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Jimmy Curran: From the Graveyard to the Stadio Olimpico

At the beginning of the 20th century an athlete could rise from schoolboy obscurity to Olympic glory in a matter of months. And behind each champion stood a coach, unheralded but essential to that success. Craig Statham's book follows one of the very finest, a Scots/American called Jimmy Curran, taking the reader on a geographic, social and sporting journey across the globe, from the shadows of the Galashiels woollen mills, deep in the Scottish borders, through wartime adventures in the Boer War, his running career and self-set endurance tests, emigration to America, and the eventual coaching of the sons of presidents and industrialists.

Coach Curran was born in Galashiels in 1880 and emigrated to America in 1907 after a successful amateur and professional athletics career as a middle distance runner. After making good money on the east coast racing circuit he landed jobs at the University of Pennsylvania as a masseuse and coach, and then at Mercersburg Academy as head coach. In his second year he trained an Olympic gold medalist. In all he would train five Olympic gold medal winners, and numerous other Olympians. 

Despite his distinctive Scots brogue, and ubiquitous tartan coat and tammy, he attained a Mr Chips-like status amongst his athletes. Opportunities arose to take up lucrative university posts but he found his niche was in taking schoolboys from novices to champions, before passing them on to the Ivy League universities. This loyalty, alongside his past record and cutting wit, brought with it respect and reverence; on hearing of his death a long-graduated former high jumper called Jimmy Stewart, by then a world-famous actor, sent his condolences. Curran’s mark had been made, and it was widely felt. In America today, over 50 years after his death, many old men live their lives guided by his principles.

Working with archives throughout the world, and conducting numerous personal interviews, Craig Statham brings Curran’s life sharply into focus through the prism of seminal episodes in his life. But this is also a book about Curran’s students, and brief moments in the lives of men such as Wyndham Halswelle and Ted Meredith will augment Curran’s story, driving towards his final years when, as an old man nearing death, his athletes took their final shots at presenting him with Olympic glory.

Jimmy Curran, Mercersburg Academy's athletics coach