Nelson-born champion runner, Rod Dixon talks a mile a minute - but he knows that. "People used to say you can always rely on John (Walker) to run the great race and Rod to entertain," he says.
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Dixon has run many great races all around the world, and faced heart breaking split second finishes in which he just missed being in the top three.
He has been known for being flamboyant, expressive and individualistic. But the boy from the Tahunanui Hills just wants to be true to himself. While running has always been his greatest form of self-expression, he says his mother Marion had a great influence on his character.
"I loved the softness of my mother. She worked and was very independent but she, and my grandmother, gave me the ability to talk - I'm very in touch with my feminine side!"
On the day Wild Tomato met Dixon, he was padding around his calm, airy home, located just a few streets away from where he grew up, in bare feet, a bright blue shirt, white shorts and looking longer, leaner and fitter than most 57 year olds. Get Dixon talking, his accent virtually untouched by his years in the States, and his eyes glow with boyish enthusiasm and earnestness.
As a lad, Rod Dixon loved to run. "I used to deliver papers in all weathers, I played cricket, rugby (on the wing of course) and soccer at Tahunanui School, ran to school, down to the beach and the golf course- everywhere."
Newspaper customers used to ring Dixon's mother and say what a lovely wee boy he was. However the wily distance runner-in-waiting was not beyond a bit of emotional blackmail at Christmas time. "The first year I did the paper round, I noticed people were slow to remember to give me something for Christmas, so after that I would wrap a box in Christmas paper and carry it around when I went to collect the paper money. Then they'd say ‘oh yes, here's a bit extra for Christmas!'"
He still lopes around the Nelson hills or speeds up the Maitai on his mountain bike and he occasionally gets his brother and running mentor, John, out on the mountain bike. "I bike up the Maitai and Richmond hills now and get to the top and think ‘I know why I was such a good runner- I used to run up here all the time.'"
Back in their youth, John Dixon, three years older than Rod, was a keen competitive runner and it wasn't long before his young brother had also joined the Nelson Harrier Club. "John was going to be the runner and I was going to follow. He was an incredibly talented athlete in his own right"
The two brothers shared the dream of being selected for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. They based their training schedule on Arthur Lydiard's principles of a strong base of easy aerobic running (100 miles a week), followed by a phase of hill training to develop the legs and then faster anaerobic training to develop the heart and lungs.
This kind of pre-training was unheard of at the time, with most athletes focusing all of their energies on the third phase of time trial and speed training, with many subsequently burning out. "But Lydiard's principle was ‘give me 100 athletes and I'll give you 100 champions." Other great Kiwi athletes trained by the Lydiard principles include Murray Halberg , Peter Snell and John Walker.
The brothers took part in various championships around the country, but it became apparent that Rod was winning more races. "John (Dixon) put his goals on the back burner and put his efforts into coaching me. He was one of the toughest, most demanding guys ever- he was relentless but now I realize what he gave up for me," Dixon says.
In 1972, Rod Dixon was down to his last chance to qualify for the Olympic 1500 metre event. "John was racing in the same heat and had said ‘When I say go, you'd better be full of fear'. John was leading the race and with 300 metres to go, he moved over and I gathered myself and ran as hard as I could. As I passed, John said ‘go for your life'.
"By the time I came around the final turn of the track, John had run across the field and was screaming at me from the other side of the track. I had another burst of adrenalin, won the race, broke the qualifying time and ran the fastest time I had ever run. At 3:41.2 minutes, it was the equivalent of a sub -four minute mile."
Dixon won the bronze medal at Munich. "I'd gone from being ranked 43rd in the world to winning an Olympic medal; from listening to the 1968 Olympic games on a transistor radio by the Maitai to being a medal winner. I was ecstatic!"
But the Munich Olympics were marred by tragedy with the massacre of 11 members of the Israeli team by Black September, a group associated with Yasser Arafat's PLO. The Kiwi athletes roomed next door to the Israelis and on the morning of 5 September, Dixon went out onto the apartment balcony and saw a gunman in a balaclava.
"I thought I saw an Israeli athlete with a balaclava on and initially thought it was a member of their shooting team playing a joke. But of course it wasn't. We were evacuated when it looked like the hostage negotiations were failing. It was a real tragedy- we got to know some of the Israelis and they were lovely characters."
The early to mid-1970s were the pinnacle of competitive running in New Zealand and John Walker, Dick Quax, Dick Tayler and Rod Dixon were at the top of their game. Thousands of Kiwis flocked to track meets to see the champions, but Dixon still feels angry about the "archaic rules" of the New Zealand Amateur Athletic Association.
"You weren't to make money out of what you did- you were an amateur athlete and when you went to the Olympics had to survive on a dollar a day in the hostel. There was an incredible amount of snobbery within the New Zealand Association and the Olympic Association as well. We would bring in thousands to these track meets but had to buy tickets for the evening function and line up at the buffet while the officials would sit at the top table."
Dixon got a lot of criticism about his attitude. "I wanted some respect and equality for what we athletes brought to the show. We needed financial support, but to this day I never got one dime out of anybody to do with the Athletic or Olympic Associations."
