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Australian Story -

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Comes a Time - Transcript

MELINDA GAINSFORD-TAYLOR: Hi, I'm Melinda Gainsford-Taylor, former Australian sprint champion.
Tonight's 'Australian Story' is about a man who proves that age is no barrier to outstanding
athletic achievement. He's John Wall and last year out of nowhere he became the fastest 60-year-old
in the world. This is his remarkable story.

JOHN WALL: I really look at my life as a precious gift. And it's an opportunity to wake up every
morning and do something positive for yourself and for others and that's how I live my life.

TIM CLUCAS, FRIEND: There's something inside John Wall that if we could tap, we'd have the fountain
of youth, we'd have world peace, we'd have everything. John is special. An overused word, I know,
but John deserves the word special.

MAJOR HILTON HARMER, SALVATION ARMY: He's a man of deep spirituality. Sometimes I've thought of him
as kind of an oasis in the desert. He digs into the deep resources of his soul to overcome the

JOHN WALL: I want be able to motivate people, I want to be able to inspire others to believe in
themselves, when they're down I want to be able to say, "You can get back up again." Like the old
song says. You know, "When I get knocked down, I can get back up again."

KELLY WALL, SON: Watching Dad progress you know over the past say ten years with his athletics has
just been amazing. He found a drive and he thought, "Hey, I can do this, I can run again and I'm
out there and I'm going."

JOHN WALL: When you're at the start of a race, your focus is not on who's beside you, not on who
you're running against, it's on that one lane, that one strip of synthetic track that is going to
lead you to the finish. When you're running really fast, it actually feels that you're not running
fast at all. And when you talk to people who've watched your race, they say, look that was a
beautiful thing to watch, you just looked like you weren't even trying. At the end of a race, if
you win it, there's elation. It's an unbelievable feeling. Winning is an unbelievable feeling.
Don't let anybody tell you different. Last November I ran the fastest 100 metres by a 60-year-old
athlete and it felt fantastic.

KELLY WALL, SON: Watching Dad run the 11.97 second race, I guess we were all sort of blown away by
that. To see that yeah, he really could do all that at his age was incredible.

TIM CLUCAS, FRIEND: One of the things that really annoys me about John is that I'm almost, well I'm
15 years younger than him, and I look fifteen years older than him. That's just not fair.

WAYNE LUCKEY, ATHLETICS COACH: He doesn't come across as a 61-year-old person. He's too active for
the standard 61-year-old. He's too interested in life for 61 years old.

JOHN WALL: I do work hard at trying to maintain that physical conditioning so that I do send the
right message not only to youth but to the baby boomers. My main focus is letting baby boomers know
that you can look better and you can look well no matter how old you are.

KELLY WALL, SON: I think Dad's goal is to educate people that really an age is no boundary. And the
fact that you can see him out there at his age doing everything that he does is real life proof
that these things can be done.

JOHN WALL: We have to stop thinking of ourselves as the ageing greys, and start looking at
ourselves as the new emerging youth.

TIM CLUCAS, FRIEND: I think John inspires people because he doesn't do a Tony Robbins. He doesn't
get up on stage and shout and scream. I think if you just look into his eyes, if you listen to him,
there is a calm strength that says, "I know what I'm talking about. I'm there myself, you can be
here with me if you want to be."

JOHN WALL: The projections as I understand it from the Federal Government in regard to the cost of
looking after this ageing population will be $3 trillion within the next 20 years. If I'm a
liability to the state and the community, that's a big one, that's huge. But am I going to be
liability to my own children and my grandchildren? Am I still going to be able to throw a ball
around or am I going to be stuck in a wheelchair or with a walking frame? We can keep healthy as an
age demographic, very simply by doing simple things: taking care of your diet, watching what you
eat, what you drink and doing a little bit of exercise but doing a little bit every day. Sometimes
those steps are very small. But you've got to know that those steps lead you on to bigger steps. So
if you start small, you can achieve anything, just take the first step.

