John Fry (Senior)
#29 in the list of senior British men to have represented GB (1969-1987)
John Edward Fry was born in Birmingham on 21st February 1949. It's said that his skating career started when he pulled an old pair of skates from a bonfire and decided to put them to use. He was regularly seen at the Embassy Rollerdrome Rink in Walford Road, Birmingham, tagging onto the back of the line during the speed sessions and before long was asked whether he would like to join the Midland club. The club, at that time, was considered to be the best in the country with the likes of world medallists Les Woodley, Barbara Woodley and Ricky May and 1963 World Champion, Danny Kelly, in amongst them.
On 4th April 1964 Fry took to the track for the very first time. The race was for the half mile scratch Albert Lamb Memorial Trophy and Fry would not progress past his heat. In his second race on 28th November 1964, however, he secured his first individual medal when he finished second behind Dave Hart (North London) in the Half Mile Junior British Championship by just one tenth of a second. A few months later and a day before his 16th birthday, he won his first race (his last as a junior) - the Birmingham R.S.C. Trophy.
In 1965, his first season as a senior, Fry was pretty much one of the ‘also-rans’ not taking a medal of any colour. Despite this, his club training performances were such that he was selected to represent the Midland ‘A’ team in the relay championships of that year. On 12th March 1966 he would bring home his first senior medal when along with Barry Fitzpatrick, ex-Word Champion Danny Kelly and his mentor and coach Ray Roberts they would finish second to the Broadway club on the Alexandra Palace rink. Ironically, this would be skating legend Kelly’s final race and his last medal before resurfacing 20 years later with Fry’s Birmingham Wheels club. Two weeks later and Fry would receive an invite to the much coveted North London ‘Invitation 5’ (Five Mile) event where just twelve skaters (considered to be the top twelve in the country) would be selected to race it out. Fry did not place but it was evident he was starting to get noticed.
Fry’s first individual medal, a bronze, came on 14th May 1966 in the Burditt Cup handicap on the Alexandra Palace rink, but like a few of his races in years to come, it was not without some controversy. To many an observer it appeared that Brian Corneloues (North London) had crossed the line in third place but the officials placed him fourth and awarded Fry third place instead. Admittedly, it was a very close call between the leading skaters and Fry also thought Corneloues had finished ahead of him. Fry offered the North London skater his medal which Corneloues politely refused, and so Fry took home what would be his first of many medals. Just ahead of Fry in second place was another youngster making his mark, Mick McGeough (Alexandra Palace). It was the first time the two had been on the podium together, but over the next 20 years the sport would see one of its greatest domestic rivalries play out between these two speed skating giants.
As the 1965-66 season ended so the summer training resumed. Fry was intent on making sure the following season would be better still. The 1966-67 season began on 1st October (as it did every year) and on 12th November 1966 Fry would take his first gold medal. It was the Clore Cup one mile handicap on the Alexandra Palace rink and Fry would bring home the trophy off a handicap of 45 yards. Just two weeks later he would make it a double victory when he won the Davis Cup at the Birmingham Embassy off 30 yards. Finishing second but awarded the same time was a fast-finishing Mick McGeough, starting off just one yard.
Fry continued to be there or thereabouts, especially in handicap events, and on 4th February 1967 he and his coach, Ray Roberts, were surprisingly victorious in the Midland Trophy relay event on their home track, the Mecca Olympic rink in Springhill, Birmingham. However, if that was a surprise then the Half Mile Championship held a few weeks later would be even more so.
On 18th March 1967 Fry really made his mark when he won the Half Mile British Championship at just turned 18 years of age, and one of the youngest senior skaters to win a British title at that time. His win was deemed a "fluke" by some, especially with it being on his home track, but Fry would spend the next 20 years proving those doubters wrong.
His domestic performance earned him a call up to the British ‘B’ team that was going to Follonica, Italy, for an international race meeting. It was a well-established event and Fry, along with the likes of Bill Sharman, John Folley, Ron Hawkes and, of course, Mick McGeough, pitted themselves against the elite Italians of the day. The event was in early July and despite his wife expecting their first child (who would be born just two weeks later) Fry opted to skate abroad for the very first time. Fry’s performances were nothing of note. He was the typical ‘Brit abroad’ ending up with sun stroke and a series of performances that placed him regularly no higher than 20th place. It was a wakeup call for the youngster.
