“THE Guisborough Flyer" was the fastest man on the planet who set three world records and won two Olympic medals and whose achievements more than 100 years ago have only recently been overtaken.

Williiam Reuben Applegarth was born in May 1890 in Union Street, part of which at least still stands. It is at the Gisborough Priory end of town, near Prior Pursglove College where a wing bears his name.

The Northern Echo: Willie Applegarth on the cover of Boy's Own in 1914 when the magazine hailed his as Britain's most famous athlete

He was one of eight children. His father, Henry, was a grocer from Stockton and his mother, Harriet, came from the Guisborough Bulmer family and still has descendants in the town today.

Willie showed some promise as an athlete – he was trained by a Mr Cummings from Middlesbrough – but it was when, aged 16, his family moved to Hammersmith in London that he really took off. He became a post office clerk, joined Polytechnic Harriers and in 1910, set a British record of 9.8 seconds for the 100 yard dash, breaking the 10 second flat record that Darlington’s Arthur Wharton – the first black professional footballer – had set in 1886.

In 1912, he became the Amateur Athletics Association’s 220 yard champion, and was selected for the Olympic team.

The Northern Echo: Stockholm Olympics poster 1912

That July in Stockholm, in the 100 metres, Willie finished second in his heat behind the American Don Lippincott, but didn’t progress further than the semi-final.

In the 200 metres, as the English champion, he was one of the favourites and raced to the bronze medal, again behind Lippincott.

It was in the 4 x 100m that he struck gold – perhaps one of the more fortunate medals.

He teamed up with Welshman David Jacobs, Scotsman Henry Macintosh (who would die in the fields of France during the First World War) and Englishman Victor Henry Augustus D'Arcy – who was known as "Vic" to the Guisborough Flyer.

They were beaten in the semi-final by the American team only for the Americans to be disqualified for an illegal baton changeover.

In the final, Willie on the first leg set up a useful lead, but it was gradually whittled away until Vic and the German runner, Richard Rau, crossed the finishing line in the same time: 43.4 seconds.

The judges needed to adjudicate. Their first decision was that the British team were just ahead at the line, and then came a second decision that on the second leg, the Germans had been outside the 20 metre box when they’d completed their handover. They were disqualified, leaving the British the undisputed gold medallists.

Willie’s career peaked after the Stocktholm Olympics, when he set world records for the 200 yards (19.8 seconds) and the 220 yards (21.2), plus a joint worldie for the 100m (10.6).

In 1913, he was the undisputed British sprint champion, and so Guisborough was all agog when the news broke that as he was racing in the north, he’d be holding a training session on Peacock’s fields (now a supermarket) in his hometown.

The Northern Echo: Willie Applegarth with 1912 Olympics coach, Sam Mussabini

There was no charge for admission, and so a huge crowd gathered. They were not disappointed as Willie twice equalled his 9.8 second record over 100 yards – no one had ever run that fast over that distance in the country before.

In 1914, the Boy's Own magazine called Willie "Britain's most famous athlete". This may be because he was writing a column of athletic hints for the magazine, one of his toppermost tips being: "Don't be a silly billy and don't take piffling little steps."

However, he was a strict teetotaller and non-smoker. Having spent five years in the Territorial Army, he advocated military style training, eating the plainest English food, washing each morning in cold water, and running with dumb bells.

He also liked to have buttons down the front of the shorts which he felt supported his waist muscles.

In another article in 1914, he advised: “Live healthily in all ways, train carefully, go to your mark full of courage, finish ‘all out’ and whatever the result, you will have done everything that you can.”

Willie was coached by Sam Mussabini, a masseur who used the lastest photography techniques to study his runners’ actions and point out improvements. Another of Mussabini’s charges was Harold Abrahams, whose successful quest for the 1924 gold medal is immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire, and Abrahams is said to have modelled his style on Willie.

Willie turned professional in 1915, and drew big crowds. He emigrated to the US to earn a living as a coach, although he briefly played soccer for Brooklyn.

For 30 years, Willie worked as a welder with the General Electric Company.

He died in Schenectady, New York, in 1958 – the year his British 100-yard record was broken. It stood at 9.8 seconds, and the current 100 yard world record is held by Asafa Powell of Jamaica in 9.07 seconds; Usain Bolt has only managed 9.14 seconds.

It took until the 2004 Olympics for Britain to match what Willie, Vic and the others had achieved in 1912 and win a gold in the 4 x 100m. The winning time in Athens of Jason Gardener, Darren Campbell, Mark Lewis-Francis, and Marlon Devonish was 38.07 seconds, whereas in Stockholm it had been 42.4.

But Willie, of course, was running on grass with buttons up his shorts to keep his waist in. What could the Guisborough Flyer have achieved on a modern track with modern technology on his feet and modern training methods under his belt?