I was born in Dublin, in Ireland, and I had a remarkable time as a child because my father was a
police officer and working for the British government in Hong Kong. So most of his life and
consequently then mine was spent travelling between Hong Kong and back to Ireland, every two and a
half years. It was a very good time for a young boy growing up because I got to experience many,
many different cultures. I did get married young. I first met my first wife in Hong Kong. I guess I
had a crush on her, but she was at that stage interested in the school's number one athlete, the
champion athlete in the school. And in my childhood, or my teenage logic, I figured that, well if I
could become the champion athlete of the school she'd go for me, which is rather crazy logic but in
fact that's what I did. So athletics did something for me then.

My first real job was in the film industry. I finished working on a major motion picture for 20th
Century Fox, called "The Sand Pebbles" starring Steve McQueen, Sir Richard Attenborough, Richard
Crenna, many, many lead American and European actors, and learned a lot from that, and an
opportunity arose for me to come to Australia to live. So we had our first child then and his name
was Sean.

LIONEL DOOLEY, FRIEND: I met John Wall back in 1968. John was quite a different fellow in the late
'60s. He'd progressed a little bit further than what any of us had progressed with his blue MG and
working in the film industry and he was quite a dapper dresser and a smart sort of fellow. He
certainly didn't blend into the crowd, he wanted to stand out a little bit, but I suppose a lot of
sprinters do, they want to feel a little different and feel a little fast. In the late '60s when we
were both running together, John was an exceptional athlete, A grade and then state level and
really in my opinion could've got to national level except for the sickness that just virtually
finished his running career at that stage.

JOHN WALL: I often wonder what would have happened to me if I didn't get tuberculosis, how it would
have affected my athletics career, because it cut my athletics career pretty quickly short.

LIONEL DOOLEY, FRIEND: John's wife decided to call it quits while he was in hospital with both legs
up in the air, with clots in his legs and double pneumonia and that's not really a very pleasant
experience, I wouldn't imagine for a marriage to end on.

JOHN WALL: My eldest son Sean went to live with my mum and Dad when I went into hospital because
there was no one else to care for him and they did a wonderful job. They took him under their wing
and they gave him the family support and nourishment that every young child deserves.

LIONEL DOOLEY, FRIEND: That was a hard time for John too, because it's difficult when you come to a
new country, wife goes, son has to go and live with your parents and then he had to sort of carve a
new career.

JOHN WALL: I had a fantastic life after I met my second wife, Carmel.

CARMEL WALL, FORMER WIFE: He was different. He was tall, wore strange clothes, which I associated
with being in the film industry. He was always kind and caring and always used to like going out
and seeing his Mum and Dad to make sure that they were alright and that Sean was alright.

JOHN WALL: We basically had a great life together because I was involved at the zenith of the
Australian television and film making industry, and worked on some wonderful projects with great
people. We did all sorts of different productions, documentaries, television series, it was just a
great time, a very frantic time. I went to Cambodia to cover the Pol Pot genocide. People will know
it as the killing fields. I spent a lot of time there making documentaries. As much as you are
prepared for things, you never really are prepared to see death and destruction. And when you walk
into a village and everybody's dead, butchered, with their throats slit, families from little
babies all the way - whole entire families with their throats slit, dead.

CARMEL WALL, FORMER WIFE: And he came back a broken man from there after seeing what he saw, of all
the poor children. It really upset him.

JOHN WALL: You can't even contemplate it, and inside you you're scarred for life, I believe. But
one thing it does, it really makes you appreciate your own family.

CARMEL WALL, FORMER WIFE: John and I ended up having four boys: Kelly, Gene, Michael and Gabriel.
Sometimes John resembles the older brother more than the father. And I think that's another reason
why it sort of keeps him young. He still goes riding motor bikes with them or surfing or whatever
else they'd like to do.

JOHN WALL: The relationship with my eldest son Sean and his brothers was very good. Even though he
saw them not as often as he liked, later as they grew up, as they became older, and became in their
later teens, they had a lot of fun together.

KELLY WALL, SON: I definitely did look up to him as being my older brother. And um, yeah, I guess
that became more so as I became older.

JOHN WALL: Sean's life had developed, I guess in a sense you could look at it tragically. Sean
developed a heroin habit and the whole premise of heroin as a dangerous drug is that it's a
destructive, despicable abuse of the human body.

