Della Pascoe, Olympic sprinter who helped to break a world relay record – obituary

Della James, as she then was, in 1969
Della James, as she then was, in 1969 - Colorsport/Shutterstock

Della Pascoe, who has died aged 74, was one of the best British women’s sprinters of her era, competing in two Olympic Games and breaking a relay world record; in retirement she raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for hospices.

Della Patricia James was an only child, born in Portsmouth on March 28 1949 to Joan, née Farmer, and Doug James, an engineer for Kenwood Chef mixers. She caught the athletics bug early, at primary school: she was thought to be a shy child, and was encouraged by one of her teachers there, Mr Tutton, to take up sport.

She joined Portsmouth Atalanta Ladies Athletic Club; there, coached by her father, she soon showed great potential – even if one PE teacher at school ended one of her reports with “could do better”. After secondary school Della attended Portsmouth College of Art.

The quartet that broke the world 4x200m relay record in 1968, l-r, Val Peat, Janet Simpson, Della James and Maureen Tranter
The quartet that broke the world 4x200m relay record in 1968, l-r, Val Peat, Janet Simpson, Della James and Maureen Tranter - Derek Cattani/ANL/Shutterstock

She rose through the county and regional championships and stood out at the All-England Schools Championships, winning the 220 yards in 1965, the 100yd the following year and the 220yd again in 1967. Leading Peter Hildreth’s Daily Telegraph report of those championships was Alan Pascoe, “the boy with the greatest developed talent”, who won the 120yd hurdles in a meeting-record time.

By then he was being coached by Doug James, who had noticed Pascoe training by himself and invited the lad to join his group. James’s coaching talent produced nine international athletes; he had been a fine sportsman himself, and that, combined with his engineering skills, made him a superb coach. As Alan Pascoe put it, “like Sebastian Coe’s father [Peter, another engineer who coached his child] he understood the mechanics of running.”

Della moved to London Olympiades, a club packed with internationals, and she made her debut for Britain in 1966. She was part of the British quartet, alongside Val Peat, Maureen Tranter and Janet Simpson, that set a world record of 1min 33.8sec in the 4x200m at Crystal Palace in 1968, which took even East Germany’s dope-fuelled sprinters numerous attempts and several years to beat. Then at that year’s Olympic Games in Mexico City she reached the semi-finals of the 100m, along the way setting a British record of 11.36sec which lasted for six years.

Della and Alan Pascoe in the early 1970s
Della and Alan Pascoe in the early 1970s - Bentley Archive/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

Della and Alan married in 1970 – their honeymoon was the World Student Games in Turin – and that year she represented England at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh at 100m and 200m. Then in 1972 at the Munich Olympics, by then competing as Della Pascoe, she ran alongside Andrea Lynch, Judy Vernon and Anita Neil in the 4x100m quartet; although they finished only seventh in the final, in pouring rain, they broke the British record in the process. She also reached the quarter-finals of the 200m. Alan, meanwhile, won a silver medal in the 4x400m relay.

Throughout her career, Della was hugely successful at the National Championships, winning 12 senior medals, including indoor 60m gold in 1967, 200m gold in 1969 and 100m gold in 1972, but at the end of the following year injury forced her into premature retirement at the end of a foreshortened and frustrating season. She had been overlooked for the Commonwealth Games team despite excelling in the trials, and there was a suspicion that she was being punished because Alan was becoming an unflinching critic of the UK athletics establishment.

Della James in action at Crystal Palace
Della James in action at Crystal Palace - Ed Lacey/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images

During her athletics career, she worked as a teacher in creative arts, becoming a head of department in Southall, west London, but retired following the birth of her daughter.

Subsequently, Della Pascoe devoted much of her time to bringing up her daughter and son, while also supporting her husband as he established his internationally renowned sports marketing agencies.

She also committed herself to fundraising, at first for Lady Eleanor Holles School in Hampton, London. She became patron of a local hospice team that took part in the London Marathon – and was able to call on Britain’s distance king David Bedford and the European 10,000m champion Jo Pavey.

Della Pascoe in 2009
Della Pascoe in 2009 - Getty Images

Della Pascoe opened up her garden each year for a garden party in aid of the Princess Alice Hospice, raising more than £250,000 over the years – a similar sum to the money raised by her marathon exploits.

When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1999 the garden parties became too much for her, but after a couple of years’ break she created a scaled-back version which raised money for the Sunbury Walled Garden Gallery.

Della Pascoe was an accomplished dancer, and particularly liked tap-dancing. She also loved the theatre and travelling – Patagonia and Kenya were two particular favourites.

Della Pascoe is survived by Alan and their son Daniel, and daughter Lucy, who became a world champion in Sports Acrobatics.

Della Pascoe, born March 28 1949, died June 22 2023

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