Two-time Commonwealth Games gold medal winner, Mike Bull, talks to Audrey Watson about writing his autobiography and taking up pole vaulting again at the age of 74
Q Many athletes write their autobiography during or just after their sporting careers end. What’s taken you so long?
A I actually started writing the book many years ago in 2002, when I sold my gym (Mike Bull’s Health Studio) and house in Bangor and went to live full-time in Spain. Someone said to me, ‘If you’re going to go and live in Spain you may as well do something positive — write a book’. So I started back then.
I wrote the manuscript in about six months and brought it to an agent in London who promptly lost it.
I didn’t have a copy — no one had a copy — so for 15 years, despite all my efforts trying to locate where it was, we never found it.
It was all lost until my daughter Natalie, got on the case and decided she was going to find it and really went to town on the agent.
It was found just lying on the floor in some dusty corner.
Natalie presented it to me at Christmas 2017.
It was the best Christmas present I ever had.
I found a brilliant publisher, Tim Johnston at Ballyhay Books, but when I first showed it to him, he called and told me the first chapter was total crap and to write something interesting that would make him want to read more.
I put down the phone and thought about it, and you know what? He was right.
That’s the way a coach will talk to you — ‘go away and improve on it’, ‘tighten up on this’, ‘you need to present this better’.
So, I sat down and started writing a new chapter and when I showed it to him, he said, ‘That’s it, Mike. This is better. Now I want to read more’.
I went off and did more re-writes and it’s taken about six months to get the book ready for publication.
Q Your gym was very successful and you were working as a Strength and Training Coach with Ireland and Ulster Rugby. Why did you give it all up?
A In 2000, my father died really suddenly while he was training. He was 80 years old and suffered a massive heart attack. Then within nine months, my wife Chris died suddenly aged only 54, in 2001.
The idyllic lifestyle ended. Within less than two years, I’d lost my father and best friend and also my wife whom I’d been with since I was 17. Our two children had flown the nest and I was left wondering what to do with my life.
I resigned from the Ireland job and sold my gym to the first person who offered me some money for it, and I also sold my house in Bangor and went to Spain with my little pot of money to live in an apartment on the beach in La Cala, which I had owned since 1986. I needed to think and decide what to do with my life.
I’m back living in Northern Ireland now, but I still have the apartment in La Cala.
Q You speak a lot in the book about your father, John. Was he a huge influence?
A Oh yes. All of my early successes were down to him. He was from Bristol, and during the war he was a chief petty officer in the Royal Navy and was involved in the Siege of Malta. He was six foot two and was a gentle giant.
He was a massive sports fan and was into everything from being a black belt in Judo to playing rugby for the inter services. After the Navy, he worked as a PE teacher.
He didn’t actually push me that hard. Because of his background, the first thing he wanted me to do was learn to swim, so he taught me at a very early age. I became a really good swimmer and was very good at other sports too.
My mother, Anne, always wanted me to be a priest and the father wanted me to do something in sport — one of them was going to be disappointed.
Mum was a hairdresser from Armagh who was working in Belfast. She met dad at a dance. I was my father’s only child, but my mother was a war widow. Her husband had been killed in the Normandy Landings, so dad inherited three children — two brothers and a sister, who were all about 10 years or more older than me.
My sister lived with us for a while, before moving away to America and because they had all been living in Belfast during the war, my two step-brothers had been moved out of the city to live with their grandparents in Banbridge.
I was born in 1946 and my father then concentrated all his energy on me. He obviously saw that I was going to be good at sport. He had a terrific physique himself and I inherited his physical characteristics — a good, all round natural athlete.
He didn’t know if I would make the grade, but he gave me every chance and luckily enough, I had the right mental attitude as well.
It was a very happy childhood. I grew up in Sunninghill in north Belfast and the early days for me were just going to school and being good at sport.
I wasn’t stupid, but I never did any work. All I wanted to do was train and do sport, I just did every sport.
In 1963, when I was 17, I got offered a sporting scholarship to Illinois University and my dad said that I could only go if I passed my A-levels (the results were due two weeks later). I got my exams and headed off to America three weeks later.
Within 12 months I was living in America and started to do really well and at the age of 18, I became a British International and was second best pole vaulter in the country. I never had to buy another pole or piece of equipment after that.
