Carrying the torch

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Teachers have always figured prominently in the British Olympic squad. But this year, as big money continues to squeeze out amateur athletes, their numbers are down to a mere dozen. Steven Hastings talks to some of the Sydney hopefuls who are still proud to be part-time

Twelve teachers used to chasing children around draughty playing fields are preparing instead to chase medals in Sydney. Some who spend their lives watching Bunsen burners now have their eyes on the Olympic flame. But there are fewer of them than ever before. Of the 308 competitors Britain is sending to this year's games, which officially open next Friday, only a dozen come from the teaching profession. In fact, take away the hockey players, and the number of teachers going to Sydney could be counted on one hand.

"It used to be very different," recalls Adrian Thomas, coach to the men's 400-metres team and deputy head at Glan Afan comprehensive in Wales. "The squad used to be bursting with teachers. But sportsmen and women were genuine amateurs then. Nowadays National Lottery cash (see box page 10) means top performers no longer have to hold down a job. Many choose to be full-time athletes."

Indeed, given the demands of a career in teaching and the level of professionalism that now pervades even minor sports, it is something of a miracle that staffroom superstars still exist. But they do - and among them are some genuine medal contenders.

Hayley Tullett will compete in the 1,500 metres. Since 1998, the 27-year-old Swansea-born athlete has been teaching PE and science part-time at Hoe Bridge prep school in Woking, Surrey. She is married to pole-vaulter Ian Tullett, a silver medallist at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and head of PE at Hall Grove school in nearby Bagshot.

Combining teaching with international athletics is a juggling act, but when your husband is attempting the same trick, married life can become something of a circus.

"It's hectic, to say the least," says Hayley. "But in some ways it helps. We both appreciate the hours involved - I often don't get home from training until 11pm - and we both understand the emotional highs and lows that come with athletics.

"On the other hand, outside of holidays we hardly see each other. We work in different schools, we train in different places. There's no opportunity to train together because our events have nothing in common."

She starts the day with a run locally, but the serious training takes place in the evenings at a track in Horsham. "My coach organises a schedule. It's varied - speed work, stamina work, weights and exercises. This takes about four hours and is followed by a massage, to loosen up the muscles, which can last up to two hours. By the time I've driven home, I'm shattered. Then it's up in the morning for another run before work.

"I couldn't do it and work full-time. I do half a timetable. My husband does a three-quarter timetable, but that's a struggle."

The Tulletts' two events are often scheduled to take place simultaneously. At last month's Olympic qualifiers in Birmingham, the clash provided Hayley and Ian with a potential distraction.

"Walking past the pole-vault area to the start, I could see Ian going through his warm-up. But you have to stay focused on your own preparations. Once I'd finished I was straight over to see how he was doing."

It proved a day of mixed fortunes for the Tulletts. Hayley's win in the women's 1,500 metres was emphatic - a sharp turn of pace on the final lap marked her out as one to watch in Sydney. But Ian failed to get into the team, finishing in sixth place.

Though the manner of Hayley's Olympic qualification was impressive, it came as no surprise. Under the guidance of coach Mark Rowland, she has been enjoying an outstanding season, clocking up personal bests at 800, 1,500 and 3,000 metres. A definite case of hitting form at the right time.

She attributes some of the improvement to six weeks' training in the United States before Easter, much of it spent doing the altitude work that middle and long-distance runners find so beneficial. "The school is brilliant about giving me time off. I had to take half a term's leave to do the altitude work in Colorado, and it will be another half term's leave for the games themselves. And they never seem to milk it for publicity; it's never 'Hayley Tullett - British athlete'. They just think I do a good job. Recently, I was given responsibility for girls' PE throughout the school, which I was delighted about."

The bursar at Hoe Bridge admits that Hayley's absence "does cause inconvenience. But it's not a major problem and it's one we're happy to live with because she has so much to offer. We knew the situation when we appointed her so we can't complain."

She is ranked a category C athlete, which means she receives up to pound;5,000 subsistence from lottery funds to cover loss of earnings when she takes leave. An upgrade to category B would offer the chance to become a full-time athlete, but she insists that idea doesn't appeal. "No, I don't think it's necessary. In any case it would do my head in - you need something else to think about."