On 25th November 1967 Fry narrowly failed to retain his Half Mile title, being beaten by Derek Blake (North London). By now he was being considered for selection for the 1968 World Championships in Montecchio (Vicenza), Italy, but the selectors overlooked him in favour of experience in the form of 1963 World Champion, Leo Eason. The skaters were notified at a squad training session and as each skater selected was asked if they were available Eason replied “yes…and I’m also available for Argentina next year!”. Fry made a mental note of that and told himself that if Eason was going to Argentina, it would not be at his expense. It was a bitter blow for Fry but he immediately set about training with the sole aim of being on the plane to South America.
In December 1969 Mar del Plata, Argentina, hosted the first World Track Championships to be held outside of Europe. (They had held the road championships in 1966 but Great Britain did not send a representation). When selection was announced Fry’s name was on the team sheet along with Bill Sharman, John Folley and Mick McGeough. Undoubtedly, Fry’s second place in the Mile Championship and his regaining of the Half Mile title meant that it was now difficult to overlook the 20 year old.
In his first World Championships he would obtain a 4th place in the 500 metres time trial and see his teammates Sharman and Folley take silver medals in the 5000 metres and 20000 metres. The icing on the cake came when Folley won the 10000 metres World title and became only the third (and our last) post war British World Champion. This was to have a profound effect on Fry and just 18 months later he would be joining Folley on the top step at another major international competition.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the holding of major international competitions was sporadic to say the least. There were no World or European Championships in 1970 despite Fry racking up another couple of British titles, however, Britain sent a ‘B’ delegation to Inzell, Germany in September of that year comprising of the quartet that had competed in Mar del Plata. The team enjoyed some limited success.
On 20th February 1971, a day before his 22nd birthday, Fry won the coveted Clarke Trophy for the first time. The trophy, a beautiful statue of the winged messenger, Mercury, atop a wooden base was a firm favourite amongst skaters. Outside of a British Championship, it was the one everyone wanted to win. Fry would go on and win it a further five times, doing so four times in a row between 1979 and 1983. On his last and record breaking sixth victory in 1986 Mrs. Clarke, who presented the trophy in memory of her late husband, commented to Fry “I should probably let you keep this”. Of course, that didn’t happen, but it was recognition of Fry’s ‘love affair’ with this unique piece of silverware.
In August 1971 Wetteren, Belgium, played host to the European Championships. Fry was still relatively new to the international scene but in the 500 metres time trial he firmly cemented his name as one of the world’s greats when he beat reigning World and European Champion, Guisseppe Cantarella (Italy). Cantarella was a six times World Champion sprint legend and save for the 1967 European knock-out competition (which he gifted to teammate Corrado Ruggeri in the final) he had never been beaten globally in a time trial or knock-out event since 1964. Fry would later say that the circuit was almost identical to a factory centre in King’s Norton, Birmingham, he had used to train on in preparation for these championships. The wheels, the camber and the surface all played into his hands whereas Cantarella was used to the smooth banked tracks of Italy. Either way, Fry was now a bona-fide European Champion. To crown it all, he and John Folley would go on and win the two man relay Coupes des Nations at the conclusion of the championships.
Fry's victory would see him get jointly awarded (with John Folley) the Vandervell Trophy for the first time. The trophy was the most coveted award handed out by the National Skating Association to any skater (ice or roller) from any discipline (speed, dance, figure) for an outstanding international performance of the previous year. Other recipients have included Courtney Jones OBE, John Curry OBE, Robin Cousins MBE, Jayne Torvill OBE and Christopher Dean OBE. Such presigius company indeed.
In 1972 again there were no major championships (or British championships for that matter) but again Britain sent a ‘B’ delegation to Inzell to compete against Europe’s elite. The track was a 400 metres flat track made of smooth cement. This was not a road circuit and the conditions were now ideally suited for Cantarella to exact his revenge. The first event was the 500 metres time trial. Cantarella was the second skater to run and posted a time of 50 seconds flat. As each skater went the closest anyone could get to Cantarella’s time was his teammate, Guisseppe Fregosi, who would post a time of 51 seconds flat, a full second behind the leader. Last to go was Fry. Fry came home in a time of 49.8 seconds, the only skater to go sub 50 seconds. Cantarella was left stunned and his disbelief was plain to see for all those present.
It appeared that Fry’s time had come but in the European Championships of 1973 he would come back down to earth with a bump, literally. The track was identical to Inzell in size and shape and all the signs were that this would be his time again, however, in the 500 metres time trial he could only manage a lowly 11th. Fry was a full 2.5 seconds behind Cantarella and was beaten by his own teammates John Mullane and Gerard Bissett in the process. His next race was the 20000 metres and he would partly make amends by coming home 4th, just missing out on a medal behind Belgium’s Rudy De Smet.
