Canada’s best middle distance runner of the late 1940s and early 1950s who was often chosen for prestigious roles and duties, surprisingly Bill Parnell could have succeeded only as a runner.

Growing up in North Vancouver, Parnell tried high jump, basketball, soccer, and softball with limited success. He loved football and had the size for it, but North Van High couldn’t find a helmet big enough for him and at 170 lbs, he was 25 lbs over the junior football weight limit.

One day while Parnell was struggling yet again to clear the high jump bar and succeeding only in jarring it back to earth, his high school track coach suggested he try the half-mile because the school had no one in the event. All he had to do was meet the qualifying standard of two minutes 25 seconds. On a quarter-mile gravel circle he huffed and puffed with three seconds to spare. A half-miler Parnell would be.

Early on his training was limited to purposefully leaving for school late and sprinting the three quarters of a mile from home with his books in a pack. At lunch, he would run the distance back as well. His hidden talent finally began to show itself his Grade 11 year at the Vancouver & District Track Meet where he won both the half-mile and the mile in record times, while anchoring North Van’s relay team to victory.

At that time Parnell began training on weekends at Hastings Park with Bill Dale, who had been one of Canada’s best distance runners of the late 1930s. He confided in Dale that he would likely be forced to give up running as his family lacked the funds to send him to university and he was considering entering the merchant marine. Seeing young Parnell’s talent up close, Dale put in a good word for him with Washington State University track coach Jack Mooberry, who offered Parnell a full ride scholarship and he continued on to the NCAA.

Progressing rapidly at Washington State but still struggling with pacing himself, Mooberry came up with the solution that Parnell carry a stopwatch while he ran, a technique Parnell used for the rest of his running career. Parnell also trained regularly with American international runner and FBI agent Fred Wilt, who was stationed nearby.

At age 20 Parnell represented Canada at the 1948 Olympic Games in London, competing in the 800m and 1500m. In 1949, he raced to a third-place finish in the mile at the US Nationals, setting a Canadian record of 4:09.6. The AAU ranked him as the third-best 800m runner in the world and he was awarded the Norton H. Crowe Memorial Award as Canada’s outstanding amateur athlete. Two years later, he was named an All-American by the NCAA.

Before that though the highlight of his running career undoubtedly came at the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland, New Zealand. While settling into the Athlete’s Village, Parnell had struck up a friendly verbal duel with Kiwi rival Morris ‘Mossy’ Marshall. One day Marshall found himself walking in front of Parnell on a pathway.

“Better get used to looking at my back, mate—‘cause you’ll be seein’ lots of it come the mile!” laughed Marshall.

“You’re wrong there, Mossy,” Parnell jested back, “I’m only too glad to watch your backside now because I won’t be seeing any of it when we hit the track.”

On race day at first it looked like Marshall would be proven correct. Running on Eden Park’s grass track in soggy conditions, Parnell waited until the final 200 yards to out-kick both home crowd favourite Marshall and the favoured English runner Len Eyre to win the mile race in a BEG record time of 4:11.

Over four seconds faster than his season best, the result was so unexpected organizers struggled to find a Canadian flag for the medal ceremony. Parnell’s BEG record would stand until Roger Bannister and John Landy duelled in the famed ‘Miracle Mile’ four years later in Vancouver. Earlier at the 1950 Games, Parnell also won a bronze medal in the 880 yards. Returning to Vancouver following his victory, he was honoured with a large civic reception complete with motorcade, flags and bunting, and a half-dozen tugboat escort tooting their horns for him as the City of North Vancouver declared the occasion, “Bill Parnell Day.”

The 1950 BEG was also life-changing for Parnell in an even more significant way as well. On the three-week voyage across the Pacific aboard the Aorangi to get to the Games, he’d grown close to a young swimmer from Victoria named Joan Morgan. They fell in love and two years later were married. Their marriage lasted over 55 years and produced four children.

At the 1952 Olympics, Canadian officials gave Parnell the honour of carrying the Canadian flag into the Olympiastadion in Helsinki during the Opening Ceremonies, a moment he often called the proudest of his athletic career.

When the 1954 British Empire & Commonwealth Games came to Vancouver, Parnell was chosen as the Canadian BEG team captain and read the athlete’s oath during the Opening Ceremonies at Empire Stadium. By then working as a teacher, he laughed afterward that all his worrying about the speech had been for nothing: “It was just like reading to one of my school classes.” He retired from international competition following the 1954 Games. He was later inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1977.

Following his running career, Parnell taught physical education and coached football, basketball and track and field at Delbrook High School from the day it opened in 1957 until the day it closed in 1977 due to a major fire. He resumed teaching at Handsworth High School and retired as a teacher in 1988, but continued coaching Handsworth athletes until the spring of 2008 at which time the North Shore Secondary Schools’ Athletic Association recognized him with a 50-year-coach award. The countless number of athletes and students whose development he assisted over that period is testament to his unswerving dedication to BC sport.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.