Updated 6.10pm - Added PN condolences

The athletic community and army personnel are in shock after Malta long-distance champion Gerald DeGaetano died suddenly, aged 53.

Lt. Col. DeGaetano, who enjoyed a successful career in the Armed Forces of Malta, will be fondly remembered for his exploits in the track and field events, both locally and on the international scene.

He was attending a course on tour guiding but some time later he collapsed, his brother-in-law told Times of Malta. He was rushed to hospital but it was too late. An autopsy will be held on Tuesday.

"He was totally active and probably the fittest man his age on the island," David Griscti said, pointing out that he had actually cycled to attend the guiding course.

Tributes to the former athlete poured in on Facebook on Monday, as friends and acquaintances expressed incredulity at his sudden passing. 

He was probably the fittest man his age on the island

"Speechless, sad, incredulous," wrote one. "How can this happen to someone who is the epitome of health, strength, fitness?"

Partit Demokratiku leader Anthony Buttigieg, a medical doctor who got to know Lt. Col. DeGaetano when he worked with the Malta Olympic Committee, was also shocked by the news. 

"Gerald would have been the last person I would have expected to have gone so early," he wrote. 

In a statement, the Nationalist Party offered Lt. Col. DeGaetano's family its condolences.

One of Malta's best athletes

Lt. Col. DeGaetano established himself as one of Malta’s top long-distance runners.

He was the first Maltese runner to win a medal at the Games of the Small States of Europe when placing third in the 10,000 metres race in Cyprus in 1989.

Two years later, he went one better when he took the silver medal in the 10km race at the 1991 Games held in La Vella, Andorra.

Apart from his achievements on the track, Lt. Col. DeGaetano went on to create a name for himself in road running.

In fact he won the Mdina 2 Spinola race in a record time of 54 minutes and 33 seconds in 1987 and again finished on top in 1990.

Lt. Col. DeGaetano also shone in the Malta Half Marathon. He is the current record holder   in the men’s category when he completed the distance in one hour seven minutes and 19 seconds on his way to victory in 1990.

After retiring from athletics, Lt. Col. DeGaetano switched to canoeing and went on to win several national titles.

He would have turned 54 on Friday.

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