Trevor Fox: The pole-vault coach who turns no athlete away has a triple Olympic dream
He's never stood on the podium. He doesn't have any medals.
But, because of him, hundreds of other people have.
Trevor Fox. Never the headline. Always a huge part of the story.
This slight, softly-spoken 70-year-old has devoted his life to being a coach. First it was gymnastics. Then it was running when his son and two daughters showed promise. Finally, in 1999, it became pole vault.
He’s the man who’s helped Luke Cutts set the UK record at 5.83 metres and compete at the Olympics. He’s the mentor taking under-23 internationals Adam Hague and Abigail Roberts to the top. He’s the guiding hand who turns no budding vaulter away.
Thousands of athletes have passed through his groups at Barnsley Athletics Club, Dearnside High AC and now City of Sheffield and Dearne AC. Every year for the last quarter of a century one of his proteges has finished in the top three at the English Schools Championship.
It’s done for love, not money. His dedication has left him thousands of pounds out of pocket.
“How many hours? Wow. Blimey. It’s not just the 16 hours a week of training. There are all the competitions as well,” he says. “They can take up full weekends. Luke is 29 now and must have done 30,000 hours of training. I’ve done all those with him.
“What keeps me going is just seeing the achievements of my athletes. What I put in is negligible compared to what they’re achieving.”
He cuts a wiry, dapper figure when we meet at his base at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffied. He’s dripping in Nike gear - the latest red top, black bottoms, swish grey trainers, courtesy of Hague, the world-class junior already attracting the attention of the giant American sports corporation.
“It’s just a bit difficult,” he says. “I think he’s size 12 and I’m size eight. We manage somehow!”
“Hey, if it’s free, it fits,” I tell him. “That’s it, Lad,” he grins. As we talk, ‘Trevor’ quickly becomes ‘Trev’.
His neat, trimmed hair is his second favourite colour, silver. He calls me ‘Love’. Not a lot, just now and then. I like it when he does.
He retired earlier this year from his job as a technician at Dearne High in Thurnscoe where he discovered many of his athletes, nurtured them in lunch-time sessions and used the school minibus to ferry them to and from club training and competitions.
Cutts was a Dearne High boy. Although he wouldn’t have won gold for his academic leanings, he was bursting with sporting talent and gutsy attitude. He used to gravitate to the tecnicians’ workshop where Fox fixed up a series of ropes upon which the youngster began his climb to OIympic, World, European and Commonwealth recognition.
The mind is much sharper than the voice. Fox, vice-chairman of Sheffield and Dearne, is understated, intelligent, endearing. A gentleman and a gentle man. He doesn’t have to shout to be in charge.
“I’m easy-going,” he says. “I don’t rate myself as a strong taskmaster, although I do make sure my group do the stuff I want them to do. I leave them to their own devices quite a bit while keeping a watchful eye on them. I give my athletes a lot of latitude, but keep them on the straight and narrow in relation to what the goal is. There’s a saying, practice makes perfect. The real saying is, practising perfect makes perfect.”
He tells me he lives in Barnsley, but I’ve already worked that out. His accent has got there before him.
He’s brought me print-outs of heights, dates and venues to demonstrate how well his best athletes are doing, only he can’t read them when he comes to show me. “Hang on, Love. I’d better put mi glasses on,” he says.
His head disappears into his bag as I note that Hague is the best under-20 UK vaulter ever, his 5.60m beating by 20 centimetres the mark set by Cutts when he was in that age group.
Then a muffled voice chirps out: “I won’t be a second. I’m looking for them now.”
Cutts’ name crops up a lot. Fox recalls 2013 when his athlete had achieved the qualifying height but UK Athletics opted not to take him to the World Championships in Moscow.
He’s suddenly, unexpectedly close to tears at the injustice. I have to wait before I can ask my next question.
Cutts is a family man who earns some money from his sport but still needs to hold down a job as a mechanical fitter. Together, the pair have paid their way around the globe to take part in open competitions. It’s a different story when it comes to Cutts’ international duty and Fox finds himself home alone.
“I don’t go to the Olympics or the other major competitions with him,” he says. “It’s expensive, innit? UK Athletics helped me once, at the World Indoors in Poland. That’s the only time. They don’t pay for me. Luke’s competed on the world stage but more often than not I’ve had to watch it on TV.
“It’s frustrating. The governing body appoint their own coach to look after all the jumpers. I’m thinking: ‘He’s out there with someone who doesn’t know him.’ He’s a character is Luke. He’s a bit strong-headed. You have to know him to get through to him properly.”
Fortunately for Fox, he’s just as happy bringing on beginners in his 40-strong group as he is rubbing shoulders with the world’s best. The kids find him rather than the other way round.
“Once they see someone vault, they want to have a go,” he says. “It’s quite a visual thing and catches kids’ eyes. They love it. It’s exciting. I think the excitement comes from what appears to be an element of risk. What’s life without a risk? It’s boring, innit? They go for it, they want it. The young uns develop quickly.”
