British Skating Legends

Unsung heroes of British roller speed skating


JOHN E. FRY - 1975

John Edward Fry (# 29 in the list of senior men to represent Great Britain) 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.

In only his second race he finished second behind Dave Hart in the Half Mile Junior British Championship.  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, but 18th March 1967 saw Fry really make 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 to win a British title at that time.  His win was deemed a "fluke" by some but Fry would spend the next 20 years proving them wrong.  Between 1967 and 1988 Fry won no fewer than 18 individual British titles (a record that found him a place in the Guiness Book of Records) and six British relay titles.

In 1968 he was up for selection for the World Championships in Montecchio, Italy, but was left out in favour of experience in the form of former World Champion, Leo Eason.  It would be another 12 months before Fry got his full international call up when in December 1969 he went to Mar del Plata, Argentina, and obtained a 4th place in the 500 metres time trial, but not before winning the Half Mile Championship for a second time earlier that year.  In Argentina, Fry would see his team mates Sharman and Folley take silver medals in the 5000 metres and 20000 metres before Folley finally became World Champion at 10000 metres.  This was to have a profound effect on the 20 year old and just 18 months later would be joining Folley on the top step at a major international competition.  

In 1971 Fry won the first of his three individual European Championships by winning the 500 metres time trial on the road in Wetteren, Belgium.  His victory over multiple sprint World Champion, Giuseppe Cantarella, was the second in the space of 12 months having previously beaten him in a "B" international in Inzell, Germany, in 1970, much to Cantarella's disbelief.

There were no major championships (or British championships for that matter) in 1972 and so Fry had to wait until 1973 before he could take on Cantarella again.  At Grenoble, France, in the European Championships of that year he drew Cantarella in the very first round of the 1000 metres knock-out.  Rather than go for the time to guarantee him a place in the next round, Fry, as always, went for the win, but this time Cantarella had the beating of him.  The European Championships in San Benedetto in 1974 wouldn't fare much better.

May 1975 saw the first World Track Championships since December 1969.  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, only three of the five races were held as the remainder of the Championships were cancelled due to rain.

In September of the same year the World Road Championships were held in Sesto San Giovani (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 that Fry skated was the 20000 metres, the final event of the first day.  The Italian, Lovato, had led out team mate 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 Fry sensed that the two Italians were there for the taking.  Having already proven he was the fastest of the three skaters earlier that day he attacked wide off the bend only to slip mid stride, the adverse camber catching him out and fall dramatically against the kerb.

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, persuaded Fry to go for the time rather than the win.  Whether it was ego or tactics that made Fry always go for the win is unclear, but this time Halford persuaded him.  Cantarella beat him, just, but Fry's time now meant that he had progressed to the second round and in so doing would not meet Cantarella until the final.  

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 the first round, 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.  In the finishing straight a line down the centre of the track effectively "splits" the two skaters as they race to the finish.  In the first of the three races they exited the last bend together - but again the adverse camber that may have robbed Fry of victory a day before played it's part again 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 and awarding the gold medal to Cantarella.  Although Fry was awarded silver it was a bitter pill to swallow knowing that another opportunity had gone begging.  Despite that, Fry still managed a bronze in the 10000 metres later that day.  There was some consolation as Fry and 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 1978 Fry again beat Cantarella in a sprint to take the European 500 metres time trial Championship in La Roche-Sur-Yon, France.  It was to be yet another successful outing for Great Britain as Mick McGeough won the 10000 metres and John Mullane the 5000 metres.  However, the event was marred by controversy when Cantarella and Fry met again in the knock-out where the Italian blatantly fouled Fry on the last bend.  Despite this it was Fry who was disqualified and the British team, who had four skaters in the last eight, withdrew in protest.  1978 would be the last time Fry would beat Cantarella in a head to head in a major international.

In 1979 Fry again struck gold in the 5000 metres European Championships in Ostende, Belgium - despite having previously been disqualified from the whole competition, but reinstated after TV evidence (the first time video was used) swayed the judges to reverse their decision.  Again a successful event for Britain overall as McGeough retained his 10000 metres title and Feetham won the 20000 metres.

In 1984, in the twighlight of his international career Fry was one third of the British team (alongside Darren Cobley and Rohan Harlow) who won European gold in the road relay in Vienna, Austria.  A year later and Britain would repeat the feat, this time Fry teamed up with Ashley Harlow and Andrew Newton in Cassano d'Adda, Italy - only for the race to be made void as it was deemed that one lap too many had been skated.

1987 was Fry's international swansong.  Almost 20 years on from his first time out as a British international, he skated his last World Championships in Grenoble, France.  World acclaimed national team coach and speed skating icon, Bill Begg, 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"

Since his retirement from competition he has been, amongst other things, Chairman of the Federation of Inline Speed Skating, President of the British Roller Sports Federation and national team manager on numerous occasions.

In 2002 he was presented with a "Community Coach Award" by the Birmingham City Sports Council.  In 2004 he was again formally recognised by his home town when he was awarded the very first "Lifetime Achievement Award" for his sporting services to the city of Birmingham.  Despite these accolades undoubtedly his highest honour (to date) was being selected by Sport England to carry the torch for the London 2012 Olympics, which he did so on 24th May 2012 around the streets of Hereford.  A truly once in a lifetime experience and a fitting tribute to someone who has dedicated his life to his sport, either as an athlete, coach, mentor - or simply someone standing on the sidelines cheering on his skaters. Now, though, he spends his time successfully coaching the Birmingham Wheels club to be the best in the country, unselfishly sharing his knowledge and experience with anybody willing to listen.