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Ian Black retired at 21, but remains an Aberdeen hero and the youngest-ever BBC Sports Personality of the Year

Champion swimmer and much loved head Ian Black. Image: DC Thomson.
Champion swimmer and much loved head Ian Black. Image: DC Thomson.

Ian Black was the Invernessian who became known as the Human Torpedo.

He could propel himself through the water at an extraordinary speed and his talent first emerged when, as a stick-thin nine-year-old, he swam the mile-and-a-half Kessock Ferry route near his home in Inverness in record time.

Black remains the youngest-ever recipient of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award and was only 17 when he was presented with the coveted silver trophy in 1958, finishing in front of English footballers Bobby Charlton and Nat Lofthouse; an outcome which the teenager described to the audience as “most unexpected”.

Ian Black (aged 9) getting oil rubbed into his legs by swimming teacher Curly McGillivary. Image: Supplied.

As his country’s maiden winner, he stepped on to the stage at the Grosvenor Hotel in London to the strains of Scotland the Brave and said it was particularly gratifying that the public had chosen the winner of this prestigious prize.

Yet, less than four years later, he retired to seek new challenges elsewhere.

Hitting headlines from a young age

His father George quickly recognised that his oldest son was a “natural” and moved the family to Aberdeen because Robert Gordon’s College had a pool and a stalwart presence in the sport of renowned coach Andy Robb.

Everything clicked and, by 14, he was hitting the headlines as a freestyle and butterfly superstar. Indeed, his golden year in 1958 was like something out of a Boy’s Own comic.

He won gold and silver medals at the Empire Games, five titles at the British Championships, three golds at the European Championships (and broke five European records in the process) as the prelude to his BBC success.

Ian pictured with the BBC Sports Personality of the year and Daily Express Sportsman of the Year in 1958.  Image: DC Thomson.

The Flying Scot looked a sure thing for at least one medal, and possibly of a golden hue, in the 1960 Rome Olympics. But it wasn’t to be.

Despite setting British, European and Olympic records in the 400m freestyle heats, he missed the bronze by fractions of a second. Millions of viewers, including Black and the other swimmers thought the medal was his. But the unofficial electronic eye disagreed.

It was the beginning of the end for somebody whose career was a truncated triumph.

Lack of training facility access in Aberdeen

Unsurprisingly, Black’s early achievements had earned him a significant public profile. As somebody still in his teens, the expectation was that his best days lay in front of him.

However, after returning to Robert Gordon’s College in 1958, he had found himself at odds with the head, David Collier, who stripped him of his prefect’s badge and said later he “deplored the fuss” which he claimed gave fellow pupils “the wrong set of values”.

Ian Black in action. Image: John Twine/ANL/Shutterstock.

Thereafter – and this will seem astonishing to those who have grown up with Lottery-funded training programmes and nothing but the best for elite athletes – his preparations were hampered by a lack of access to training facilities in Aberdeen.

Instead, he was forced to endure freezing water at Stonehaven’s outdoor facility and even travelled to Guernsey to use a tidal pool carved out of the coastal rock with his coach; a stark reminder that this was another time, another place from the current situation where participants have access to the Aberdeen Aquatics Centre.

He decided to get on with his life

He said later: “Even though I was nowhere near fit enough in Rome, I still thought that I could win. But the other countries were miles ahead of us in training and coaching and I didn’t want to settle for second best.”

“I don’t regret anything. You play the cards you are dealt. Yes, it’s one of the greater disappointments in my life, but who knows it wasn’t the best thing for me?

“I might have gone off in a completely different direction and might not be where I am now with all I have.

Ian by the pool he used to train in at Robert Gordon’s. Image: Rory Raitt.

“It’s all part of life’s great plan and my Christian faith has been very important to me.

“I have absolutely no foiled ambitions. The way is marked out for us. There is a kind of duty to be done. I believe you are directed where you are meant to go.”

What fate had in store for the man who had his Olympic dream shattered was a two-year break from swimming as he concentrated on his studies at Aberdeen University.

Brown made sure to silence his critics

There was one final explosive return to the pool when Ian silenced any critics by breaking no less than 17 swimming records in just seven weeks.

Then came the bombshell. At 21, he announced his retirement and insisted: The burning flame of ambition has dimmed until it is almost non-existent.” In his view, he had made a sufficient splash and gained enough personal honours to last a lifetime.

In 1966 he married Alison, a Scottish swimming champion he’d been coaching, and the couple went on to have four children.

The family took off for Canada in the late 1960s where Ian coached and taught.

After spells working in Hong Kong and Bahrain, he taught in Forres, Elgin and Aberlour before returning to his old school in 1990.

Ian in his role as head master at Robert Gordons Junior School. Image: Amber Stephen.

On his retirement day in the early 2000s, Ian Black spoke to The P&J of his memories.

He recalled how long before he hit the sporting headlines in the late 1950s as swimming’s golden boy, he spent hours powering up and down the 25-metre pond.

He rose at the crack of dawn from his home in Mastrick Road to catch the bus down to the pool for 6.20am. Then, during his lunch interval, he would run all the way up to the Bon Accord Baths for a 40-minute session.

Ian lived for training

After school, there were hours of intensive training under the inspired tuition of Robb.

What did he think about during those gruelling training sessions? It wasn’t a grind to him. As he said: “I lived for it. Absolutely loved it. But what happened to me could never happen again because sport has moved on so much.

“It was like a story from the Rover or the Hotspur. In my first major race I beat the Scottish champion who was also in the British team.”

In the interview, Ian remembered with emotion the day his old coach died, aged 88, on the very day he started his job at Robert Gordon’s in 1990.

Well known Aberdeen Swimming coach Andy Robb produced a string of Olympic and Commonwealth swimmers. Image: DC Thomson.

“That was sad. Andy was a great man – a huge personality and motivator.

“I would have crawled over broken glass to get something for that man.”

Fortunately for him, he recalled how the canny folk of Aberdeen kept him grounded.

Staying humble

“They were impressed but not overly so,” he said. “Occasionally, someone would speak to me or get out a fag packet for an autograph.

“Thankfully, the press was different then – less intrusive and trying to find out unpleasantness from your past. It would have been an absolute death sentence to me to have been treated like David Beckham.”

Ian Black on his retiral. Image: Rory Raitt.

All of Ian’s medals were stolen when he worked in Bahrain, and he gave his three top sportsman trophies to the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame when he was enrolled in 2002.

What he did treasure was the framed pipe tune written in his honour by the school’s piping teacher Michael Maitland – Waves Goodbye.

It was played by the school pipe band on his last day.

The pipe major that day was Ian’s 16-year-old son, Andrew – named after the coach the young swimmer would have crawled over broken glass for.

A fitting farewell to the man still going strong at 81.