Paul Nihill MBE, who sadly died in December, wasn’t short of legacies through his esteemed, record-breaking and inspirational life. As the first British male track and field athlete to compete in four Olympic Games, Paul’s reputation as one of the all-time athletics greats was never mislaid. Determination and drive carried him a long way but, with an Olympic silver medal from Tokyo 1964 in his collection, the race-walker certainly had talent to go alongside ambition.
A love of sport didn’t end at top-level competition either – his desire to help inspire the next generation present with everything he did. In sporting circles, he won’t ever be forgotten. Having a street – Nihill Place – named after him in Croydon, where he grew up, will certainly help with that. So too will the Nihill Shield, a prize for the victors of an international racewalk contested between young athletes from Ireland and England.
And as he so often remembered with a smile on his face, Paul was even on a stamp following his Olympic heroics. But his legacy – which also included an MBE in 1976, the same year SportsAid was formed – hasn’t ended with his sad passing at the age of 81. Instead of sending flowers for his funeral, people were asked to donate to SportsAid in his memory with over £1,000 raised. His daughter, Clare Denness, explains why.
"When dad passed away, we knew that he wouldn't want people to donate to something surrounding his death,” she explains. "He would have wanted people to remember him and know him as the sportsman. I came across SportsAid and saw just how perfect a fit it would be for him and for people to remember him. He, as a youngster, trying to get into the sport he wanted, the struggles and the hard work to get to the top, juggling sport with jobs, was a journey he was proud of.
"He had to get across all these obstacles but would have done anything to stop other people having to get across the same barriers he faced. So when I saw that SportsAid was all about youngsters needing that support, it was the perfect fit. He did incredibly at his sport, but we've seen how beneficial it could be to get that extra support. He'd want to see these young stars filter through. Life can be a struggle, it's a big commitment to be able to break through to the top level of sport, so to play that part in helping others get there was an easy decision.”
A knee injury as a 20-year-old prevented Paul from boxing or running but race-walking more than made up for the void. But this was no half-hearted venture. Walking ten miles in the morning, 15 in the evening and more than 30 on a Sunday – all while juggling work and a young family – proved that. He took pride in his sport, from his humble beginnings to lofty heights, and with his roll of honour it’s easy to see why.
One Olympic medal, four Games overall, two European medals, 27 UK national titles and just one defeat in 86 races between 1967 and 1970; this was a man with dedication in abundance. Clare adds: “He was really proud of his achievements and wanted to keep records of everything. He was such a fast race-walker – if you were running alongside him, he'd probably still beat you. It was the speed and relentlessness of his pace.
"When you have a dad like that, we didn’t know the difference between him and other dads when we were younger. Dad was always training, so we were used to him being away at competitions. We'd be there cheering him on – his kit was always hanging up around the house. In our dining room were all these trophies. We'd come out of school and if he was there to meet us, there'd be other kids there asking for his autograph. People knew the name and knew the man. He was a very hard-worker – and he had to be.”
Some would revel in the opportunity to put their feet up when their elite-level action days were done. But not Paul. After all, when you’ve given decades of your life to race-walking, why stop there? While he’d worked hard for his opportunity, Paul also knew just how much he owed to others, with family support backed up by those of his employers, whose flexibility proved key in forging a career. So giving back became second-nature – becoming a race director, going into schools and doing almost everything he could to make his sole venture a collective effort.
"He would go to schools and have chats with children, take his medals along and be there to inspire people about what they could achieve,” adds Clare. "He always supported the Medway Mile, he was there and gave speeches, he was always trying to encourage people to be fit and healthy. He loved seeing youngsters out and about and enjoying themselves. And even the Medway Mile medal meant so much to him.
"He was really passionate about it, he wanted to be involved and to see other athletes hungry for the same things he wanted to achieve. That was his sport, he took ownership of that and he wanted people to enjoy it like he did.”
As for the countless records that came his way throughout life, while he didn’t initially strive for them, he didn’t take any less pride in receiving the accolades along the way. Clare continues: "He was always talking about what he achieved, and the doors it opened up in his life. He was invited to places all the time, he loved talking about and was very proud.
"He was awarded an MBE in 1976, that was such a brilliant achievement for him, and then he had the road named after him as well. To have got that in later life, was really special for him. He had a huge love of Croydon and to go back to where it all began, that's not something that just happens for anyone. Unfortunately we never got the chance to take him up after the road was finally developed but he was there at the beginning.
"That was a brilliant achievement for him, that really meant a lot to him. To have that was something he was really proud of, the legacy. I get upset about my dad's death. But if I ever feel down about him, I only have to put his name into Google and there are stories after stories about him. His picture and his words. How lucky am I to be able to do that?”
A keen boxer and a secretary to the Ex-Boxer Associations, Paul’s influence spanned beyond walking and even beyond sport. Owning a record shop and housing wall-to-wall vinyl’s demonstrated that passion, as did the rock-and-roll show he hosted on Radio Kent. Even before getting involved with SportsAid, Clare and family have strived to maintain her father’s legacy, in and out of sport.
Her son, Rob, arranged a charity walk covering 50km in one day for Amherst Court, the care home that housed Paul in his later years, while he had dementia. So it would be fair to say the family got plenty of insight into what Paul achieved, and just how hard he had to work to get there. And even after he’s gone, that legacy remains. In every step they take.
"As a child, my brothers and I racewalked with him everywhere – and still today, my husband tells me to slow down,” concludes Clare. "I don't think I'll be able to walk slowly ever again!”
You can make a donation in memory of Paul Nihill MBE via the Just Giving page set up by his daughter Clare. SportsAid would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you to Clare and the family for choosing the charity, and to all of the people who have kindly donated. Your support will make a real difference to the next generation of British sporting talent.