Field of dreams
By Bridget Gourlay
Sir John Walker could have taken his medals, his prestige and his earnings from his business and enjoyed his later years. He is not a well man, and no one would have begrudged him a quiet, middle class life, building a nest egg with his wife.
Instead Sir John Walker has spent the past few decades battling for a better life and a better community in Manurewa for some of New Zealand’s poorest young people. It’s easy to stereotype Manukau city. Low decile schools and high drop-out rates. Low nutrition and high obesity. Low education and high crime.
However it’s also produced some of New Zealand’s top athletes. Other than Sir John himself, Jonah Lomu, Ruben Wiki, Frank Bunce and Valerie Vili are some of the big names from south Auckland.
It’s arguably the toughest challenge in New Zealand – a challenge most people, especially white middle class ones – wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. But, then again, Sir John isn’t most people.
Born in Papakura in the 1950s, Sir John attended Manurewa High School. He made headlines in 1975, when at age 22, he was the first person to break three minutes 50 for running a mile (1.6 kms). A year later he smashed the world record for 2000 metres by nearly five seconds, a record that stood for an entire decade.
His most famous moment was when he won a gold medal in the 1500 metres sprint at the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Across the world, New Zealanders watched what would become an iconic image – Walker’s outstretched arms, his long hair flowing behind him – as he crossed the finish line.
He made headlines again in 1996, when he announced he had Parkinson’s Disease. Since then, Sir John has not taken a backseat – he’s forged ahead.
He has remained on the Manukau City Council as the representative of the Manurewa ward. And in 2008 he launched Find your Field of Dreams – a project funded by charitable and government agencies that creates exercise programmes for young people in south Auckland.
Two years later, he says the results are better then anything he could have hoped for.
“Teachers write to me everyday and say thank you – the kids are coming to school and they look forward to going on the bus, look forward to going swimming. Teachers are saying – not just one but many school kids who used to come to school to goof off are now less disruptive and they are getting on with grades. One kid was on the verge of going to jail and he did our leadership course. He’s now so good, he just needed to be put on the right direction.”
Find Your Field of Dreams was launched in May 2008 to fund activities for young people in Manukau. Free swimming lessons (including the bus trips), afternoon sessions in local parks where volunteers run touch rugby and ultimate frisbee games and a leadership programme where promising youth get to experience activities like kayaking, sailing and rock climbing are some of the programmes Field of Dreams run.
SPARC research shows about half of youth in New Zealand don’t play any sport. Of those who participate in sport, a third drop out between the ages of 13 and 17 years.
Sir John says using sport and activity as a way to get kids from deprived homes involved away from crime is simple.
“It’s not Einstein. Keep kids active, keep them a little bit tired and interested in something else other than going out and causing trouble.”
Take swimming. Manukau’s proximity to beaches means that spending time by the sea is a great pastime. But 130 deaths occur each year in New Zealand from drowning. Of these, Pasifika children are most at risk, accounting for 13 percent of all drowning deaths. Schools don’t often can’t fund an on-site pool anymore and although swimming centres are often cheap or free for children from low decile schools, transportation and togs are not.
Field of Dreams funds seven free swim lessons (this includes the pool entry, transportation and instructors) for Year 3, 4 and 5 children. It’s put through 75,000 swims already. Twenty percent of these kids have gone on to join swim clubs and schools have reported fewer truants on pool days.
Sir John says they have both statistical and anecdotal evidence that there’s less graffiti and fighting in the areas where their programmes have been rolled out.
The belief that sport and activity redirects bored children from crime was something Sir John has been passionate about for a long time, but was made possible by Manukau City mayor Len Brown. He gave it the council’s backing, a budget and a kick-start.
Other south Aucklanders quickly came on-board, particularly sports stars who volunteered to become ambassadors for the foundation by speaking at primary schools and being at sport practices. Jonah Lomu flew to the 2008 launch from Wellington with his own money, just to support the project.
More recently, the All Whites visited the Field of Dreams soccer programme just before they left for the World Cup in South Africa.
Another famous New Zealand sportsman, John Kirwan has made his battle with depression public to destigmatise the illness which affects up to 20 percent of Kiwis. The former All Black is the frontman for a series of television advertisements, one of which takes place in a pool where he advocates regular exercise as key to fighting depression.
Sir John Walker says PE in schools has declined in recent decades to the detriment of society. He says his ideas are common sense, not revolutionary. But he feels if sport is played in schools, it needs to be played properly.
“Kids want to play the real thing, not this ‘everything’s perfect, everyone’s equal’. You must have winners – you must have losers.”
The next step for the Field of Dreams project is hiring a full time salesperson to seek sponsorship so the programmes will continue to have the money behind them to run. Balancing the need to emphasise Manukau’s problems and not be a south Auckland basher is tough. It’s a line Sir John walks everyday.
“It’s not perfect, nothing is. When I went to Hillary College for the Commonwealth Games baton runner and you see a thousand kids sitting there smiling, it’s pretty awesome. One bad apple out there doesn’t spoil it for the rest, well I mean it does probably spoil it for the rest, but there’s good kids out there as well.”
If anything, Sir John thinks coming from a less affluent background gives kids an edge.
“People who come out of south Auckland have had it tough and raised themselves through adversity to make sure they’ve got to be the very best they can. I mean if you’ve got everything handed to you on a plate you don’t make it.”
It’s not just activity and sport for fun and to stay away for crime. Field of Dreams also runs a ‘Throw for Gold’ programme to find another young South Aucklander with the arm of Valerie Vili. It aims to identify those potential athletes as teenagers and provide specialist coaching to develop their skills.
“You don’t have to live in a flash city or have flash clothes or a private school education, you can be a champion from anywhere – that’s what we try to teach these kids, particularly if they come from a deprived background. Sport is now professional, they can make a lot of money out of it, they can put their dedication into it and they might make something out of it.”