‘The greatest long-distance runner in the British Empire’

THE greatest long-distance runner in the British Empire. That’s what New York State’s Rochester Democrat and Chronicle dubbed Dromore marathon man Sam Ferris in 1932, shortly after his silver medal-winning performance in that year’s Los Angeles Olympics.

The newspaper was reporting on Sam’s arrival in Rochester, where he was visiting those five of his sisters who settled in the area, and today, exactly 80 years after the Dromore athlete lifted Olympic silver, the Leader can report that Sam’s legacy of pride endures not just in his home town, where the Ferris Park sports ground bears his name, but also among his family in the United States.

Sam’s great-great niece, Kathy Eichorn, who lives at Spencerport, New York, in what she calls “a small village outside Rochester,” said pride in his achievements was undiminished.

“Although his siblings have long passed,” she said, “as well as the nieces and nephew he would have known here in the States, they were tremendously proud of the man he was and his accomplishments.

“That pride has carried on to my generation.”

Kathy revealed she had very much enjoyed reading a recent Leader article in which a number of Dromore residents bemoaned the fact that Olympic Torch route-planners, while steering the flame through Banbridge and Lisburn, as well as smaller areas such as Ballynahinch, Saintfield and Crossgar, bypassed the home town of an Olympian one local described as one of the greatest athletes the island of Ireland has ever seen.

“It was very informative,” said Kathy, “and yes, how could the Olympic flame bypass Dromore? What a disappointment.

“Sam Ferris was my great-great uncle so it is always nice to read about him.

“He is in my thoughts during these Olympics, especially since Great Britain is the host.”

By the time of his 1932 silver medal win Sam Ferris had run some 20 marathons in eight years, taking first or second place in all but his first two Olympic Games - Paris in 1924 (5th) and Amsterdam in 1928 (8th).

He had won both the Copenhagen and Turin International Marathons in 1928 and was seven-time winner (five times back to back) of the Sporting Life Marathon from Windsor to London.

He came second in the British Empire Marathon at Hamilton, Ontario, in 1930 and was the only man to win the British Marathon Championship three times (1925-27).

Sam was born in 1900 and raised for a time at Magherabeg, before moving to Glasgow with his father when his mother died, the two returning just a few years later to Dromore, where 17 year-old Sam won prizes aplenty.

With WW1 still ongoing, 18 year-old Sam joined the Royal Flying Corps, which was to later become the Royal Air Force.

He returned to Dromore upon completing his service but in 1923 he rejoined the RAF and, while stationed in England, he caught the eye of Bill Thomas of Herne Hill Harriers, who persuaded Sam his strength might lie, not in cross-country, but in long-distance, running.

In his first marathon, Sam was one of 80 starters in the 1924 Olympic trials and came in just 45 seconds behind the winner, earning selection for the British Olympic team.

His fifth place in 2.52.26, behind the eventual winner Alban Stenroos of Finland, was the best Olympic marathon achievement by a British runner thus far.

In losing out on Olympic gold in 1932 (Argentina’s Juan Zabala picked up gold, finishing in two hours 31 minutes and 36 seconds, just 19 seconds ahead of the Dromore man - both men broke the world record) Sam was frustrated at having seen the course only once before the actual race, while Zabala had trained on the course and knew it well.

Sam Ferris raced on successfully for many years; he died in the late 1970s.