John Kelly was born on 6 OCT, 1929 at No. 7 Bridge, Loughmore [the cottage by the railway line on the Thurles to Templemore Road]. When he was three his family moved to Graystown, Killenaule and while there he was educated at Graystown National School. After a few years the family moved back to No. 7 Bridge, Loughmore and he attended Loughmore National School from 1941 to 1944.
When he finished his schooling he worked near Moyglass on John Joe Lacy’s farm and played Junior hurling with Moyglass. He left Ireland in 1949 when he emigrated to Melbourne, Australia and for the next few years he went back and forth to New Zealand following the construction trade. While in Australia he entered the 1956 Australian Olympic Trials for the hammer but had three no throws [one of which nearly landed in a tram full of people!! – there were no safety nets in those days, only the circle].
At 6′ 2″, John also competed in the ‘56 Trials in boxing – heavyweight and went out with a cut eye in the second round. He had won both light-heavyweight and heavyweight categories in a Golden Gloves Tournament in Melbourne in the early 1950’s, and in New Zealand he was runner-up in the 1957 Senior Heavyweight Boxing Championships. In rugby he played wing forward with Marist clubs based in New Plymouth and Wellington, and in 1954 he won the Moran Cup at Auckland’s Eden Park with New Plymouth, the only time they have ever won it.
After moving to America in 1959, he was training at Bobby Gleason’s Gym in New York six days a week considering a professional boxing career and was offered a pro fight but decided to concentrate on running instead. He finished 7th in brutally warm conditions in the 1964 Yonkers Marathon in New York which was one of two U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials for the 1964 Olympics.
In January, 1965 he won the Philadelphia Marathon in 2:37:23 running the whole distance in several inches of snow, with snow continuing to fall all during the race! In 1970 at Orange County he actually walked a marathon in 3:58:59. His best walking times for 20km and 50km are 1:32:30 [1967 Lawrence to Lowell Race in Massachusetts – setting a new course record] and 4:24:22 [June 1968, USA 50K Racewalk Championship in San Francisco].
John went on to represent Ireland at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City in the 50km race walking event but did not finish, overcome by the flu which he contracted two days before the event. His club at the time was Melrose A.A., based in New York, and after moving to California he competed for the Southern California Striders, Santa Monica Track Club and was coach and member of the California Walkers.
In 1973 he earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records when he walked 120 miles in the notorious Death Valley Desert, California in the non-stop record time of 34 hours 9 minutes and 9 seconds, beating the previous record by an incredible 28 hours 30 minutes. In soaring July temperatures he attempted the feat to free the Forth Worth Five [Irish-Americans wrongly imprisoned in Texas], the ensuing publicity resulted in the dismissal of charges of supplying arms to the IRA and their release from prison – Senator Ted Kennedy and the Archbishop of Texas aided in this effort.
He has also engaged in sport at coaching and administrative levels, and was the race walking director at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – this entailed not only organizing all volunteers but setting and measuring the course. In New York he completed a high school diploma through home study courses in the 1960’s, and did some classes at Santa Monica City College in California in the 1970’s. He played a role in the musical film Star! featuring Julie Andrews and directed by Robert Wise, and in the mid 1970’s he became a member of the Screen Actors Guild. A well travelled man, he has returned to Ireland to visit many times and has been to over 100 countries. Since 1998 John Kelly and his wife have lived in Prescott, Arizona and in 2003 there was a plaque unveiled in his honour outside Loughmore National School. He was also home for the 2004 Tipperary Sports Awards where he was the Knocknagow Award winner. The award is presented each year to a leading Tipperary sportstar of the past.
He died on November 13th 2012.
John Kelly – Irish 1968 50km Walk Olympian – Honoured in Loughmore NS
The staff, board of management, pupils, parents and parishioners of Loughmore NS were delighted to have Kati Kelly, wife of the late John Kelly, in attendance at a recent ceremony to honour the historic Irish Olympian. A large crowd of guests and locals gathered for a festive luncheon in the staff room at mid day on Wednesday 19th of December. Kati Kelly had the opportunity to meet many of the people who had previously gathered in 2004 to welcome John back to Loughmore. A whole school assembly then followed, and the school community was addressed by Principal Angela Dunne, Chairperson of the board of management Fr. Corbett, Mgr. Dooley and John Geehan. Kati was extremely generous with her time and ensured she spoke to all pupils in the school, who greeted her with enthusiastic well wishes, singing and poetry. She brought an array of memorabilia with her to show us, including an Olympic torch, John Kelly’s Olympic Suit from the Mexican Olympics of 1968, his original Irish and Olympic flags, a great deal of his medals and badges, and much more. She spoke to the school community of her late husband’s kindness, tenacity, determination, strong faith and belief in striving to be the best version of yourself that you can be. Ms. Dunne requested permission from Kati to amend our History school plan to include ‘The Life and Achievements of John Kelly’ as a specific case-study in senior classes as he was such a hugely inspirational man. Kati was happy to concur and very kindly donated a large selection of John’s medals to the school and expressed a wish for these to be given to the pupils in John’s memory. The staff and parents, cognisant that these medals are highly prestigious, agreed that it would be a fitting tribute to John’s legacy to award these medals annually as a ‘John Kelly Award’. The first of these awards were presented by Kati herself to four lucky and deserving pupils – Orlaith Maher, Conor Ryan, Michael O’Connell and Maria Connolly for sporting excellence. Following this assembly the school community filed out to the school yard, adajacent to the 2.1 acres/playing field, the purchasing of which John Kelly had donated money towards, where one hundred balloons – green, white and gold, American flag balloons and also dove shaped ballons, were released into the sky to the strains of the pupils singing the old Irish blessing ‘ May the Road Rise to Meet You’.
The community of Loughmore NS have decided, with the blessing of Kati Kelly, to honour John Kelly in an Annual ‘John Kelly Memorial Run’ in the locality. The run will be held in the summer term annually and the proceeds of the run will be used to promote fitness and sport in the school. The staff and Parents Association will work closely to organise this event. The first Annual run will take place on the 14th of June 2013. All are welcome to sign up for this event – children (will have a modified route) and adults alike. Relations of John Kelly will be in attendance and memorabilia of John’s will be on display in the community hall after the race, where refreshments will be served to competitors and visitors.
John Kelly's beautiful and inspiring wife Kati, kept in close contact with our school, following John's passing and set up the Annual John Kelly Memorial Run. She was a vivacious and dynamic lady, held in fond esteem by all she met. Kati went to her eternal reward on 5th of March 2019, after bravely battling a short illness. She was buried in Loughmore, beside her beloved husband, across from our school. We will keep the memory of the amazing John and Kati Kelly in our school and hearts. Kati left a generous legacy fund to Loughmore NS, which we were humbled and honoured to receive. The BOM are working on a plan to build a sports hall in honour of both Kati and John with this fund. May they both rest in eternal peace.
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