The following day started with the 1000 metres knock out. Whether by luck or by design, Fry drew Cantarella in the very first round. Fry, still believing he could beat the Italian giant in a head-to-head played the cat and mouse game. Their time was almost a minute slower than the next fastest heat. When the sprint came it was Cantarella who took the victory and progressed. He would go on and win the Championship whilst Fry would come home a lowly 14th. To cap it all Fry fell in a later event and cracked his ribs and returned home both physically and mentally bruised.
The European Championships in San Benedetto in 1974 wouldn't fare much better either. Despite obtaining a bronze medal in the relay with Geoff Mattock, Fry’s highest individual finishing position was 7th. It was time for a rethink.
May 1975 saw the first World Championships since December 1969. Like so many skaters of that era the sporadic nature of the holding of a World Championship handicapped Fry who missed out on the chance to become a global champion in the lean years between 1969 and 1975. Again, the Championships were in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on the 200 metre banked track that had been so successful for the British team some 6 years earlier. Fry finished 5th in the 20000 metres but it was Patrick Feetham who would be the most successful with 3rd in the 1000 metres knock-out. Unfortunately, after only three of the five races were held the remainder of the Championships were cancelled due to rain. More chances had gone begging.
In September of the same year the World Road Championships were held in Sesto San Giovanni (Milan), Italy - the first "double" World Championships since 1965. Held over two days, the first event was the 500 metres time trial. Cantarella won it ahead of Fry. Not skating the 5000 metres, the next event was the 20000 metres, the final event of the first day. The Italian, Guisseppe Lovato, had led out teammate Fregosi for what seemed like an age and just behind them was Fry. All three were clear of the main bunch as they came into the last bend and Fry sensed that the two Italians were there for the taking. In his head this was his moment. Having already proven he was the fastest of the three skaters by some margin earlier that day he attacked wide off the bend only to slip mid stride, the adverse camber catching him out and falling dramatically against the kerb.
Dusting himself down, the first event of the second day was the 1000 metres knock-out. Like the 1973 European Championships, Fry drew Cantarella in the very first round. Team Manager, Bob Halford, suggested Fry go for a fast time rather than the win. Even if Cantarella won a good time would see Fry through. Fry always held the belief that he could beat Cantarella in a head-to-head and here conditions were ideal, but this time Halford persuaded him otherwise telling him that whatever the outcome he would not see Cantarella again until the final. Cantarella did beat him, just, but Fry's time now meant that he had progressed as Halford had predicted.
Despite Cantarella beating him, Fry firmly believed he was there for the taking noting that the World Champion had literally clawed his way past to win, despite Fry having done all the work. Knowing the final was to be the best of three, Fry was confident. As predicted, the remaining qualifying rounds went without serious incident and Fry and Cantarella met in the final.
For those who are not aware, in a knock-out competition a line down the centre of the finishing straight is drawn effectively "splitting" the two skaters as they race to the line. In the first of the three races the sprinters exited the last bend together - but again the adverse camber that may have robbed Fry of victory a day before played its part once more and he hit the deck for a second time in two days. After crossing the line Cantarella turned and came back up the track for Fry, and together they walked back to ready themselves for the next race - but it wasn't to be. Having got to his feet Fry was adjudged to still be "in the race" and his walking back down the "wrong lane" resulted in the Referee calling a no contest. Cantarella was awarded the gold medal. Being a true sportsman, Cantarella voiced his views believing that the two athletes should still race the remaining two runs, but it fell on deaf ears. Although Fry was awarded silver it was a bitter pill to swallow knowing that another opportunity had gone begging. Despite his cuts and bruises Fry still managed a bronze in the 10000 metres later that day. There was also some consolation as Fry and Mick McGeough won the final event, the Coupes des Nations 20000 metres 2 man relay, although there would not be another World Championships for another 3 years.
In 1976 there were once again no World or European Championships. In 1977 the European Championships were held in Italy in the town of Finale Emilia on the road and Salerno on the track. Despite his continuing to win and rack up British titles back home, his international form was once again a little off target.
In May 1978 the World Championships resumed, again in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on the banked track. It was a track that Fry knew well. Whilst no individual medals (although a bronze in the relay again with Mick McGeough) he placed 4th in the 5000 metres and 5th in the 500 metres time trial. This was no mean feat considering that three of those four ahead of him were Cantarella (3rd) and legends-to-be Guisseppe Cruciani and Guisseppe De Persio, both taking part in their very first World Championships. The 1000 metres knock-out also saw a decent performance out of the British skater. Despite just being beaten by Cruciani in the first round Fry qualified with the best losing time of 1 minute 52 seconds. Eventually Fry came up against De Persio and this time played the cat and mouse game. It took the duo a full 4 minutes and 14 seconds to complete just 5 laps of the track, De Persio just getting the better of Fry on the line. Fry’s results would see him come away from the championships with third place in the overall rankings.
