
My first memory of him was at the 1966 Taff Street Dash in Pontypridd, when he was still at Maesteg Grammar School. I was immediately impressed with his speed and confidence as he became the youngest person to win the famous race. He won from his future rugby colleague and Commonwealth Games teammate Terry Davies with former Welsh 100 yards champion and another rugby-man, Brian Coles, in third. He took the event again in 1971. However, what was significant that day in 1966 was not the fact that he beat two of Wales’ finest senior sprinters at the time, but he was surrounded by two minders - his two elder brothers, the late Peter and Ken. I recall him telling me that he was glad that he had been drawn in one of the two middle lanes in 1971, as lanes one and four were in the gutter. And that would have put paid to any hopes of winning the race again which was held along Wales’ busiest - and narrowest - main street. What he didn’t know was that I had done the seeding!
Britain’s top junior sprinter.
He was a fine all-round sportsman at school, playing for Welsh Schools as an outside half. But arguably, he was a better sprinter at the time. He took two Welsh schools titles (1966 and 1967), won both British schools’ sprint titles in 1967 and the same year won the Welsh junior 100 yards title to establish himself as Britain’s finest junior sprinter. But there was controversy at the Welsh school's championship in Carmarthen in 1966 when he won the 100 yards. As fellow medallist, Mike Walters recalls:
“About 10 yards from the finish somehow John’s arms and mine clashed and my team manager put in a protest and a rerun was ordered.” Mike went on: “John again won the rerun, with me second and future nine times Welsh sprint champion Dave Roberts third.”
Life-long friend Gareth Edwards who was at Millfield School in 1966, and had set a British junior record for the 220 yards hurdles when winning that year’s English Schools title, was a member of the English schools team at the UK schools international in Belfast that year. Gareth recalls that he was on the podium having finished second in the hurdles event, and JJ went past and muttered “traitor.” So there were early signs then of his outspoken views! JJ finished second in the 100 yards in Belfast, but the following year in Glasgow he became the fastest British schoolboy when he took both sprint events.
Adrian Thomas, one of Britain’s finest coaches and current Board member of Welsh Athletics, who coached the British sprint relay squad at Olympic, World and European championships was a close personal friend of JJ and coach to his son Rhys, the 2012 European 400 hurdles champion. Adrian, who succeeded JJ as Welsh Schools 100 champion in both 1968 and 1969 said: “He was a great facilitator, mentor and supporter to young Rhys helping him to a full spectrum of European medals. He was always available to take training if I was away.” He continued:
“This mirrored the situation with his daughter Kathryn also a British junior and Welsh senior 400h international. JJ’s knowledge of athletics training was excellent and I’m sure that if he had the time available he could have become an outstanding coach. He will be missed very much.”
So at that time, as Britain’s best sprinter for his age, there was a bright athletics future ahead and later in 1967 and still a schoolboy, he finished an excellent third in the Welsh senior championships behind winner Ron Jones and a certain Lynn Davies. He was to become a student of the Olympic Champion at Cardiff College of Education. He also represented Britain in the world student games in Turin, but was bitterly disappointed when illness meant that he was unable to fulfil his potential. Ron Jones, probably Britain’s best sprinter at the time took the 1968 Welsh 100 title by a whisker from just-out-of-his teens JJ. But that was after John had shocked the Aberdare star in the previous week’s Wales/Army match at Barry when he stunned the 33 year-old by winning the 100 by a very short margin.
[Photo: JJ wins the 1971 Welsh 100m title with Ron Jones (15) third (pic by Gordon Roberts]
It was Ron’s first defeat by a Welsh athlete for many years. Ron took twelve Welsh sprint titles - a record which still stands today. JJ returned later in the championships to win the first of his four Welsh senior titles taking the last ever 220 yards title, as the following year the events changed to metric distances. He retained his 200m title in 1969 and combined a further 200 title in 1971 with a win in the 100. As I said in my Athletics Weekly report of the championships, he was the star performer that day.
Just 2 tenths of a second outside a medal at Commonwealth Games - With the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh looming, he showed outstanding early season form in Swansea with a fantastic 10.4 100m clocking. Unfortunately, the breeze from Swansea Bay aided the run, so the time was not valid for record purposes. The Welsh record at the time was 10.3 secs held by Berwyn and Ron Jones. Including windy marks, that 10.4 put him in the top 10 in the Commonwealth, so the Welsh tom toms were saying, here is another great Welsh sprinter to follow in the footsteps of Olympic bronze medallist Nick Whitehead, Ron, Berwyn and Lynn. To back-up this performance, he ran a scintillating legal 10.5 secs later in May, the equal fourth fastest by a British athlete at that point. But in that run on the Cardiff College (now Cardiff Metropolitan University) track at Cyncoed he was beaten by a whisker by lecturer Lynn who also clocked 10.5. The tongues were really wagging now!