KELLY WALL, SON: There'd be times there where Dad would get a phone call at some crazy hour of the
morning, and it would be Sean lying in a gutter somewhere, having an overdose and Dad would just
have to jump out of bed and race there and take him to the hospital or whatever and I think that
must have put an enormous amount of stress on Dad.

JOHN WALL: We had a lot of time where we spent with lawyers in courts for various misdemeanours
that my son would get involved with and fortunately for a while, the Salvation Army did a
remarkable job with my son, as they do with many, many addicts.

MAJOR HILTON HARMER OAM, SALVATION ARMY: When I first met John, he was, to me of course you'd
understand, another father. But he was different to most. John Wall seemed to have a depth about
him that other people didn't have. He looked to me to be perplexed and I guess that was because, in
himself John is so resilient, but you can't be resilient for another person.

JOHN WALL: Hilton Harmer is a remarkable man. And he arranged for the court to have Sean taken into
the Salvation Army custody and from that point onwards, he took care of my son's life and
detoxification and so on, and spent a lot of time, a lot of personal time with Sean.

MAJOR HILTON HARMER, SALVATION ARMY: Sean was a tremendous success story. In fact, he was so
successful that the Salvation Army Territorial Headquarters asked if he would give his testimony at
the Sydney Town Hall in the 1998 Red Shield Appeal, which he did.

JOHN WALL: And sadly at that point my father got very, very ill and got diagnosed with prostate
cancer. And my son, Sean, was very, very close to his Grand-dad. So much so he really looked upon
him as a father. And to see my Dad dying was a huge thing for Sean to bare, especially having come
out of rehab trying to get his own life together, to be faced with this, you know death of somebody
like his surrogate Dad, was huge. And we buried my father. And that was a really sad time because
we had all my boys carrying my father's coffin, including Sean. And three months later my son died.
Of a heroin overdose. So life has some strange paths.

CARMEL WALL, FORMER WIFE: Sean's death was a very sad affair considering that he was so young. And
I think it impacted on John a lot, that I don't think he's still got over it.

JOHN WALL: If I was to go deep inside my soul, I would have to say that I would've liked to have
devoted more time to my son before he died. I would've liked to have done that. If I was to find
something positive as I tend to try and do, with life, that my son left a legacy to his brothers.
And it was to keep them pointed away from drugs forever.

GABRIEL WALL, SON: I always look at the memory of Sean, when anyone sort of you know, at a party
offers me something I say, "No, no thanks. You know, I've been, I've been through that."

JOHN WALL: During the course of Sean's stay with the Salvation Army it occurred to me that the
whole issue of the work that the Salvation Army does could possibly be vocalised and put down in
lyrical form.

KELLY WALL, SON: Dad's a real artistic person. He really expresses himself in so many ways, and one
of those is through song writing. He loves to write melodies and things like that.

JOHN WALL: The lyrics came to me in a flash. And I rang Hilton Harmer on the telephone and said,
"Hilton, have a listen to this."

MAJOR HILTON HARMER, SALVATION ARMY: And to tell you the truth, it moved me to tears. It was such a
beautiful song. And I thought, goodness, this man's got talent I never knew he had. The song that
he wrote for the 1998 Red Shield Appeal is outstanding. It had different meanings to different
people. To us it meant so much because we realised that what to us was a daily activity, was to him
a lifesaving activity. He wanted the world to know that the Salvation Army was beside him in his,
in what must have been one of his deepest hours of need.

KELLY WALL, SON: That time when his father passed away and then his eldest son passed away, I could
notice that with Dad he didn't worry about work so much anymore. In fact it was around about then
where he sort of gave up work.