Whilst no individual medals in Argentina, Fry knew that he was once again in good shape. A few weeks after returning, the European Track Championships were held in La Roche-Sur-Yon, France. First up was the 500 metres time-trial. Fry would take his second European title by winning the event almost half a second up on Cantarella. It set the scene for one of Britain’s most successful championships in 40 years. Fry remembers it like this:
“I had made up a set of wooden wheels just for this event. I picked out wheels from several sets so that they were the truest wheels I could find. I carefully applied the Bostik and span each one on the ball race extractor. I timed each one and selected the eight wheels that span the longest. During training I’d trained on wheels that were not as good. I knew in training I was quick around this track and picked my line through the bends. I even counted my strides down the straight. On the day of the event, I skated the perfect time trial. On the start line I visualised the track in my mind as to where I would place each stride and as I started my sprint I was inch perfect, round the bends, down the straights, everywhere. I could not have skated a more perfect time trial if I’d tried”.
Cruciani was the last of the Italians to go and knew that a huge effort was required if he was to topple Fry. Cruciani was clipping the barrier with every stride and eventually lost control altogether, falling in the process and ensuring Fry was once again European Champion.
Along the way Fry would help his teammates John Mullane and Mick McGeough take victories in the 5000 metres and 10000 metres respectively. The final event, the knock-out, had now been reduced to 500 metres to make it ‘more exciting’, however, the event was to be marred in controversy.
In the quarter final of the competition Fry was once again drawn against Cantarella. Britain had four skaters in the last eight of the competition and all efforts were on helping new boy, Tom Bartlett, to his first European medal, if not title. This time, however, being 500 metres Cantarella was well aware that Fry had the upper hand. Fry led and despite Cantarella’s efforts he could not pass the British skater. As they entered the last bend the Italian bumped Fry resulting in a tussle and the Italian crossing the line first. Everyone fully expected Cantarella to get disqualified. In fact, the four bend judges had all proposed a disqualification for Cantarella but when the result was announced it was Fry who had been penalised, the judges result having been overturned by the C.E.C. The injustice was plain for all to see and despite protestations the result stood. It was the final event of the championships and Tony Wordsworth, the then GB Team Manager, decided that the only course of action was to withdraw the entire team from the event. Some of the judges also left the circuit in disgust. This left the four Italians to conclude the event unopposed with just one judge present. Cantarella was ‘gifted’ the victory. 1978 would be the last time that Fry would beat Cantarella in a sprint event.
Despite the unsatisfactory conclusion to the championships the team returned home to much applause and was rewarded with them collectively being awarded the Vandervell Trophy. For Fry it was the second time he would be a recipient of this prestigious award.
Domestically, Fry was still on the top of his game. In 1977 Mick McGeough had drawn level with Les Woodley’s record of 12 individual British senior men’s titles. On 28th July 1979 Fry also drew level resulting in all three skaters now holding the record. It was to be short lived, however, as the following day McGeough pulled clear and won his 13th title, the 10000 metres on Southampton when he dead heated with Birmingham teenager John Downing. McGeough would amass another four titles taking his tally to 17 and continue to hold the record for another seven years.
The European Track Championships of 1979 were held in Ostende, Belgium, for the first time. Leading up to these championships Fry’s club mate, John Mullane, had happened on some urethane skateboard wheels during his time working at Morris Vulcan. Strapping them to his skates he and Fry set about secretly testing these. The results were to prove game changing. Almost every weekend in the run up to the championships Fry and Mullane would make their way over to Ostende and train on the track. Back then you could get a direct four hour ferry crossing from Calais to Ostende and the track was just a short bus trip out of the harbour and into Zandvoorde.
The first event of the championships was the 20000 metres. Fry did not race this but the rest of the British team all had the new urethane wheels (Belair Green Blazers) strapped to their skates. Patrick Feetham came home victorious and set the scene once more for Britain to gatecrash the party.
