Cornerstone running coach passes away at 86
Before there was Carl Lewis, there was Al Lawrence. The Sydney native became the first Cougar to win an Olympic gold medal when he took home the bronze in the 10,000m run at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Once he came to Houston he became an influential member in the running community at both the University and the city.
Lawrence passed away on May 15 due to pancreatic cancer. He was 86. Mourners laid flowers throughout Memorial Park, the place he helped transform into a running hub for the people of Houston, in Lawrence’s honor.
“Al was one of the pillars of the University of Houston Track and Field Program,” said Head Coach Leroy Burrell in a press release. “This program would not be where it is today had Al Lawrence not been a Cougar.”
The ’56 games were a great time for Lawrence as he represented Australia on his country’s home track. Lawrence won the 10K bronze medal in 28:35s — a personal best by almost 30 seconds.
Lawrence was in Houston running for the cougars two years later and would call the city his home for the rest of his life.
As a Cougar, Lawrence brought historic success to the cross country team. Earning All-American status, he won the NCAA Cross Country individual championship in 1959 and 1960. In 1960, he helped the Cougars win their only team championship title in history.
Lawrence represented Australia again at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Despite placing fourth in the 5000m, Lawrence had a great career representing his country. He broke 10 national records in events ranging from the 2 miles to the 10K.
He remained a constant presence with the Cougars post Olympics and officially became a coach in the ’80s. Lawrence’s efforts helped carve the path for Olympians Leonard Hilton and Howie Ryan, cross country head coach Steve Magness and senior distance runner Brian Barraza.
In 2014, Barraza became the first runner to qualify for the NCAA Cross Country Championships since 2011. Barraza is the most successful distance runner in recent years, he holds all but one of the men’s track & field distance records.
Lawrence’s influence stretched further than just UH. He was the founder of the Houston Running Community. Lawrence helped press the importance of sustaining healthy habits by encouraging people to run regularly. To this day people can be seen running in Memorial Park as a result of his efforts.
Senior Selena Sierra is the only distance runner qualified for the NCAA West Regional in Austin this weekend. She will be competing in the women’s 3000m steeplechase, an event where she owns the school record (10:31.07s). Though she never trained with Lawrence, his success set the standard for athletes like her and Barraza.