Like all the best coaches, he deflects praise from himself and towards his athletes.
“There’s a great sense of pride when you see them on the podium,” he says. “It’s humbling really. You think, what’s going on? I haven’t done owt special.”
“I think you have,” I reply. He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell he’s pleased.
As we sit by the side of the 200m track and two pole-vault beds at the EIS, he produces a written list of people at the club whose contribution he is keen to highlight. There just isn’t space, but please be assured, John Wood, Martin Lane, Donna Claridge, Jenny Doyle and Tom Grantham, that he was thinking about you.
By the way, I lied earlier. Fox does have a medal. Just the one. Nearly 30 years ago, something made him give the sport a go as a competitor and he became a North of England champion.
“I did 2.80m as an over-40s veteran at the Northerns,” he says. “I was about 42. Compared to what you see now, I must have looked shabby.”
The guttural, disgusted emphasis he places on the word, ‘shabby’, makes me laugh out loud.
He goes on, encouraged by my amusement. “It was absolutely cr*p really. I was just throwing myself over this crossbar!” Then he can’t help laughing as well.
He’s entered his eighth decade but the fire still burns. His long-standing partner won’t be seeing much of him any time soon.
“My goal is to have three athletes at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020,” he says. “That’s Abigail, Adam and Luke. That drives me on.”
Fox is off to pick up some poles before returning for training. He’ll be back in minibus mark 2, an estate car he acquired after packing in work so his taxi service for his athletes could continue.
Before he goes, he tells me how, years ago, a dear pal and a big noise in South Yorkshire running, Les Outwin, once chided him about his personal lack of silverware.
“We were sat in the old Dorothy Hyman Stadium at Cudworth in Barnsley,” he recalls. “It was just good banter between two friends. ‘Where are all your medals?’ Les asked me.
“I waved my hand towards my athletes who were competing. ‘All out there, Mate,’ I told him. ‘All out on that track.’”
The vaulter who could have been a millionaire
“Luke Cutts and Adam Hague, who’s younger, are both high-profile athletes,” says Fox. “Luke is the UK-record-holder. He’s done loads of internationals. He was the silver medallist by the flimsiest of countbacks at the last Commonwealth Games and has been selected for next year’s Commonwealths in Australia. He’s done two or three World Championships. He’s done the Olympics.
“We met at Dearne High School. He was encouraged by his elder sister, Carrianne, who also trained with me, to come to training. He was always gutsy and powerful. You have to have guts to do this. At his level, you’re talking about going up in the air nearly six metres and doing gymnastics.
“I noticed his speed as well. He was doing some long jumping and sprinting. We went to one meeting when he was young and he set the under-13 stadium record for discus! He was a bit of an all-rounder!
“One time, we were touring Europe a little bit, going round different countries and towns vaulting at open meetings. In Holland or Belgium, we got talking to some American competitors. They got on about baseball and asked Luke if he fancied a game. He’d never played before, but he was knocking them all over the field!. They were amazed.
“He’s done all right out of pole vaulting. He’s done open meets where there’s prize money. But he’s a family man. He’s committed to that. He’s had to forfeit quite a lot for his family, missing international matches where there has been prize money.
“He could have been a millionaire by being a bit more committed. I’m not saying he isn’t committed, but by being more dedicated - which would mean his family life wouldn’t have been as good - he could have achieved even more. Since he left school, he’s had to work.
“With more support financially, he could have been breaking records everywhere. It frustrates me enormously. He could have been up there past six metres easily. He could be a world-beater if he could be a full-time athlete.”
Questions and answers
Biggest achievement: Setting up our own club, Dearneside High. It gave a whole new flock of athletes a way of expressing their new-found skills in competition.
Best moment: When Adam and Luke were both competing in France. They were just buzzing and feeding off each other. They were really supporting each other. It was an international open meeting. Athetes who’d been in the Olympics were getting beaten by Adam and Luke. You fund those trips yourselves and hope you’re going to get some of the prize money on offer. Another exciting one was in Linz ... where’s that now? Chuffing hell. What country? Austria. That’s it! ... They have an outdoor pole-vault meeting there under a library. The library has a glass floor. You’re almost vaulting through the ceiling! Luke was inches away from it and could see his own reflection! That was surreal.
Lowest point: When Luke didn’t get taken to Moscow for the 2013 World Championships. That still hurts now.
Biggest talent: It’s tied now between Luke and Adam. Adam is taking one or two of Luke’s junior records. That 5.83 is definitely at risk as Adam gets older and stronger. He’s a good athlete is Adam. He’s fed off Luke. When they train together, they’re motivating each other all the time.
Hardest worker: Adam.
Best advice to a novice pole vaulter: Stick with it and persevere; realise there are no short cuts. Take one step at a time and you’ll see yourself growing and developing.