The following day started with the 500 metres time trial. This time Fry could only manage 4th behind the three Italians of Cruciani, De Persio and Cantarella. Later that afternoon was the 10000 metres. McGeough was aiming to retain his European title and was being led out by Fry. During the run in Fry was grabbed by the Italian, Maurizio Cortalessa. The ensuing mele caused Cortalessa to fall badly and be stretchered off. McGeough retained his title but Fry was disqualified from the entire championships. Several hours of protests ensued and finally, after reviewing TV video footage, the judges decided that Fry could be reinstated and just a disqualification from the race would suffice.
The evening saw the 500 metres knock-out competition. Fry again met Cantarella, this time in the semi-final, but there was to be no repeat of 1978 and no controversy. Cantarella beat Fry and would go on to take another European title. Fry would come home 3rd.
The last day was the 5000 metres. Now been reinstated this was Fry’s last chance of a gold medal. Mullane was reigning champion but was suffering from injury. The race itself went without much incident and coming out of the last bend Fry found himself in front and sprinted to the line. Approaching the finish, he eased believing the title was his, however, Cortalessa had other ideas and sprinted down the straight like a man possessed. As they crossed the line it was not clear who had won. After much discussion and deliberation, it was announced that despite having exactly the same time, Fry was declared European Champion once again. The result meant that he had become the first British skater to win three European gold medals at three different events. A record that still stands incidentally. Ironically, it would be the last time Fry would bring home an individual medal of any colour from a major international competition.
Whilst Great Britain continued to enjoy some success at major championships, even gold medals, the 1979 European Track Championships would be the last time that Britain would be considered a major force on a global scale. By contrast, the World Championships in Como (road) and Finale Emilia (track) that year were uneventful for any British skater.
At the 1980 European Track Championships in Spoleto, Italy, Fry would cross the line second in the 5000 metres only to be declassified to fourth. John Downing would capitalise from that penalty and bring home the silver medal. The team would also secure silver in the relay.
That year’s European Road Championships were held on home soil at Southampton. It was the first time Britain had hosted a major championship since the World Track Championships at Wembley in 1938. All eyes were on the British team. It was a track where new boys, John Downing and Ian Cocks, had put together some world class times on the circuit in domestic events, but as the championships unfolded it became apparent that Britain was not at the races. Many put it down to nerves but Fry has other thoughts:
“It was still early days of urethane and we collectively decided that we would use plastic wheels on Southampton. After all, we had been racing on these wheels at Sothampton for a number of years and we decided to stick with what we knew. It was a mistake. The Italians turned up with a urethane wheel, the Lip-bomb. We believed that we knew best and stuck to our guns but by the time we bit the bullet and swapped to urethane it was too late. [Ian] Cocks did get a 4th place but by now the damage was done”.
It was a sobering thought and disappointment for all involved.
In 1981 Fry took a sabbatical from European competition, struggling to obtain time off from work to attend. Instead, he focused on the upcoming World Championships which would be held in Ostende (track) and Leuven (road). Again, his results were nothing of note and the emergence of USA as a major international player was starting to take hold. Tom Peterson had won seven world gold medals in New Zealand at the end of 1980 and now, alongside him was powerhouse Bobby Kaiser. It was the start of a new era for speed skating.
Fry continued to put himself forward for selection for World and European Championships and continued to help the British team to the odd medal in the relay, but by now there were new kids on the block. Feetham had retired at the end of 1980 and Mullane in 1981. McGeough was never selected again after 1982 and Fry was now the only one left of the quartet that had rubbed shoulders with the world’s elite. People were starting to say he was “over the hill” and should think about hanging his boots up, but Fry was in a quandary. Domestically, he was still a force to be reckoned with and moreover he was bullish. Arrogant some might say. He would retire when he was ready, not when others deemed him to be ready.
Fry was spurred on by the building of the first ever banked track in the heart of his hometown, Birmingham. A chance meeting between his old team mate John Mullane and a senior member of the Birmingham probation service, Bernard Mouzer OBE RVM, led Fry to get involved in discussions about building a new track. Mouzer had the idea of developing the site of an old rubbish tip into an adventure park specifically for wheeled activities. This included go-karts, banger racing, BMX, moto-cross and cycling. Fry suggested that if he could secure a major championship would Mouzer also consider roller skating as one of those activities? The request was positively met and at a cost of £40,000 the track was built. Fry used all his contacts to obtain the track in Mar del Plata, Argentina. In 1983 work started on the construction of the first dedicated roller skating track banked track in Great Britain at the Birmingham Wheels Project and on Fry’s doorstep. In getting that commitment Fry also got the European federation to agree to holding the 1984 Junior European Championships on the track. Almost single handedly Fry had secured a world class skating facility and a major international competition for the city of Birmingham.