You weren’t given any money, but you were given every opportunity for clothing and stuff like that, which was good. And I made 69 international appearances for Great Britain over the next 12 years, which was the record for 30 years before Colin Jackson beat that record. He did 70.
I did really well in Illinois academically and was able to transfer straight into Queen’s in Belfast to complete my degree and also continue pole vaulting.
Q You retired from competitions in 1975 at the age of 30. Why stop when you were still relatively young?
A In those days, 30 was quite old. And as we were just amateur sportsmen we didn’t get paid. By that time, I was married with two young children so I had to think about a career.
After, I left Queen’s I had worked as a teacher for a while and then after the Munich Olympics in 1972, I got a lectureship post in philosophy at Ulster University.
It was the first well-paid, full-time job that I had had. But I kept on training and in 1974, I won my second gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the Decathlon. I also took home silver in the pole vault event that year.
In 1975, I was still the best in Britain and my record still stood then. In 1976 a young boy that I had been coaching in England and London beat my record — the record that I had held for 10 years. His name was Brian Hooper.
I knew then that it was the end. I was 30 years of age. My protege had taken my record and he was going to be the number one.
So I thought, okay, what are we going to do now? While teaching at university was good, I wondered if there was more that I could do with my reputation and celebrity in Northern Ireland.
So, I resigned from my lectureship and opened the gym in Bangor.
I also had a 10-year period of doing a lot of television work presenting sports programmes.
Q Where did the interest in philosophy come from?
A I was interested in psychology and philosophy. While in America, I had become interested in psychology and in particular the way it can help you in sport. But I was academically better at philosophy, because psychology requires a lot of experiments and time taken in laboratories, etc, whereas philosophy doesn’t.
You can still be a pole vaulter and travel the world as long as you are reading and studying. It fitted in with my lifestyle.
Q Are you watching the Olympics? How do you think having no live audience will affect the athletes?
A Obviously it’s not the same as other years, but it is brilliant TV, and as long as nothing happens Covid-wise, the competitions will be great. The fact that there are no spectators won’t bother the athletes.
I competed in two Olympics (1968 and 1972) and it wouldn’t matter if there’s a million people in the arena, or none. It just wouldn’t, because you’re so focused that you’re in a kind of little cocoon and all that matters is the competition and the task at hand.
I know the crowd can spur you on and I did get a lot of help from the crowd during my first Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1970, when I won my first gold medal. But none of this year’s athletes will have crowd support, so all their focus will be on the competition.
I love watching it and wouldn’t miss it.
Q I believe you’ve started pole vaulting again at the age of 74. What brought that on?
A About six months ago in the middle of the pandemic, the NI Pole Vault coach, Jim Alexander, phoned and asked if I would come and watch his young athletes training in a closed session and of course I ended up having a go.
Despite old injuries, I found I still knew what to do and could still do it — though obviously not like I could before.
But I still train and work out every day. And I’m not disgracing myself. I’ve still got good technique, but I know that you can’t reach the heights that you did when you were young guy.
I’d really like to be able to clear a half-decent height and if the World Masters (over 40s) Championships ever get going again I’d like to compete in the 70-80 years category. I won it in 1991, at the age of 44, and I’d like to win it again at the age of 75.
It’s not easy, the old bones are delicate, but during the pandemic it gave me great focus. And it’s a wee target.
Q The last chapter in your book lists four reasons to be happy. What are they?
A The first is a girl called Lynda. I met Lynda in 2005 when I was training in the gym at the Marine Court Hotel in Bangor. Lynda’s husband had just died and she was a keen athlete and sportsperson, so we had a lot I common. We don’t live together, but we see each other every day.
The second is receiving an OBE for services to sport and charity from Prince Charles in December 2012, the year of the London Olympics. Lynda, my son Gavin and daughter Natalie accompanied me to Buckingham Palace. My dad would have been so proud.
The third is receiving a timely morale boost in the form of being named in 2015 as Britain’s joint Greatest Ever Pole Vaulter after research conducted by world leading athletics statistician, Mel Watman. I share the honour with the late great Geoff Elliott.
The fourth reason is my wonderful children and grandchildren.
Both Gavin and Natalie inherited my passion for sport as have their own children. I’m immensely proud.
Mike Bull: An Olympian’s Story (Ballyhay Books, £12) is out now. www.cottage-publications.com