John Moreland is a history teacher at one of Britain's top public schools. But he is also a past master at throwing the discus, winning championships at international and club level. Andy Farquarson catches up with an expert in his field.
Some people might think chucking a pizza-shaped lump of metal around a field is a pretty ridiculous pastime. But not John Moreland, a 41-year-old history teacher and champion discus thrower.
Mr Moreland has taught history at Rugby public school since 1988; he was head of the subject until last year, when he relinquished the post to become a housemaster. But he also throws the discus at international and club level, somehow finding the time for the gruelling training regime necessary to maintain his competitive edge. On top of all this, he is a qualified inspector for the private sector.
So how does he fit it all in? "It's not really a problem," he says. "Although athletics builds up in June and July, many of the key matches are in late July and August, during the summer holidays." In fact, he says, being a sportsman brings professional benefits. "Athletics training demands a lot of self-discipline, and that can be applied to lesson preparation, marking work and so on. Also, at a boarding school, pupils and staff take part in many extra-curricular activities. For example, as well as teaching I also coach pupils in rugby. The kids definitely respect and take an interest in their teachers' outside achievements."
So when did he discover his flair for the discus? "I enjoyed most sports at school and first threw when I was 15. I seemed to take to the discus naturally," he recalls. It was a talent encouraged by his PE teacher to good effect. "I represented my school at district and county level. At 16, I competed in the under-17s English schools championships and later threw for England in the under-17 international against Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."
As a student, he threw for Oxford and gained a blue. And after graduation, he joined a major Oxford and Cambridge combined athletics tour of the United States and threw against teams from Ivy League universities.
Since then, Mr Moreland's sport has often taken him abroad - he has thrown in Canada, Portugal, Morocco and South Africa. Nearer to home, his family roots in Belfast make him eligible to represent Northern Ireland. "I competed in my first championships there in 1990 and I've been over every summer since," he says. He has won the province's discus championship seven times in the past 10 years and holds the Northern Ireland record with a throw of 51.76 metres.
Club sport is also important. He throws discus, hammer and shot for the local Rugby and District Athletics Club. "Throwers are a comparatively rare breed in club athletics," he explains. "Our club has a team of three - me, UK silver medallist Gary Herrington, who's my coach, and Matthew Twigg, who is a teacher at a local comprehensive." With this line-up, the club won the Midland League division one competition.
John Moreland maintains his fitness by running, refereeing rugby matches and working-out on a rowing machine. As the athletics season approaches, his training intensifies with a 12-week strength-building routine using weights. This is followed by throwing exercises in the gym. "I use medicine balls of up to five kilos. I practise single and two-handed throws, up to 200 a session, working with Gary. Once the weather improves, I do three or four weekly outdoor throwing sessions and reduce the weight training and gym work."
What does he think about recent high-profile cases where field athletes have tested positive for muscle-building steroids such as nandrolone? "Steroids can have dangerous side-effects," he says. "They shoul be avoided like the plague."
Discus is a sport where age can be a positive advantage; experience counts for a lot. "Some experts say perfecting your technique can take up to 10 years," he says. "I'm still learning - I was 37 when I threw my best-ever distance."
When he turned 40, he qualified as a veteran and competed in the world veteran championships in Gateshead last summer and in the British veteran championships in Edinburgh, where he won gold in shot, discus and hammer. This season, he intends to compete in the European championships in Finland and - he hopes - the world championships in Brisbane in 2001. Last year, he also took part in his first throwing pentathlon - discus, hammer, shot, javelin and 35lb weight, gaining 10th place in the world veterans' ranking.
Although John Moreland has taught various aspects and periods of history, his personal interest centres on England and Europe during the 16th century. At Rugby - immortalised in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays - he encourages his students to explore the subject's byways. "My upper sixth are delving into witchcraft during the 16th and 17th centuries - I hadn't planned that, the interest came from them."
As a private school inspector, a position appointed and administered by the Head Masters' Conference, he says: "We carry out inspections to Ofsted's guidelines. In fact, our inspectors are themselves inspected by Ofsted. However, we try to make inspection as non-threatening and unbureaucratic as we can. It can be a positive process, a chance to help schools optimise their performance, a real confidence-booster. The HMC-member schools foot the bill so we also try to work as cost-effectively as possible."
He says he's learned a lot from appraising other schools' work - "it's a two-way traffic"- and has enjoyed some unexpected fringe benefits. "One of the schools owned a cope (a ceremonial cloak) used by Henry VII's chaplain and some even earlier gold reliquaries. Seeing those was fantastic."
Perhaps the discus appeals to the historian in Mr Moreland - the sport stretches back to biblical times. He smiles: "It's an interesting thought. Certainly when I've covered classical history at school, we've studied the friezes and talked about how the Greeks sent peace treaties engraved on the discus. But I don't take my sport too seriously - and ifthe kids think throwing the discus is a slightly ridiculous activity, they're polite enough not to say so."
UK Athletics (0121 456 5098) is the governing body for the United Kingdom. The Amateur Athletics Association (0121 452 1500) organises the sport in England. More than 1,300 local athletics clubs are affiliated to the AAA
TURNING IS THE KEY TO A PERFECT THROW
Throwing the discus is technically complex, and an intellectual as much as a physical challenge, says John Moreland. He explains the technique: "It calls for a rotational movement - you start off facing away from the throwand have to turn one-and-three-quarters. You have to twist, maintain the maximum leverage on the discus, keep a smooth rate of acceleration, and then release.
" You have to be fast and relaxed at the same time - if you tense your arm, it pulls in, reducing the radius and leverage. Throwing the discus is less body-wrenching than the javelin or shot. Discus throwers don't rely so much on that burst of energy - they need to be strong and fast of course, but the throw is less explosive."
For the men's event the discus weight is two kilos; for women it is one kilo. Height is a bonus for either sex, says UK Athletics' technical director for throws, John Trower. "To be really successful at discus, you need to be over 6ft - the former world champion Lars Riedel is 6ft 7in, for example."