In 1984, now very much in the twilight of his international career Fry made the national team once again. The European Track Championships were in Vienna, Austria. In one of the distance events Fry would take a heavy fall. Now 35 years of age his ability to heal was slower than it had been and he struggled to recover for a few days. Despite this, he was selected to make up one third of the British relay team (alongside Darren Cobley and Rohan Harlow) on the road. Towards the end of the race Britain were in a breakaway with France and the much-fancied Italians. The circuit was a bit of a goat track with two right-hand bends and as gifted as Fry was, right-hand bends were not his thing. With just a lap or two to go Fry did his hop, skip and jump around the last right-hander and left his leg trailing a bit too long. Unfortunately, the Italian, Ermes Fossi, caught Fry’s skate and fell heavily. There was no way back for the Italians with such little time to go and so it was left for Britain and France to race it out. Harlow took the final push from Fry and as he came down the finish straight on the final lap against France’s Thierry Penot, he put in a giant effort and crossed the line first. The result was that Britain had won their first ever European relay title and Fry, aged 35, was once again a European gold medallist.
A year later and Britain would almost repeat the feat, again with Fry in the team. This time the European Road Championships were on Cassano d’Adda, Italy and Fry was teamed up with Ashley Harlow (younger brother of Rohan) and another newcomer, Adrew Newton. This time it was Ashley who would outsprint the opposition, Massimo Muzzi (Italy) to cross the line first, but the judges deemed that the race had been completed over one lap too many. The result was that the race was declared void and Britain became the winners of “the race that never was”.
By 1985 Fry was looking to put something back into the sport. He had temporarily given up his job as a heating engineer and had started to work for the probation service as a manager at the Birmingham Wheels Project. This not only helped him with his own training, of course, but it exposed him to some of the under privileged children that had fallen the wrong side of the law and just needed help and support to get them back onto the right path. This would have a profound effect on Fry and using his new found direction took youngsters from all walks of life to become parts of the most successful roller speed skating club this country has ever produced.
Fry also wanted to take the sport forward administratively in Great Britain and along with John Mullane, who had briefly come out of retirement, put himself up for co-option onto the Roller Speed Committee. Their request was unceremoniously refused stating that they “could not be on the Committee whilst they still remained competitors”. Fry trawled the rules and by-laws and could find no such ruling. He took his case to the National Skating Association (NSA) Council and they agreed with him. There was nothing stopping him from being on the Committee. It was now election year and Fry and Mullane put their names forward for election. Playing the game, Fry canvassed all those he knew would support them to attend the Annual General Meeting. In former years the voting and section of the Roller Speed Committee had been a formality with very few people attending the meeting. This year was to be different. When the votes were counted many of the “old guard” did not have enough votes to become committee members by right, but Fry (and Mullane) did and both were elected. It was evident that either through complacency or a simple lack of understanding of the rules, the outgoing committee members had missed a trick. It was time for some new blood.
By July 1986 the Herne Bay club had also built a new banked track on the Westbrook Lane site. The track was 166 metres with a tarmac surface and the club secured the British Championships for that year. On the eve of the championships Fry’s son, also John, was having a discussion with John Harlow, father of Rohan and Ashley. Fry Junior was still in the early days of his own skating career but whilst having a bit of banter with Harlow senior Harlow remarked “Your dad can’t win anywhere unless it’s at Birmingham Wheels”. Fry Junior bet him £5 that he could and Harlow took the bet. On the first day of racing the first event was the 5000 metres. Fry crossed the line first, just 0.2 seconds ahead of a fast finishing Hugh Doggett (Anglia). Fry Junior, some half a lap down in the same event, was ambling around to the finish when John Harlow jogged beside him and true to his word duly placed a five pound note into his hand. The result meant that Fry was now equal with McGeough on 17 titles. The following day Fry made it a double victory when he secured what would become the last of his individual British titles, the 1500 metres. This victory put Fry into the record books with 18 titles, a record that would stand until Sutton Atkins secured his 19th some 11 years later.
Time really was catching up with Fry now. In 1986 more European (Italy) and World (Australia) Championships ensued but with little/no success. Fry was still the highest placed British skater on the track at the Europeans, but by his own standards it was a far cry from the top step. Whereas Mick McGeough was once his great domestic rival, now he was National Team Manager. Domestically, though, despite the efforts of the Harlow brothers and the combined attacking race tactics of the guys out of Wisbech (Hugh Doggett, Mark Took and Andrew Newton) Fry still had a trick or two up his sleeve.
