How one veteran coach has trained world champions, including Josh Kerr - Scotland’s great Paris Olympics gold medal hope

Eric Fisher, stalwart of Edinburgh Athletic Club, on the secrets of his success

Over the course of a long and storied career as a youth athletics coach, there is one medal that Eric Fisher prizes above all others. It is made not out of gold, silver or bronze, but cardboard, fashioned by a young girl he is currently training. On one side, it reads ’Josh Kerr and Jake Wightman, 1,500m world champions’. On the other, the words state: ‘Eric Fisher, world champion coach’. “I treasure it as much as anything,” he says.

The home-made memento is one of numerous rewards the veteran grassroots coach has received in recent years. One middle-distance runner he first took under his wings at the tender age of eight, Kerr, has continued his dizzying ascent to the summit of world athletics, smashing Steve Cram’s 39 year-old British record in the mile last weekend at a Diamond League meet in Oregon, adding to his growing list of accolades, which already includes an Olympics bronze.

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Fisher was cheering on from Scotland and praised Kerr’s surprise decision to break out in front with a lap-and-a-half to go. “He showed that he can race from a different perspective, and was going to invite Jakob Ingebrigsten to chase him,” he said. “It was fantastic, just fantastic.”

Last year, Kerr defeated the same Norwegian to claim gold at the World Championships in Budapest. In isolation, that achievement was remarkable given Ingebrigtsen’s standing in the sport. But it is even more so when you consider the previous year, another of Fisher’s former athletes at Edinburgh Athletic Club, Jake Wightman, won the same event.

Two world champions in two years. It is little wonder that Fisher’s phone has been ringing off the hook with interested parties enquiring as to his success. “I had a phone call the other day from someone in Norway who asked how it was possible our club in Edinburgh could produce a world champion one year, and then another world champion the next year,” he recalled. “I just tell them it’s the Scottish water.”

That self-effacing response belies a simple truth. Fisher instils his athletes with self-belief, and aims to sculpt them not just into great competitors, but even better citizens. “Not everyone can be world champion, but you’ve got to be the best you can be, and a balanced person who can take their place in society – that’s the ultimate aim,” he explained.

In tandem with that ethos, the decision by Fisher and Edinburgh AC to oversee the likes of Kerr in their formative years proved a masterstroke, and one that bucked the trend in athletics. Instead of pairing top coaches with elite, mature athletes, Fisher took inspiration from Frank Dick, a former Scottish national athletics director, and devoted his time to the youngsters.

Josh Kerr with his first ever athletics coach, Eric Fisher. Picture: Gary LeekJosh Kerr with his first ever athletics coach, Eric Fisher. Picture: Gary Leek
Josh Kerr with his first ever athletics coach, Eric Fisher. Picture: Gary Leek

“I’m one of the few coaches who believe in that,” he said. “There are so many coaches who want to be seen with the athletes at their peak, when they’re winning championships. But you’ve got to be there before then, when young athletes can get things wrong or form bad habits. You’ve got to spot that, develop a routine and put things right.”

Commitment, pride and trust were also key to the development of Kerr and others. When he was as young as 11, he, like countless other youngsters before and after him, were travelling all over the country with Edinburgh AC to take part in races, staying in hotels, sharing quality time with their peers, and understanding the fun and competition came with a sense of duty.

“I told them they were representing their club and their country, and they thought about that and what it meant,” Fisher said. “For Josh and Jake Wightman, they understood it for sure. They got the routine involved and they’ve carried that through to preparing for world championships and the Olympics. It’s part and parcel of what they grew up with at Edinburgh AC.”

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Now aged 78, Fisher is immensely proud of Kerr’s achievements and excited for what is to come. That pride stems not just from the glory, but the way Kerr, 26, has dealt with it.

“You see some of the footballers nowadays who think they’re Gods, but folk like Josh Kerr, a world champion, he’s the complete opposite,” Fisher stressed. “He comes back to Edinburgh and spends time with the kids. We have our own world-class athletes in our club now, and the kids associate with them … I tell them to enjoy it, and that’s the main thing. But I also want them to look at Josh Kerr, and plan, work out what they want, and how to achieve it.”

Kerr, too, will be making plans. In the wake of his Oregon triumph, he talked up Team GB’s hopes for the Paris Olympics, offering a guarantee that he or his teammates will bring back medals from the 1,500m.

Fisher has the same optimism, especially for his former charges Kerr and Wightman. “They could finish first and second,” he insisted. “Don’t get me wrong, they could finish ninth and tenth as well, because that’s the nature of the sport. But at the moment, they could be medalling. They’ll just do their best and hope everything goes right on the day.”

In the meantime, Fisher, as he has always done, will turn his focus to the next generation at Meadowbank. He tells a story about a recent gathering of his young athletes, when he asked them who would be the next gold medallist from Edinburgh AC at the World Championships. “One of the wee nine year-olds piped up [and said] ‘Eric, why don’t you send a club vest and membership form to Jakob Ingebritsen? If he joins Edinburgh AC, he might stop getting beat?’”

That, in a nutshell, sums up the Fisher recipe – hard work, competition and a healthy dose of humour. It has proved to be a winning combination.

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