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Percy Wells Cerutty (1895–1975)

by Harry Gordon

This article was published:

Percy Wells Cerutty (1895-1975), athletics coach, was born on 10 January 1895 at Prahran, Melbourne, seventh child of Harry Richard Cerutty, accountant, and his wife Emily, née Neilson, both Victorian born. When Percy was 4, Emily left her alcoholic husband and struggled alone to bring up her six surviving children. Percy left state school at the age of 12 to take a job in a hardware store. In 1910 he joined the Postmaster-General's Department as a messenger, later becoming an assistant, a mechanic and finally a technician.

A frail youth who was declared unfit for military service, Cerutty competed for Malvern Harriers until 1918, but had an undistinguished athletic career: he suffered migraines and was often violently ill after races. On 7 November 1921 he married Dorothy Clara Barwell at the East Malvern Baptist Church.

In 1939 Cerutty suffered a nervous breakdown which obliged him to take six months leave from the P.M.G. It became a period of self-examination, during which he walked, read philosophy, psychology and poetry, wrote the first of some two hundred poems, joined a weightlifting club and resolved to resume running. Contemptuous of doctors, he decided to take charge of his own health, and applied himself to alternative medicine and natural diets, boasting that he had 'completely rebuilt' his body. Weightlifting added ten lb. (4.5 kg) to a wiry, eight-stone (51 kg) physique.

From 1942, in his second athletic career, Cerutty applied himself to the problems of conditioning the body for intensive running. Competing once more for Malvern Harriers, he had over one hundred races. He retired from running in 1950 as State marathon champion, having set Australian records for 30, 50 and 60 miles (48, 80 and 97 km).

In 1946 Cerutty had left his P.M.G. job and bought land at Portsea. After working on the property at weekends, he retired in 1959 to his shack among the sandhills, gave it the grand name of the International Athletic Centre and devoted himself to the task of coaching. His sheer success, and the passionate, eccentric method of it, made him an international celebrity. He trained dozens of fine runners, among them Herb Elliott, John Landy, Les Perry and Dave Stephens, and helped other champions, including Betty Cuthbert, Russell Mockridge and Jimmy Carruthers. Cerutty worked on the bodies and the minds of his charges. He made them read Plato, poetry and the Bible, fed them raw oats and wheat germ, sent them on punishing runs through tea-tree scrub and rugged, sandy terrain, and insisted that they set goals which could be achieved only by pain and sacrifice. He made them swim year-round in the ocean and shed all their clothes in the open at least once a day. He saw it all as a process of physical and mental conditioning, based on what he called a 'Stotan' creed—his own special mix of Stoic and Spartan disciplines.

Prickly and argumentative, Cerutty sometimes attempted to taunt the best out of his athletes. He said that he needed to enter their personalities. Some, like Landy, resented the intrusion and left; Cerutty never forgave them. Although Landy achieved his greatest success after breaking away, he always acknowledged a debt to Cerutty's early inspiration and conditioning. Elliott, his greatest pupil, absorbed all the Cerutty teachings. As Herb matured, he was able to laugh at his mentor's excesses, but he also wrote: 'Percy helped me . . . by releasing in my mind and soul a power that I only vaguely thought existed'.

Cerutty saw himself as a visionary with a noble mission. Some observers accepted his own view that he was a genius of sorts; others branded him an exhibitionist, a crackpot, a nuisance and a publicity-seeker. His behaviour was often unconventional: he stood on his head at a garden party, danced a jig on championship arenas, challenged the chairman of a television panel to a fight, was evicted often from Commonwealth and Olympic games villages, and wound up in police custody as Elliott scored the triumph of his career by winning the gold medal in the 1500 metres at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

In 1955 Dorothy divorced Percy. On 3 March 1958 he married a divorcee Ellen Ann ('Nancy'), née Keene, late Armstrong, at the Unitarian manse, East Melbourne. Between 1959 and 1967 he published six books on his training techniques. In 1969, at the age of 74, he claimed that he was sick of running up sandhills, and ceased training athletes. Cerutty was appointed M.B.E. in 1972. Survived by his wife, and by the son of his first marriage, he died on 14 August 1975 at his Portsea home and was buried in Sorrento cemetery. In 1989 he was among the first, small group of coaches whose names were admitted to the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Elliott, The Golden Mile (Melb, 1961)
  • H. Gordon, Young Men in a Hurry (Melb, 1961)
  • G. Kelly, Mr Controversial (Lond, 1964)
  • K. Dunstan, Ratbags (Melb, 1980)
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 23 Aug 1969
  • Nation Review, 10-16 Jan 1975
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 Aug 1975
  • Australian, 15-19 Aug 1975
  • Bulletin, 23 Aug 1975
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Harry Gordon, 'Cerutty, Percy Wells (1895–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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