As selection came around for the 1987 European and World Championships, Fry once more put his name forward. The Europeans would again be in Ostende and Fry was selected to race just the track. Dropped from the time trial and 500 metres pursuit event it was evident his sprinting days were now over. Racing just the 5000 metres, the10000 metres elimination and helping the team to a 4th place in the relay was all he got as a run out. By the time the World Championships came in Grenoble, Fry had already made his mind up this would be his last roll of the dice internationally. Aged now 38 and almost 18 years on since his first major international race, Fry put a British skinsuit on for one last time.
World acclaimed national team coach and speed skating icon, Bill Begg (New Zealand), once commented that Fry's obsession with beating just one man (Cantarella) probably cost him a number of world titles. And he was probably right. To quote him:
"Cantarella was a legend. Fry spent a lifetime chasing the legend."
At the end of 1987 Fry helped his club become British relay champions for the first time since 1981. He did so again in 1988 with his son, John, in the team on both occasions. But on 17th July of that year Fry stepped off the track (competitively) for good. Barring the odd exhibition race or an outing at the Berlin Marathon in later life, the 1988 10000 metres British Championship on his home track would be Fry’s swansong. His knew his time at the top was up and now he was ready to call it a day. Just a couple of weeks later and Fry would see his own son win a European gold medal when he, Tony Marriott and Sean McGeough (son of Mick) beat all other nations to become the first (and only) British team to win a European track relay. Fry was still his vocal self, shouting instructions to the boys from the barrier as they made their way around each lap to European victory.
Fry’s efforts now centred on both the club and British skating development as a whole. Since his retirement from competition, he would go on to coach almost 50 skaters to amass almost 500 British titles between them. That’s nearly double the nearest rival in 130 years of roller speed skating.
At the 1991 World Championships Fry was in conversation with one of the American athletes, Doug Glass. Glass was skating on the track on a pair of inline skates. Fry asked him about this and his response was that in America all skaters were starting to use these in competitions. He foresaw a time when quad skates would be a thing of the past, but little did anyone suspect that the change would be so swift. Immediately on his return Fry researched where he could get some inlines and set about ensuring his club members each owned a pair. Training sessions were split between the use of traditional skates and inlines. He was adamant that change was coming and he did not want his club to miss the boat.
Fry was no longer on the Committee and the British federation were not as quick to respond. Comments such as “they will never catch on” or “they are too dangerous because – a. they are too long and b. you can’t hear the wheels”. Despite inlines being introduced at the World Championships in Rome for the first time, Britain was still reluctant to hold domestic events. It wasn’t until the team returned did the federation hold its own first open event. As always, with his ability to spot an opportunity Fry was ahead of the curve.
In 1993 political turmoil within the federation meant that most of the Roller Speed Committee resigned. Fry once again took up the mantle ensuring a British team would still go to the European and World Championships of that year and set about rebuilding the sport. Over the next decade he oversaw major changes within the sport, either as Chairman or as Director of Coaching. His first task was to set up a formal coaching structure that could be adopted by future generations of speed skating coaches. With the support of the National Coaching Foundation and SportsCoach UK he set up specific roller skating courses that would deliver formal NVQ qualifications. By 1996 this qualification was widely recognised and Fry invited multiple World Champion, Tony Muse (USA), to the UK to deliver training sessions to British skaters. It was a huge success.
Back in 1990 the National Skating Association split the ice and roller disciplines into two separate factions. Out of that was born the Federation of Roller Skating (FRS) which combined the artistic and speed roller skating disciplines under one banner. In 1992 this became the BRITISH Federation of Roller Skating (BFRS). By 1998, however, the relationship between both roller disciplines was fractious. It was decided that a further split between disciplines should be the outcome. Out of this was born what we have today, the Federation of Inline Speed Skating (FISS).
Recognising the need for expediency to sort the matter out, Fry, his wife Ruth and Brian Wood set up FISS as a limited company by guarantee with Companies House. They single handedly drafted the Articles of Memorandum and set up a Constitution, naming themselves as officers. Without this in place there would be no national governing body and the sport of roller speed skating in the UK would have ceased to exist. Fry then set about registering FISS with the world and European governing bodies, the Federation International de Roller Skating (FIRS) and the Confederation European de Roller Skating (CERS). A new domestic committee was elected and the rest, as they say, is history.
It soon became apparent that FISS were due an amount of share money from a time when the NSA split. This had been kept under wraps by the artistic federation (CARS) but Fry got wind of it and set about his own investigations with a view to recovering FISS’s share of the spoils. His dogged determination resulted in CARS’ capitulation and handing over to FISS what was rightfully theirs. It was a heady time for the ex-international and it seemed that the battles he had so often fought on the track were nothing compared to those he would face off it.