Scottish international hockey star Rhona Simpson is part of a 16-strong British squad. She teaches PE full-time at Hutcheson's grammar school in Glasgow, but lottery funding has enabled her to take a year's leave to prepare for Sydney.

She broke her left forearm at a training camp in February and her first thought was that she would miss the Olympic qualifiers in March. But when an X-ray two months later showed the fracture failing to heal, she feared the Olympics themselves might be out of reach.

"The doctors said I had a choice. I could give it more time or they could operate and try a bone graft. This was April, three months away from selection. I couldn't afford to wait so I opted for the bone graft and, luckily, it worked out. But for a long time I thought I might not be fit."

As part of the 1996 hockey team which just missed out on a medal - losing on penalties - Rhona was more determined than ever to be involved in Sydney. With her arm in plaster, she trained ferociously on an exercise bike and even devised stick routines that she could do one-handed. Fortunately, Rhona could devote all her energies to getting fit. A pound;13,000 award from the lottery fund allowed her to prepare full-time for Sydney. She says it would be impossible to combine teaching and playing during an Olympic year. "It's hard enough to combine them at the best of times. When I'm working, I can do the fitness work in the mornings and evenings, and being a PE teacher you are always active during the day. But hockey is a team sport and there's only so much you can do on your own.

"That means we spend most of our time at training camps, where we can work as a unit, and we play tournaments at home and abroad. In total, the team have been away from home for 26 weeks in the past year. It wouldn't be fair to the school to try to combine this with work - I'd be on leave far more than I was teaching."

This is the first Olympics in which lottery money has been available, and Rhona believes it will make a difference. "Hockey players need the support - it's still very much an amateur sport."

Robin Kuhl of the English Hockey Association says that in the days before this funding many hockey players would lose their jobs. "Employers often lost patience. Even if they didn't, players were left scraping the bottom of the barrel, taking unpaid leave all the time. Those with families faced a difficult choice."

Four other members of the hockey squad for Sydney are also teachers. Rhona says they sometimes talk about teaching when they get together. "It's interesting to hear what other schools are doing and we share ideas," she says. "I've even taken teams on tour to play against some of my team-mates' schools." Will returning to work seem strange, after a year devoted to hockey? "I'm looking forward to it. I've missed not being involved at Hutcheson's this year. I've been into school several times when I've been back in Glasgow, just to keep up to date on what's happening."

In some ways, she says, she enjoys teaching netball and volleyball more than hockey - "it just makes a change" - but for her young hockey players the thrill of being coached by a British international is undeniable. "Rhona represents a level of excellence which our young players can aspire to," says Hutcheson's rector, John Knowles. "She is not just an excellent teacher, she is also a role model. The courage she's shown in coming back from injury is a real inspiration."

As a schoolgirl, Rhona's main passion was showjumping; hockey only began to take over at university. "They are two very different sports, but what made me finally choose hockey was that feeling of being part of a team," she says.

It's the team spirit within the British camp that convinces Rhona they can come back with a medal. At 28 she thinks it will be her last Olympics - "though I never say never" - and, as an experienced forward, she believes the onus will be on her to score the goals that could fire the team to glory. "It's going to be a tight competition. There isn't one outstanding team and it could be that whoever gets lucky will get the gold. I just hope that's us."

Canoeist Andy Train competes with his brother Steve in the pairs event. This will be their fifth Olympics - a British record matched only by rower Steve Redgrave. Andy, 37 (he'll be 38 during the Games), works full time at St Nicholas middle school in Pinvin, Worcestershire, where he teaches across the curriculum.

As the Train brothers cut through the calm waters of the River Avon, their balance and symmetry seem effortless. It's hard to believe that pairs carries a reputation for being almost impossible to master. "Technique is the key," admits Andy Train. "In the early days we were very fit, but we didn't have the technical expertise of the eastern European teams."

