New Drewe Book Salutes the Amazing Johnny Day



This grainy old pic is of Aussie lad Johnny Day (1856-1885), an extraordinary little lad who became the fastest pedestrianist – long distance walker –  in the world! He later jockeyed the gelding Nimblefoot to victory in the Melbourne Cup!
After more than a century, author Robert Drewe has brought him back to life, celebrating his story in new book Nimblefoot. Robert chats to The Starfish:

Did you grow up knowing about Johnny Day or was he a relatively recent discovery? 

I only discovered Johnny Day accidentally and relatively recently, in 2015, when I saw a small portrait of him in the National Library. He was unknown to me, and everybody else I mentioned him to, even though he was an amazing child athlete and world champion. His fame but anonymity interested me as a writer.

To those of us who had never heard of him, what makes him so fascinating?

He was fascinating because he was a world champion pedestrian, or long-distance walker, between the ages of nine and twelve, competing against adults, winning millions, and then he became a jockey, and at the age 14 he won the Melbourne Cup. Then he disappeared from view.

Johnny was so young when he died: when he did so had he already faded into relative obscurity, or was it front page news?

He faded into obscurity immediately after winning the Cup, which was why he interested me enough to write about him.



Where did you do most of your research?

Most research these days is done on-line, and through the sites of State and national libraries.

Did your research include giving pedestrianism a go?

I give pedestrianism  -walking – a go every day, though my knees give me trouble these days.

It’s quite an undertaking, having to “re-imagine” a person’s life but keep it authentic and plausible for the era; did you know what you were in for or was it tougher than expected?

I really enjoyed the research and didn’t find it tough, partly because, sensibly, I introduced Johnny to places and landscapes that I was familiar with.

How long did it take you to write the book?

It took three years to write. There were several breaks due to sad family events.


Robert Drewe
Despite Johnny’s only living to 28, do you think by and large he had a happy life and was able to bask in some of his great sporting successes?

I think the real Johnny was having a happy life until he was 14. From then, we don’t know. That’s the point. The fictional Johnny was on the run from evildoers for several years, from the age of 14, but then he lived happily ever after.

What feat do you think is more noteworthy in this young man’s life: his pedestrianism or his Melbourne Cup win?

I think both efforts are equally noteworthy. But his “feet feats” take the cake for happening when he was so young, and against adult competition.

Who will this book appeal to?

I hope this book will appeal to readers from teens to the elderly: to every Australian, in fact.

Nimblefoot (Penguin Random House) is out now.


Robert Drewe photograph by Tracy Drewe