Equipped with an incredible mental toughness that enabled him to win the 1976 Olympic 1,500metres and dominate middle-distance running for the better part of a decade, New Zealand's John Walker now battles the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease.
Three times a day he takes dopamine to combat the disease, which is caused by progressive deterioration of the nerve cells of the part of the brain that controls muscle function. When Walker, 48, was fully fit, he was loath to take an aspirin. He is acutely aware, too, that there will come a time when the effect of the medication will diminish and his body will further regress. But for the moment he remains optimistic.
While friends and admirers still shower him with pity, Walker himself wants none of it. “I hope they find a cure for it,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “It's an awful disease, I can tell you. I would give up my medals and all the world records for my health. It's a disease that can hit anyone anytime, male or female. They don't know how or why. I saw a doctor in Belgium, and he thought it might have been a trauma I suffered at birth. That's where they think it comes from. Or I was exposed to sprays and chemicals on the farm. There is no real answer.”
Walker said he currently does not have the tremors that often characterise the disease, but it seems small consolation to him. An extremely proud man, he would not want to be seen in such a state. The worst aspect of Parkinson's, he says, is having to do things slowly. “I get a bit frustrated, it gets on my nerves, more than anything else, putting my shoes on, tying my shoelaces, all that sort of stuff,” Walker said quietly. “It's all slow movement. I guess that's when I am reminded there is something wrong. Sometimes I get very, very tired; I could easily fall asleep.”
Walker has been active all his life, on and off the track. He was the first runner to break a four-minute mile 100 times. (He did it 129 times in all.) He held the world record in the mile for four years in the late 1970s, having taken it below three minutes 50 seconds for the first time.
When he was not in Europe beating world records and the best milers on the planet, he and his wife, Helen, ran a farm with horses and sheep. Calls to the house would often find him in the barn helping deliver a foal or shearing sheep. His legendary training regimen was done on top of all the work around the house. He still cuts the grass and goes out for the occasional game of golf, a show of defiance, perhaps.
The sheep are all gone now, sold after his running career came to an end 10 years ago. The Walkers still have three horses. Now, he focuses on an equestrian supply shop, Stirrups, which the family opened four years ago close to their home in Papatoetoe, near Auckland. Depression is endemic among Parkinson's sufferers, but the store is a source of income and gives Walker a worthwhile reason to get up each morning.
“I really believe the whole answer is to keep active,” Walker said. “It's to get out of bed every morning and get off and do things because if you sit around all day, you know, you just get depressed. And as I have said before, there are many people in this world who are worse off than I will ever be. Maybe not for the future, but at the moment I feel fine.”
Fine enough to still deliver 20 to 30 speeches a year, in addition to the 50 or 60 hours a week he puts in at the shop. And Walker is also a part-time elected municipal official for Manakau, a region near Auckland.
“I can go to four or five meetings a week, three hours at a time, so it is quite involved,” he said of his commitment to Manakau. “It's just another part of my life. I have a pretty full day, seven days a week. And I guess I will keep doing that until I can't do that any longer. I don't know when that day will be and I never think about it. If you dwell too much, you get too down and too depressed.”
Walker admitted to having admiration for Michael J. Fox, also afflicted with Parkinson's, who quit his acting career to concentrate his efforts on finding a cure for the disease. At the time, Walker hoped to make contact with Fox to offer his support, but he has so far been unable to do so.
With all the recent developments in Parkinson's research, Walker remains optimistic that a lot of people can eventually be cured or at least treated. And he refuses to let his life revolve around the illness, even though his shop has become a focal point of sorts for people with Parkinson's and other diseases who gravitate to him. He is still a national hero in New Zealand, and he acknowledges that people freely pour out their emotions because they feel an affinity with him.
“People still call up, and I really don't want to see anybody, though I was a little more adventurous this year,” he said. “I did a television commercial to raise money for Parkinson's. We raised $200,000 in a small TV campaign. The thing is, I don't want to be the martyr for all the sick people around New Zealand. I did my bit and that is about as far as I want to go.