In 1973, Dixon had the opportunity to race a season in Italy for about $1500, "that was almost twice as much as I earned in a year." He lapped up the attention. "We ate well, trained in the mountains and had a massage every day- I loved the life of an athlete! I won everything and when I did my laps of honor, I'd blow kisses to the crowd- they loved it. In Europe I learned to be expressive and a proud New Zealander. When I came back to New Zealand and did it, everyone thought I was a bit of a show off."
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Dixon was bedridden with a back injury for the opening of the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. However he managed to fly south and run the race of his life in the fifth fastest 1500m ever - in 3:33.89 minutes. He finished fourth. In 1976 at the Montreal Olympic games , Dixon was among the first four in the 5000 metres when a German runner threw himself a metre across the finish line, ahead of Dixon, who again came fourth. "I was devastated," he admits. So, when Dixon won the New York marathon 1983 in a record breaking time of 2:08:59 hours, he was ecstatic that all the years of competing (and winning) in track and field, cross country, marathon and road races had led him to this moment of pure satisfaction.
In 1991, Runners World magazine voted Dixon ‘The world's most versatile athlete for the last 25 years'. The Wikipedia entry on Dixon says he is regarded as especially outstanding for the length and versatility of his career as a top-flight runner, setting world class times in events from 1500m to the marathon, and winning World Championship medals in track, cross country and road racing."I have had an extraordinarily varied life as an athlete. In the early days I was easily distracted and everything was a challenge to me. But winning a gold medal wasn't that important. I have met so many athletes who put everything into winning a gold medal and then didn't know what else to do in their lives.
"When I actually look at what I have done, there have been many singular achievements all around the world. The varied journey defines who I am," he says.
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Dixon has earned a living in a variety of ways from running, to training and mentoring marathon runners, to corporate sales work, to his most recent position with US-based Kids Marathon This 10 week training programme developed by Dixon, involves children aged seven to 11 running 40 kilometres (a full marathon is 42.195 kilometres) over a 10 week training period, finishing with running the final 2.195 kilometres of a major marathon such as the City of Los Angeles Marathon.
"I am so passionate about my kids programme, I am also involved in the Road Runner program and train thousands of people a year to run marathons. I often stay at the finish line of a marathon and high five people as they go through. People break down in my arms after achieving their goal of finishing - I'm crying almost all day.
"But I get a thousand times more satisfaction when I see kids coming across the finish line. I tell kids that finishing is winning. Imagine marathon day, all the adult runners are on the course, and hundreds of kids run down and finish their marathon distance. They are part of something -the City Mayor is there, their families are there. I'm seeing kids who are changing themselves and their lives through this programme."
However Dixon senses that he is at another turning point in his life, as his current backers, Devine Sports do not plan to continue to invest in his programme. Dixon, himself a father of four, plans to set up a foundation called Rod Dixon's KiDSMARATHON to develop the concept further in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
"For the first time in my life, I'm going to be knocking on the doors of everybody who knows me and has been successful in business, I'll be asking for funding and support for this KiDSMARATHON programme," he says.
Rod Dixon is relatively well known in the States where there are more than 40 million runners and he often rubs shoulders with the rich and famous. Once at an MTV awards, he was standing at the buffet next to movie director Quentin Tarantino and says he made the chef bring out the ingredients to make mint sauce for the rack of Kiwi lamb. "I said to Quentin - ‘this is how you must eat New Zealand lamb.'"
But while business and personal affairs currently keep Dixon in L.A., he returns to his Nelson home each summer when he can. In fact, he talks about Nelson as though he lives here all the time: "I get excited whenever I fly into Nelson. My heart is here. It's important for me to come back and re-energize and remember what the important things are in my life. I have strong emotional, spiritual and physical connections with Nelson."
This story was written for Wild Tomato magazine, 2007
Updated May 1, 2020
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Further sources - Rod Dixon
- Agnew, I. (1976). Kiwis can fly . Auckland, New Zealand: Marketforce.
- Dheensaw, C. (1994).The Commonwealth Games: the first 60 years 1930 - 1990. New Zealand: Hodder. 123.
- Palenski, R. (1998). 100 champions of sport. Dunedin, New Zealand: The Otago Daily Times.
- Romanos, J. (2008). Our Olympic century. Wellington, New Zealand: Trio Books.168.
- Bertram, G.(2008, November 01). The day of Rod Dixon's greatest race. The Nelson Mail. p.6.
- Reading, writing ... and running. (2001, September 01). The Nelson Mail. p3
- Romanos, J. (1990, Jan 22). Magic memories: running on borrowed shoes: Rod Dixon. Listener 126. (2602), 24-27
- Romanos, J. (1995, April 29). Spring in his step. Listener 148 (2871). 68-69.
- Victory Lap - Rod Dixon wins the 1983 New York City Marathon (1999, October) Runners world, p.108
- Whitney, D. (1984, July). Rod Dixon's dilemma. Auckland Metro: New Zealand's first city magazine 37, 28-42.
- Rod Dixon. The official website of the New Zealand Olympic Committee. http://www.olympic.org.nz/gallery/