Fred Housden was a wiry, tough little man who'd won the Military Cross. He used to send me encouraging poems he'd written about my races

1st July 2005 at 01:00
The best teachers I ever had were two men I met after I left school, Fred Housden and Billy Smith, who saw my potential as an athlete and helped me develop my very average talent to become a world record holder. I owe my Olympic gold medal to them 100 per cent.

I'd had a lot of negative experiences at school, mainly because of my difficulty learning to read. I must have been seven or eight when I overheard one master at my prep school saying to another: "If you have all day, try listening to David Hemery read." I was labelled "slow" and struggled until I was nine or 10 before it was discovered that I was dyslexic and so near-sighted I couldn't see the blackboard.

Looking back now, my overriding memory of my schooldays is of longing to get out on the sports field - football was my great love then. I found it distressing to sit still in class. Fortunately, I was extremely good at maths and got my 11-plus to go to Endsleigh in Colchester (probably because the exam was mainly based on IQ). English lessons were particularly difficult. When told to write an essay I'd gaze at the blank sheet of paper and wonder how on earth I was going to think of 300 words to put on it.

Fortunately, Miss Frost, the teacher, appreciated my other attributes. When a social misfit joined the school she asked me if I would be his friend. My family moved to the United States when I was 12 and I went to Colorado junior high school, where I was the social misfit. I only stayed six months before moving to Thayer Academy in Braintree, Massachusetts, where I put all my energy into sport and took to hurdles like a duck to water. I found I could run almost as fast over the hurdles as I could on the flat.

I came back to England soon after leaving school in the US. I started working in a bank and was introduced to Fred Housden, who had written a book with Geoff Dyson, the guru of athletics. Fred was 76 and was training a group of international athletes at the track near my home in London. He'd been a maths teacher at Harrow and he applied his sharp brain and patient methodical approach to coaching athletics. He modified my hurdling so my high point was two inches before the hurdles, so I stepped down over them.

Within weeks I was running faster. I won the three As junior championship that year as a 17-year-old. Fred was extremely fit; a wiry, tough little man who'd won the Military Cross. He had a keen sense of humour and developed the charming habit of sending me encouraging poems he'd written about some of my races.

I went back to America to go to university in Boston and there I was coached by Billy Smith. Whereas Fred was kind, and if I said I was feeling tired on Tuesday he'd say, "See you on Thursday, then", Billy had no mercy.

He worked on the physical side of my performance while Fred continued to work on technique when I came back to England in the holidays. Billy was incredibly insightful in picking the right workout for the day that would fit in with my progression and suit my body's capabilities. He could read me on the track, and if I seemed bright-eyed and bushy-tailed he'd suggest a tougher workout than if it was the morning after I'd written a paper through the night.

These two men allowed me to fulfil my potential physically and to see what was possible. I'm convinced everyone, not just me, has more potential than they demonstrate and my career now is about helping people achieve more than they think they can. I really admire Jack Meyer, who set up Millfield, where I taught briefly. He believed that if you allow a child to do an activity where they shine - whether it be music, arts, sports, whatever - during the school day, everything else lifts up around them. That's how you stop children looking out of the window in lessons.

Olympic athlete David Hemery was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1944 Born Cirencester

1949-54 Frinton prep school, Essex

1954-56 Endsleigh school, Colchester

1957-62 Thayer Academy, Massachusetts

1964-68 Boston University

1966 Wins Commonwealth Games 110 metre high hurdles

1968 Breaks world record to take gold medal in 400 metres hurdles, Mexico Olympics

1969-70 Teacher training, Oxford University

1971-72 Gains master's degree in international education at Harvard

1985 onwards Runs training courses in coaching and mentoring skills

1999-2002 President of UK Athletics

July 7, 2005 Publication of How to Help Children Find the Champion within Themselves (BBCBooks). See review, page 17

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