Malta’s athletics’ world mourned the loss of one of their top coaches yesterday after John Walsh, 56, collapsed and died during his 5 a.m. run along the fields of Għajn Tuffieħa.
He’d say he had to work at keeping fit to live to be 108 – he didn’t want to leave me alone
Fit and lean, with a healthy history, Mr Walsh’s sudden death shocked everybody who knew him, especially his wife and top athlete Carol née Galea who was waiting for him at their Xemxija home.
“John literally lived and died for running. He’s been my coach forever – the one and only,” his wife told The Sunday Times.
On Saturdays, Mr Walsh, co-founder of the Malta Marathon, usually set out for St Aloysius’ College, Birkirkara, at 7 a.m. to coach athletes, including his wife, who at her peak ranked among Europe’s top 50. He never made his appointment yesterday.
Mr Walsh was never late for coaching – “he’s very, very dedicated” – so when he failed to return home at 6.30 a.m., his wife got into the car and followed his favourite route, where he had blazed a trail through the fields from years of running.
When she reached the area close to Golden Bay she stumbled upon an ambulance and police car, but she refused to think the worst.
“I’m not such a pessimist. I thought maybe John may have twisted his ankle or had a little accident... I’m quite optimistic, but unfortunately it was the worst news,” she said.
A woman who had been walking in the area found Mr Walsh and immediately called the ambulance but it was too late. It remains unclear if he suffered a heart attack, and an autopsy has to be carried out.
“He was healthy and didn’t suffer from any ailment. He was very slim with low blood pressure, and low cholesterol. He ate very healthily and we were both obsessed with a good diet, focusing on fish and vegetables.”
The night before, Ms Walsh had called her husband asking what he preferred for dinner and his request was 100g of salmon – not more – some coleslaw, an avocado, and a steamed jacket potato.
“That’s what I made for him. We enjoyed the meal on the balcony overlooking Xemxija Bay and he was saying how he loved the view. When he finished he licked the plate because he knew I hated it,” she said.
The couple enjoyed the balmy evening and stayed talking for an hour after dinner, but then Ms Walsh urged her husband to go rest since he had to wake up early for his run.
Before they went to bed, Mr Walsh prepared his kit in another room so as not to disturb his wife up in the morning, and allow her to catch up on another hour of sleep.
He set the alarm at 5 a.m. and slipped out for training as quietly as possible. She regrets not having gone running with him.
Trying to restrain her tears, Ms Walsh spoke about how she would jokingly tell him about her childhood wish to live to be 100 years old.
“He’d say what a difficult task I set him because since he’s eight years my senior, he had to work at keeping fit to live to be 108 – he didn’t want to leave me alone.
“So this morning he was out on his daily run working on bettering his chances. How ironic,” she said.
Her sadness is shared by numerous athletes and all those who knew and respected how he had transformed the perception of long-distance running in Malta.
Though he sought to keep a low profile he had gained quite a reputation through his regular contributions in the sports pages of The Times in the run-up to the Malta Marathon and the half-marathon.
His column took the marathon to the people in the street, and from an event which initially had some 30 participants, has now risen to some 2,000 runners.
Mr Walsh had a dogged determination to encourage people to live a healthy lifestyle through athletics.
Lisa Marie Bezzina, one of Mr Walsh’s protégées who he had coached for the past 20 years and who won two silver medals in the Small Nation Games, described him like a second father. “He’d always challenge me and push me to get the best out of myself. Only last Tuesday he was encouraging me to go beyond the 800m race and focus on my forte – long-distance,” Ms Bezzina said when contacted.
“He was a kind-hearted man. He helped everybody, and when I was down he would urge me not to give up. He never had a bad word to say about anybody.”
Condolences poured in from colleagues, friends, the Nationalist Party and the Labour Party.
In the meantime, Ms Walsh has to cling on to the memories she shared with the man who was everything to her – “my soul mate, my husband, my teacher, my mentor...
“I had mega strength to run marathon after marathon, but I admit that at the moment I don’t have much strength to cope with this sudden loss, so God help me.”