PERCY WELLS CERUTTY MBE (10 Jan 1895 – 14 Aug 1975)
No Australian coach had the ability to make the athletics world sit up and take notice in quite the same way as Percy Wells Cerutty. In many ways, a controversial and eccentric coach, he had amazing success, most notably with Herb Elliott, as he revolutionised running training.
Percy was born in Prahran and in 1907 left school to support the family. He worked in a hardware store and in 1910 he joined the PMG where he remained until 1946.
Joining the Malvern Harriers in 1913, he became their captain and honorary secretary four years later. In 1916 he ran an impressive 2.07.6 for 880 yards.
Whilst Percy was considered unfit to serve in World War I he continued athletics. He was reputed to have run 4.32.0 for the mile in 1919 and was invited to train for the 1920 Olympics. Percy declined the offer as he suffered from poor health and self doubt. He was afflicted by migraines and was often ill after his races.
In 1939 Percy had a nervous breakdown and took six months sick leave from his job at the Melbourne Post Office. During his illness he read philosophy and religion and began endurance tests to build up his self confidence. During this time he developed his Stotan Philosophy which came from a combination of the words stoic and Spartan. He also investigated alternative medicines and natural diets.
Returning to Malvern Harriers in 1942, he began running successfully over road and cross-country and in 1946 aged 51 Percy set a Victorian marathon record of 2:58.11 after finishing fifth in the state title behind four NSW runners. Also that year he ran 100km from Portsea to Melbourne in 8:28.00.
After leaving work in 1946, Percy bought the property at Portsea which in turn became the famous camp he called ‘Ceres’. It was here athletes came on weekends to run on the beach and up the sand dunes. Cerutty not only had the athletes run but had them living a Spartan life style and he would talk philosophy and read poetry to them. Percy believed that athletes were not only there to run better but also to get an education in life.
Athletes also came to his home in South Yarra to train with weights and would run around the ‘Tan’.
At the same time that athletes were becoming attracted to his training, Percy was getting off-side with officials due to his eccentric and exhibitionist behaviour.
His early athletes were Gordon Stanley and John Pottage who both ran in the 1950 Commonwealth Games. Other top athletes drawn to the innovative regime included Les Perry, Geoff Warren, John Landy, Dave Stephens, Betty Cuthbert and of course Herb Elliott. He also helped cyclist Russell Mockridge and boxer Jimmy Carruthers.
Some went elsewhere after Cerutty’s personality became too much but acknowledged the benefits gained from Percy’s coaching.
Percy’s greatest success was unquestionably his partnership with West Australian Herb Elliott who at 18 years of age remained in Melbourne after the 1956 Olympics to be coached by him. Herb was inspired by Percy and understood the Cerutty philosophies of personal responsibility and the acceptance of the pain required in training to achieve one’s best.
Elliott went on to set world records and win both Commonwealth and Olympic gold. He was never beaten over 1,500m or 1 mile.
Percy’s style and bold behaviour inevitably caused him to come into conflict with many people including a long standing feud with another renowned coach Franz Stampfl over training methods and philosophies. However Percy inspired many distance runners who gained enormously for their time spent at Percy’s Portsea.
Percy made headlines wherever he appeared from the famous towel waving incident in the Rome Olympic stadium during Elliott’s race to threatening the panel chairman, Reg Leonard in the television program. Meet the Press. However his impact on athletes and distance running was extraordinary and he has gone down in history as a great coach.
He retired from coaching in 1969, continuing to live in Portsea where he remained very fit until he passed away in 1975 from motor neurone disease.
Paul Jenes OAM
Acknowledgements: Trevor Robbins - Running Into History; Harry Gordon - Australia and the Olympic Games; Len Johnson - The Landy Era; Cool Running; Brian Roe