That changed in 1990, when they teamed up with former Olympic champion and canoeing guru Istvan Vaskuti. Under his instruction they switched positions - Andy moving to the front of the boat - and within a month they had shaved 15 seconds off their best time. After a decade under Vaskuti's mentorship they feel a medal may be within their grasp in Sydney.

Such an achievement would represent a remarkable triumph for the dying creed of amateurism. To Andy Train the job comes first, the quest for Olympic glory second. He abandoned a career as a solicitor to become a teacher - "teaching was just more me" - and completed his PGCE in 1996. On the assumption that Atlanta would be his last Olympics he took up a full-time post at St Nicholas, close to his training waters. "We finished sixth in Atlanta. Then we won a bronze medal at the world championships, which made us think maybe our best was still to come. We decided to give it one more shot."

But Andy is in no doubt where his priorities lie. In the past three years he has had only a handful of days off work and is distraught at the prospect of the Olympics falling in term-time. The canoeing authorities wanted him to travel to Sydney well in advance of the games. Instead, he insisted on working the first two weeks of the new term. "If he'd gone any earlier," explains his wife, Alison, "he wouldn't have been able to focus because he would have felt he was shirking his responsibility."

Nor will Andy forget school entirely when he jets off to Sydney - he plans to provide his pupils with an Olympic diary via e-mail and video conferencing. (It's no surprise that he was a regional finalist in last year's national Teaching Awards.) "His energy levels are just way off the scale," says a friend at his canoeing club. "You might think that at weekends and holidays he would take it a bit easier, but he's still down here training early in the morning so he can spend the day working with youngsters and beginners."

But Andy says that having 20 years' experience means he doesn't have to train as intensely as he used to. "Fitness is still important - I'm up at about 5.30 each morning to go running and I do weights in the evening - but the canoeing technique is in place now. It's just a question of a couple of hours on the water after school for fine tuning."

According to Alison, by the end of the last school year this hectic lifestyle had taken its toll. "He looked like a skeleton. He'd lost a lot of weight and was surviving on less and less sleep. It's lucky the games weren't in July or he'd have struggled."

In an Olympic career spanning 16 years, Andy has watched at first hand the steady march of professionalism. "There is less camaraderie now. The sense of the Olympics being about people reaching out across cultural or sporting boundaries is disappearing. Athletes arrive, they focus on their event, and they go home."

In contrast, he has always relished the wider experience of the games - the closing ceremony fireworks, tickets for the last night of athletics, or the Princess Royal appearing on the riverbank to cheer him on. In an age when many sportsmen and women are self-obsessed and single-minded, Andy Train has a healthy sense of perspective.

Alison Train has been to the last two Olympics to watch her husband compete. But Sydney is too far. This time she will be relying on alarm clocks and haphazard television coverage. "Minority sports such as canoeing often get overlooked. I may need to get a satellite dish. Or I may just have to sit by the phone and wait for Andy to call."

She relishes the prospect of more family time together after Sydney. But Andy is wary of suddenly stopping the intense training that has been part of his life for the past 20 years. "I will ease down gradually - and I intend to stay in shape." But no more Olympics? "No," says Alison. "No more Olympics."

The British Olympic Association operates a scheme called Open (Olympic and Paralympic Employment Network), which is designed to make employers aware of the benefits of having Olympic and Paralympic athletes on their staff. The aim is to help match athletes with companies which are sympathetic to their need for flexible hours and leave. To find out more about the scheme, contact Sue Walker, British Olympic Association, 1 Wandsworth Plain, London SW18 1EH. Tel: 020 8871 2677. Website:


The World Class Performers programme was established in 1997 to offer financial support for elite athletes. About pound;50 million of lottery cash is distributed annually through the sports councils.

Each sport's governing body lays down criteria for achieving "world-class performer" status. This is based on past performance and world ranking. Athletes must be deemed potential Olympic or Paralympic medal winners. The awards cover training expenses, including travel and equipment. They also compensate athletes who have to take time off work to train.

The level of subsidy varies according to medal potential, with athletes rated A, B or C grade. Particular backing is given to sports that attract no corporate sponsorship. There is also a World Class Potential programme for teenage athletes who are considered possible stars of the future.

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