England Athletics was greatly saddened by the death of Bruce Longden at the age of 72. Bruce was coach to Sally Gunnell and Daley Thompson, among many others, and his outstanding contribution to our sport was recognised when he was inducted into our Hall of Fame last year. The sport of athletics is the poorer for his passing.
Bruce’s record as a coach speaks for itself. To coach one athlete to an Olympic title and world record is a monumental achievement, but in Bruce’s case he guided two of Britain’s greatest ever athletes to the ultimate distinction in the sport.
A graduate of Loughborough College (now Loughborough University), he was at first a teacher before spending four years as Deputy Director and Recreation Director at the International School in Geneva. He returned to Britain in 1973 to become Recreation Director at Crawley College of Technology.
It was in 1976, a year before being appointed a BAAB National Coach, that he began coaching a precocious all-rounder by the name of Daley Thompson. That year Thompson improved his UK junior decathlon record from 6941 to an astonishing 7748. He made the Olympic team and in Montreal, where he celebrated his 18th birthday, he impressed the American winner and world record breaker Bruce Jenner to such an extent that he nominated Daley as his likely successor. He proved to be correct.
Over those next four years Thompson gradually approached, and then surpassed, Jenner’s score of 8634. In 1977 he set world junior records of 8056 and 8082; in 1978, a few days after his 20th birthday, he scored 8470 (but with a long jump over the permitted wind limit) to lift the Commonwealth title; and in 1980 he set his first world record of 8648 prior to becoming Olympic champion in Moscow. Over a six year period he achieved a momentous decathlon win streak of 12, winning Commonwealth and European titles in 1982, becoming inaugural world champion in 1983, defending his Olympic laurels in 1984 (with a world record 8847) and retaining the Commonwealth and European championships in 1986.
Bruce continued as a BAAB National Coach, as well as being Chief Coach to England teams, until 1984 when he accepted a four-year appointment as Head Coach for the Norwegian Athletic Federation. Meanwhile, he was coaching another athlete who would hit the heights in Sally Gunnell. Initially an English Schools long jump champion, she too developed her all-round ability to set British age-16 and 17 heptathlon bests.
Thereafter she concentrated on the 100m hurdles, to such good effect that in 1986 she won the Commonwealth title. However, although she would eventually succeed Shirley Strong as British record holder with 12.82 Bruce realised Sally would never be a world beater at that event and encouraged her to try the 400m hurdles. In her first serious season, 1988, she set a UK record of 54.03 for fifth in the Olympics and by 1992 she was ready to take on the world, capturing the Olympic title in 53.23, and the following year she won the world title in a world record 52.74.
Bruce had returned to Britain to serve as a BAF National Coach, his specialist areas being the combined events, hurdles and jumps, and he and his wife Julie – herself a coach – divided their time between France and South Africa.