JOHN WALL: There were a few realisations that I came to: one was that I needed to focus more on my
family, which was a hugely strong point; two, to start looking after my own body. I decided that I
wanted to really focus on athletics, not necessarily for my personal enjoyment, but I saw in the
process of developing your body and your mind, I saw an avenue here to actually help other
Australians, the over-forties in particular, to look at where their bodies were going, to become
more aware of what their bodies were telling them. My return to competitive running was very
interesting in that the day before my son died, we had gone to watch my other son Gene at an
athletics carnival and a friend of mine said to me, "Why aren't you running again? You were a great
athlete in your day. Why did you stop?" And I said, "What do you mean? Nobody runs today." So he
said, "Oh yes, there's an organisation called World Masters Athletics and Australian Masters
Athletics and it's a huge following and some of the top athletes of your day are still running
today." So I gave a little bit of thought to that and thought, "Yeah, I can do that, hey, I was
good before, I can get out there and do that again." And actually sadly found out that you know,
while the mind was ready, the body wasn't. And I ended up you know, tearing my hamstring, tearing
my calf muscle and doing this on a number of occasions, thinking that I could get out and do what I
did before. But what it showed me was that with the right training, with the right strength
conditioning, with the right body management and nutrition, I would be able to do something again.

GABRIEL WALL, SON: I was very surprised with the way he actually got back into athletics so quickly
because he, you know, at his age, it's quite a hard thing to do. And you know, the recovery and the
speed he developed, just over a short period of time. You know, all the medals he's won, it's just
amazing really.

KELLY WALL, SON: Dad's got a really, really good team around him. He's got masseuses, he's got
physiotherapists. There's a gentleman who looks after body mechanics. So yeah, he's got this great
little network around him that work with him and support him and get him to where he is.

JOHN WALL: It's created an environment for me to allow me to become at the moment the fastest in
the world for the 100 and the 200 metres for my age group.

I have two coaches that work on my power development and my technique for running. Wayne Luckey is
my power coach. His specific area of expertise is in working on my start and the first ten metres
of my race.

WAYNE LUCKEY, ATHLETICS COACH: As an athlete, John at 61 years old is like a 16-year-old kid. John
has a thirst for knowledge and wants to learn these concepts, just as a 16-year-old would want to
learn them and want to run fast.

JOHN WALL: The races where I know that I've run really fast are the races where I think, "Wow, that
felt great." It was a fabulous feeling, the day I ran the 11.97. It was almost a dreamlike
experience. I was in the zone and everything functioned according to my coach's plans. The thought
that I was actually going to run a really fast time hadn't occurred to me, but when I crossed the
finish line that was when I realised something really special had happened.

WAYNE LUCKEY, ATHLETICS COACH: If you look at the Australian National Champion time of the low 10s
that puts John one and a half to two seconds outside of the best runners in Australia at the
moment. So for 61 years old, John's probably running a lot faster than a lot of our teenage kids
would be running.

JOHN WALL: The world championships are this year in Riccione in Italy, in southern Italy. And it's
probably a significant stage in any athlete's career to be able to win the world championship. And
I haven't won a world championship even though I am the fastest in the world.

WAYNE LUCKEY, ATHLETICS COACH: John has the ability to be able to do it, but again it depends
whether we can get his body to do the things that we want to do, to get small pieces of improvement
out of it that we can that will make a significant difference.

KELLY WALL, SON: I can see him doing it. I really can. And he's focused and he's got a lot of great
support, not only from myself and my brothers but from everyone around him.

JOHN WALL: The important thing with life is to come to the realisation that you have one body and
one chance to live it.

WAYNE LUCKEY, ATHLETICS COACH: That's part of John trying to relay his own knowledge and interests
back to the older population, to try to show to them you can have life and vitality and be active,
maybe not to the level that John is but you can certainly do it.

JOHN WALL: Why wait until you see the red and blue lights of the ambulance before you actually make
a decision about changing your life for the better? Now is the time to think of this, now is the
time to take stock of where you are, for the benefit of your family and for a benefit of the
community as a whole.

TIM CLUCAS, FRIEND: One day he said to me, "You're 47. You do understand that if you want to, you
can live and be running around and be healthy for another 47 years, it's your choice. Why shouldn't
you? What are you doing about that?" And it was really interesting, because that's his approach.
It's my choice about my health and my welfare.

KELLY WALL, SON: One day when my brothers get married or I get married and we have children, he
wants to have the energy levels to be able to go out there and play with our children and kick the
ball around and do all those things. And I can see him doing that, I really can. I don't think
there's any stopping him.

JOHN WALL: I don't look upon myself as being old at all, in any way, shape or form. That's not how
I live my life. Age is a number, it's a cliché, but its true.

(c) 2007 ABC