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Mr Garrett and Mr Jordan by Duncan Goodhew

He was a gifted swimmer, yet the young Duncan was plagued by self-doubt. Without the support of two teachers, who taught him to believe in himself, he might never have made it to the Olympics and a gold medal

He was a gifted swimmer, yet the young Duncan was plagued by self-doubt. Without the support of two teachers, who taught him to believe in himself, he might never have made it to the Olympics and a gold medal

I turned up at Millfield, a private school in the South West of England, to interview for a place at the age of 13. I was bald, having had a childhood accident, and desperately lacked confidence. At primary school I had been tied to a chair and put in a dunce's hat, so it's fair to say that I'd had pretty foul educational experiences up to that point.

Millfield's legendary headteacher, Jack "Boss" Meyer, interviewed me and told me there and then that I was dyslexic. I remember staring blankly back at him. The word meant nothing to me.

The school worked hard with me over the years and I managed to get O-levels in maths, geography and commerce, all at grade B. That was it. But because I did well in commerce I started retaking O-levels and doing A-level economics, which was taught by Bill Jordan.

My father had died when I was 15 and my mother had said to me, maybe a year after his death, "I can't afford to keep you at Millfield any longer. What are you going to do with your life?"

It was something of a shock. I realised that my studies weren't going well and that I'd squandered my ability to swim. And I wasn't the only one to spot this. The swimming coach, Paddy Garrett, told me I should consider going to a US university. In the UK at the time there was no sponsorship in the sport, and he knew that getting a place at a US university was the best way of keeping me in the pool. The US was the best place for balancing academics and sport - schools and colleges in Britain just weren't organised enough.

With three O-levels to my name, the move to the US was far from a credible option at first. But Mr Garrett had spoken to Mr Jordan and the two of them did a pincer move on me, one pushing me academically and one pushing me in the pool.

In Mr Jordan's classes, I began to excel. It was something to do with the way that he grounded everything he taught in the real world. He had a lovely, inspiring, conversational way of teaching that drew you in and engaged you. He persuaded me that I was academic enough to pass the standard aptitude test to get into a US university. Together, Mr Garrett and Mr Jordan gave me permission to believe that it was possible for me to not only get there but to excel when I arrived.

My first semester in the US was a bit of a car wreck, but by my final semester I was bordering on a first. Mr Garrett and Mr Jordan had managed, between them, to give me a vision of myself that was very different to anything I'd had previously. This wasn't a discipline thing: it was a good cop, good cop routine. It was inspirational. They told me: "You can do it in the pool; you can do it academically."

When you look at elite sportsmen there are invariably many moments in their lives that get them to the top. But for me, this was perhaps the most significant of those moments: two teachers giving me permission to believe I could do it. I understood at the time the significance of what Mr Garrett and Mr Jordan were doing; I allowed them to help me. They persuaded me to cast off the cynicism and self-doubt.

What they gave me has affected almost every day of my life, every exchange of views. It's become part of me. The theory at Millfield is that everyone has some talent in some area. People need formal, practical support, but crucially they also need permission to believe in their own potential. We don't do anything without that, and we need "permission-givers" around us. I will be for ever grateful to them both.

Duncan Goodhew MBE is supporting this year's Sainsbury's Sport Relief Swimathon. He was speaking to Tom Cullen. To take part in Sport Relief with your school, order a free pack at sportrelief.comschools

In the swim

Duncan Goodhew

Born: 27 May 1957

Education: Millfield School, Somerset, England; North Carolina State University, US

Career: Made his Olympic debut in 1976 while still a student; went on to win gold in the 100m breaststroke at the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. Goodhew now works as a motivational speaker and campaigns for various charities.

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