At the Welsh Commonwealth Games trials, he took both the 100 and 200m, so the scene was set for the only major international athletics competition that Welsh athletes could represent their nation on the world stage. But he found it tough in Edinburgh - probably sowing seeds in his mind that he may return to rugby - and just failed to get into the second round of the 100m, clocking a windy 10.6 in his heat, the same time as fourth placed Tony Powell of Canada who qualified for the second round. He fared slightly better in the 200 making the second round after finishing third in his heat with a windy personal best of 21.4. But he was eliminated, clocking another wind-assisted time of 21.5, in a race won by future Olympic 200m champion Don Quarrie who was to go on and win both Edinburgh sprint titles.
JJ was bitterly disappointed not to progress further in the individual events, but with the sprint relay due in a couple of days, he was confident that with the likes of Lynn Davies, Ron Jones and Terry Davies in the team a medal would be within reach. However, Ron pulled out with an injury to be replaced by 400m specialist Howard Davies. And it was almost a medal, as Terry, Lynn, JJ and Howard ran out of their socks to finish fifth in 40.23 secs - just 0.18 of a second off the bronze medal won by England. He told me at the time, that with a fit Ron in the squad he was confident that they would have clinched bronze. A couple of weeks later in Cwmbran, he was one of twelve Welsh athletes that competed for Britain in the B international against France, finishing fourth over 200m and running in the sprint relay team which lost by a whisker in 40.9 secs.
Known the world over
Over the years my wife and I have accompanied John and his wife Jane on many overseas trips to watch Rhys competing, and even on the other side of the world JJ’s exploits were well known. When we were in Melbourne for the 2006 Commonwealth Games, we went into a rugby-themed restaurant for lunch. It was quite busy and when asking for a table for four, we were told that there would be an hour’s wait. JJ started to walk off, and I glanced around at the many pictures on the wall of the world’s best rugby players. And of course, there was one of JJ. Out of his earshot I said to the waiter “That’s a pic of JJ Williams.” To which he replied it was and what a great player he was. “Well” I said “That’s him”, pointing to JJ as he was about to walk out of the restaurant. “Oh bloody hell” said the waiter, “I’ll find a table somewhere!” So we called JJ back and just said that they had found a table after all. The waiter asked for his autograph, but I didn’t tell John why a table was found so quickly.
Whilst we knew each other in our competitive athletics days, we lost touch during his rugby career, but met-up again some years later when he “offered” his company’s painting and decorating services to the 70 or pubs that my company owned. I remember that we were about to develop a new pub close to Rhoose airport, and the company decided that we would call it “The Flying Winger” with a pic of him on the pub sign. When I told him he said that to have a pub named after him was a real honour. But he thought again when I said that he had to buy the first round when the pub opened! Sadly the project didn’t go ahead, but this story yet again illustrates the esteem in which he was held.
A star for Swansea Harriers and in Britain’s top ten in 3 events
All three children - Kathryn, James and Rhys competed for Cardiff AAC, but John’s club was Swansea Harriers, and he played a key part in their promotion to the British League with some storming performances. In one match at West London Stadium, running the last leg of the 4 x 400 relay he took off around 80m behind the leaders to win the event for the club.
Said Swansea team manager Barrie Owen: “The other team managers were amazed. I wish I had taken the split time.”
In fact, he could have become an outstanding 400m runner and he even contemplated running 800 at one stage. He ran his fastest 400m when running as a guest in Cardiff’s match against Rhineland at Cardiff in 1971. His time was an outstanding 47.4 which placed him the UK’s top ten for that year. A fortnight earlier he clocked a personal best 200m of 21.2 in Swansea to become Britain’s 5th fastest 200m man that year. And with his legal 100m best of 10.5 being the 7th fastest in the UK the previous year there’s no doubt that in 1970 and 1971 he was one of Britain’s best all-round sprinters. I firmly believe that 400 would have been his best event had he stayed in athletics. Based on his 47.4, with no specific 400 training, a time in the low 46’s would have been easily achievable. But rugby won the day in the end.
Arthur Gould, Ken Jones and….JJ
Wales is renowned for great rugby players who were also outstanding athletes and JJ can be favourably compared with 1948 Olympic sprint relay medallist Ken Jones who won 44 rugby caps. Arthur Gould who reached several AAA (UK) finals as a sprinter and hurdler in the early 20th century also bears comparison. There is little doubt that his family can be regarded as Wales’ top sporting family. Remarkably all three of John and Jane’s children became sports mad. Kathryn spent 20 years at Sport Wales in addition to her international 400m hurdling accomplishments and James was captain and team manager at Cardiff AAC, as well as being a top-class middle-distance runner winning two Welsh indoor 1500 titles and is the Chief Executive Officer at Welsh Athletics - the Sport’s governing body. Rhys is Wales’ second fastest 400m hurdles runner - only World Champion Dai Greene has run faster. Of course, Rhys won the 2012 European 400 hurdles title after winning silver and bronze in preceding championships - and was Welsh U15 backstroke swimming champion.
JJ was awarded an MBE in 2013 for his services to rugby and his charitable work with the Welsh rugby former players association.
So what a legacy he leaves to Welsh sport. We will not see his like again.