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If you like Roger Bannister's story, you might also like:
Tenley Albright,
Ben Carson,
Edmund Hillary,
Richard Leakey,
Oliver Sacks,
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Sir Roger Bannister
Sir Roger Bannister
Profile of Sir Roger Bannister Biography of Sir Roger Bannister Interview with Sir Roger Bannister Sir Roger Bannister Photo Gallery

Sir Roger Bannister Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Track and Field Legend

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  Sir Roger Bannister

You did about a four-and-a-half minute mile in one of your first races at University in 1947, didn't you?

Sir Roger Bannister: To everybody's surprise, I was put in a team. It was a dreadful winter in 1947. Historically, there's never been a winter like it since. The track was frozen. They couldn't have trials. So, I couldn't prove that I could be in the team. My previous best time was about five minutes. You know, won a freshman's race. But, I had been seen shoveling away the snow rather vigorously. So the captain -- and sport is entirely run by students in Oxford -- the captain said, "Well look, just as a third string." That means the third runner who is not expected to do anything. "Why don't we put him in?" And they put me in. Then on the race itself, I just overtook all the rest of the field and won, which at the time was 30 seconds faster than I had done before, but very modest of course, four and a half minutes. That was the beginning of an eight-year process in which every year I improved and then after eight years I was near the world record. And, then on the eighth year, broke it. I had qualified as a doctor six weeks later. I tidied up one or two other races. My record was broken by an Australian, John Landy. Then John Landy and I had to compete head-to-head in what was then called the Empire Games, when we still had a bit of an empire. That is now the Commonwealth games. I then defeated him. So my honor was satisfied. I had another European race and then retired and never ran again competitively.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Was that a natural process? Had you assumed very early on that you would continue?

Sir Roger Bannister Interview Photo
Sir Roger Bannister: I received a scholarship to stay in Oxford, and there was a possibility of my becoming a physiologist or scientist, but I didn't think my mathematics was good enough. I already wanted to be a neurologist; that was the area of medicine in which I was most interested. I had decided to go to London to do the clinical work. So I left in 1951, and then spent three years at St. Mary's Hospital medical school, which was the medical school where Fleming discovered penicillin, Chain and Florey in Oxford were part of the development eventually, but still it was a well known medical school. And it so happened that there was a runner who had been there who had come from the same college in Oxford. He was a Rhodes Scholar called Jack Lovelock, and he won the Berlin Olympic 1,500 meter race by a wide margin. So he was someone who proved to be a role model.

The amount of time that goes into preparation for medicine is famous, infamous. The amount of time it takes to train to be a great athlete of record breaking proportions is also infamous. How did you find the time to maintain both ?

Sir Roger Bannister: I must be the international athlete who trained least. In other words, I had worked out from my knowledge of physiology what was the minimum amount of training that would be needed to continue to improve year by year and every year, I suppose, I would be reducing my mile best time by two or three seconds, you know, starting 4:18 and then gradually, gradually coming down. And basically I was doing interval training. I had so many other interests that I wanted to have my evenings free and I would usually miss lunch and sometimes there were rather unimportant lectures at 12 o'clock.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

For example, I knew I wasn't going to be an obstetrician, and there were certain areas of medicine which could be reduced to formulae. You know, "There are six complications of this condition..." and once you had mastered that, it was not too difficult where you had to deliver some babies and things. So I would tend to take about two hours off to travel to a track, spend about 35 minutes running, but running very hard and then just have a shower, didn't warm up, didn't warm down, had a shower, would get something to eat and get back to the hospital by two o'clock. So that was really the pattern for several years with, of course, intervals for traveling to matches and team. So, it was a major incursion into my medical studies, and I think that -- although I passed all my examinations the first time and so on -- I did not pay as much attention in depth to clinical medicine as I had to my physiology. But in the long-term, I simply had to catch up after qualifying by studying for the various higher exams which our specialist physicians and neurologists need to do.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

It sounds like you were quite a reasonable young man. You had a number of ambitions. You wanted to achieve in both of them, and you sorted out what was practical to manage your life.

Sir Roger Bannister: Yes. My main interest was to lead a happy social life, to catch up, if you like, on the areas of friendship and interaction, which had not been part of my early childhood, which was why I had been bored as a child. Then, as someone who was nationally and internationally known, there were all kinds of opportunities to meet people and to do broadcasts and to engage in the facets of life which had never really been within my ken a few years earlier.

Very often athletes or other really driven young people don't take that opportunity to enjoy the broader perspective.

Sir Roger Bannister: The broader perspective was really what appealed to me. Having to train once a day was a price I had to pay for the entry to a wonderful world. England being a smaller country and so many people living in London, the stage and music and acting and writing all seemed part of the scene. It was a scene in which I wanted to become involved, because it was part of the most exciting learning process. All my life I've wanted to go on learning.

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This page last revised on Nov 26, 2013 01:02 EDT
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