TENACIOUS on the track but passionate to helping other athletes strive for their best, Ballarat is mourning one of Australia's best middle distance runners.
Graham Crouch, affectionately known as Gruffy, died late this week aged 71 in Germany, where he lived with wife Elke. He had been diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Crouch's death came as a shock to his hometown Ballarat's athletic community where fellow runners paid tribute a "skinny, fit man" who had always been out running.
His was an era coming on the back of the likes of legendary Australian middle-distance runners Ron Clarke, Herb Elliott and John Landy.
But Crouch's efforts were perhaps understated in Australian running folklore. Australian sports journalist Paul Daffy later wrote Crouch's name was "etched into legend as part of a historic race...He was to play a large part in what is widely regarded as the greatest 1500 metres race in the history of the event."
He was to play a large part in what is widely regarded as the greatest 1500 metres race in the history of the event.Paul Daffey
That race was at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. It was a 1500m final loaded with Olympic medallists as well as European and African champions and his New Zealand rival John Walker. Crouch entered as Australian champion.
Tanzanian Filbert Bayi was the man to beat and had revolutionalised how the 1500m was run with a sub-two-minute split for the 800m mark ahead of the Games.
Bayi was ahead and took looks over his shoulder while clear in front leading into the bell lap. The chase was hot and in right in the mix was Crouch who, at 168 centimetres tall, dubbed "the little Australian" in BBC commentary.
WATCH the 1974 Commonwealth Games 1500-metre final below
Bayi held on to win from Walker in a time of three minutes, 32.16 seconds, breaking American Jim Ryun's world record by almost a second. Walker also cross the line under Ryun's best. Crouch was fifth in 3:34.42, breaking the Australian record Herb Elliott set at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Five runners in that race captured their country's national records.
Crouch went on to reach the 1500m final at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, a feat that was not matched by an Australian until Ryan Gregson in the 2016 Rio Games.
Crouch grew up in Ballarat where his parents owned a grocery store in Pleasant Street. He went to Ballarat Clarendon College and went on to a successful career as an accountant that, in his retirement from athletics, allowed him to travel the world and follow track meets.
Crouch would train at Lake Wendouree, up Mount Buninyong and in the Nerrina and Creswick state forests but it was at age 20, recruited to the powerful Box Hill athletics club, that his running really took off.
Fellow Olympian Steve Moneghetti grew up knowing about Crouch and, when Crouch was back in Ballarat, would often run with him up Mount Buninyong.
"We don't fully realise how well loved he was in athletics...He was in an era with some huge names and the Kenyans were starting to run well. He ran fifth in the Commonwealth Games final but we seem to take for granted what he really achieved," Moneghetti said.
"Gruffy would never talk about himself. He was very much a man in the moment, always asking how you were running. He was a guy who never lived in the past."
Moneghetti said Crouch was a "track nut" and was always on for a chat about athletics, with an outstanding knowledge and passion to back it up.
Crouch would split his time between Australia and Europe, mostly based in Germany for the northern summer.
Long-time friend John Walsh had been set to host Crouch at his Ballarat home in February. A fellow College graduate, Walsh ran with Crouch under his tutelage at Box Hill Athletics Club and they fast became friends.
Walsh said Crouch had a reputation for being one of the toughest competitors on the track and always got others excited to get racing on the start line.
"He was easy to be coached by because he'd been there and done it," Walsh said. "He never expected you to do anything he had or would not do in training."
Professional runner Greg Whitecross said Crouch came out to watch the Ballarat Gift handicap meet a few years ago and was generous in his advice.
"He'd say it's not speed work if you do it in flat shoes, you had to wear spikes," Whitecross said.
"His best advice though was simple: speed, speed, speed."
Crouch was twice named Ballarat Sportsmen's Club sportsperson of the year (1974, 1975). He was inducted into the Ballarat Sports Museum Hall of Fame in 2002.
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