In 1997 Fry brought major international competition back to British shores. Through a deal done with Swiss watch manufacturer, Raymond Weil, Fry secured the Raymond Weil W1 Marathon along the streets of Madeira Drive, Brighton. Such megastars of skating were present – the likes of Arnaud Gicquel, Pascal Briand and Davy Willems all took part. Fry even persuaded his old adversary and former World Champion, John Folley, to get his skates on after 25 years. Fry repeated the feat 12 months later, this time the event was held around Battersea Park, London, where more of the world’s elite would descend. The likes of Kalon Dobbin (New Zealand), Martin Escobar (Argentina), Alessandro Cantarella (Italy) and Sheila Hererro (Spain) all donned their skates for the event. Fry even managed to get Olympic legend Daly Thompson to start the race. Fry was adamant that to attract new skaters the sport had to be taken to the public. The public would not readily come to the likes of Tatem Park or Birmingham Wheels, it had to be showcased. Over the next few years events were put on around venues such as Derby City Centre, Blackpool sea front, Coventry Ring Road and the Butlins holiday sites of Minehead and Skegness to name but a few. The sport was attracting attention and membership was growing.
By the turn of the century Fry had again stepped back from the running of the sport and was once again focusing on his club. In 2002 he was presented with the “Community Coach Award” by Birmingham City Council. He was recognised again in 2005 when he became the very first recipient of the Birmingham City Council’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” for services to sport in and around Birmingham, presented to him by the then Minister for Sport, Richard Caborn MP.
Around that time, it also became apparent that there once again needed to be one umbrella body for roller sports within Great Britain. It was prompted by the Sports Aid Foundation refusing grants to roller sports activities believing them to be “hobbies and pastimes”. Out of this was born the British Roller Sports Federation (BRSF) with its own structure and President. All forms of roller skating disciplines – speed, artistic, hockey in all its guises, etc. – soon became members of this umbrella body.
When it was announced that London would be hosting the 2012 Olympic Games it was also announced that roller sports, moreover inline speed skating, was being considered for inclusion. With that in mind Fry was asked if he would become the next President of the BRSF and spearhead the bid to get roller sports into the Olympic movement. Fry accepted the challenge and spent the next few years in discussion with IOC delegates and attending seminars along with FIRS, trying to get Olympic recognition for the sport he loved. Ultimately, the fruits of his labours would not be realised and the sport would once again get overlooked – in favour of golf and rugby sevens!
Not to be phased by this decision Fry set about raising the profile of the sport once more. Alan Moore of the South Woodham Ferrers club had set up a programme of teaching people how to roller skate called “Skatesmart”. Using this as a template Fry, along with Sharon Tongue and Vincent Henry, took it to the local schools. Soon schools all across Birmingham were embracing roller skating as part of the physical education curriculum. Children in their thousands took part and benefitted from the programme, and of course the Birmingham Wheels club flourished with new talent.
In 2012 and the build up to the London Olympics Fry was approached by SportEngland. The body had selected him and two others to represent the Midlands in carrying the Olympic torch through the streets of Hereford. It was an honour of the highest accolade and Fry duly accepted the task and proudly carried the torch in recognition of the work he had undertaken to keep roller/inline speed skating firmly on the sporting map.
Since 1993 Fry has on countless occasions stepped in to be National Team Manager, National Team Coach or simply Technical Advisor, all at his own expense. It doesn’t bear thinking about as to how much of his own funds he has put into the sport, but undoubtedly it would be an eye watering amount. But as he says “if I didn’t do this, what would I do?” In the last few years, he has stepped back from those roles but he continues to travel the globe following the sport with a passion, bordering on obsession.
Despite being a global ambassador, and now well into his 70’s, (and supported as always by his wife Ruth) Fry's focus and efforts are on his club and the local community. The club boasts the most culturally diverse membership, with skaters whose roots are firmly planted in nations such as Egypt, India and Hong Kong as well as Great Britain of course. Fry has had to adapt his style of coaching to suit all manner of cultures and ensures inclusivity in all he does. He may not be able to take on the world’s elite physically, but undoubtedly the fire and the passion to have a hand in the success of others still burns as fiercely as it did 60 years ago.
The name John Edward Fry will always be synonymous with the sport of roller/inline speed skating, not just at home but in every corner of the globe. For a man that has dedicated almost six decades to being successful in the sport, whether it be his own, his club or those that simply seek his advice, the term legend does not come close to describing him. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?