I never allowed my pupils to say 'I can't do it'

2nd July 2010 at 01:00
A maths teacher is the subject of an experiment to discover whether an `ordinary' person can become an Olympic pentathlete. And, as Meabh Ritchie reports, her motivational skills are proving useful

Natasha Hunt's living room looks out on to fields of galloping horses and rolling hills. There are no other houses in sight, just a livery yard and the odd tractor. It is a far cry from the view over the playground that, until recently, was her daily vista.

Sitting at her kitchen table, with three dogs lolloping around, Miss Hunt looks as if she cannot believe her luck. "That's my office," she says, gesturing out of the window. "I can't complain."

A few months ago, she was a maths teacher whose idea of exercise was taking her dog for a walk. But for now she is taking a break from the classroom to concentrate full-time on an audacious experiment: to see if it is possible to go from a standing start to an Olympic athlete in just four years. Her training regime began on the last day of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. If all goes to plan, she will be turning out for Great Britain in the modern pentathlon in London 2012. "I'm someone who always wants to try new things," she says casually. "I can't remember what I used to do beforehand. It is a way of life."

The idea was thought up by Rob Parsons, a gym instructor who had been mulling over the idea of putting an ordinary member of the public through their paces to test their absolute physical limit. After coaching so many people and helping them achieve their goals, he was keen to see if someone could raise the bar to Olympic standard. All he needed was a suitable candidate, and this maths teacher from Sussex seemed to fit the bill.

When Miss Hunt joined the gym she had no ambition other than to get fit. "I was a bit soft round the edges," she admits. "I was always wanting to lose that half a stone." But while she may not have been physically fit, what she did have - and what Mr Parsons spotted - was a positive attitude.

"I was always that kind of teacher," she says. "My pupils weren't allowed to say `I can't do it.' I got them to say, `I find this bit difficult' or they would tell me which bits they didn't understand. But I was always a positive teacher, and I think I'm a positive learner. If you believe you can do something, then invariably you can do it."

Initially, she was put through a series of fitness tests to see if the potential was there. At 5ft 11in, she had the physique and the aerobic capacity, if not the level of fitness or technique. Mr Parsons then enlisted a team of coaches and experts who were willing to give up their time to take part in the experiment.

At first the signs were not promising. The modern pentathlon combines riding, shooting, running, swimming and fencing. Although Miss Hunt has been riding since she was 11, she was a complete beginner as far as the other sports were concerned. She admits she hated PE at school, and swimming in particular proved an ordeal. "I got into the pool, swam 25 metres and nearly died," she says. "I couldn't even do the warm-up."

But Miss Hunt was determined not to fall at the first hurdle. She persevered and can now run comfortably for an hour-and-a-half, and completes a daily 3km swim. She has also proved herself a bit of a natural at shooting and fencing.

For the first 18 months, Miss Hunt combined her rigorous training regime with her day job teaching maths at Oakwood School, an independent school in Purley, Surrey. She got up at 6am for a workout before school, and would continue her training once the school day was done.

Eventually, trying to fit training for the Olympics around a full day teaching maths proved too much, and she is now taking a sabbatical from school to pursue her dream. "Team Tash", as the group was dubbed, has managed to win some sponsorship and Miss Hunt supplements her income with a job as a part-time fencing teacher. A typical day now begins with mucking out her horse, then she's off to the pool for her daily swim, followed by fencing, shooting or running, with horse riding to finish.

To help her prepare for the psychological demands of competition, she has started to learn neuro-linguistic programming, which works on the links between behaviour and experience to try to change attitudes. "I have had to learn to enjoy the gratification you feel afterwards rather than the nerves and the terror of knowing what's to come," she says.

But there is still a long way to go. She chose to compete in the pentathlon on the grounds that, although there are five sports to master, the standard in each one is not as high as for athletes specialising in a single sport. But the British trials last winter were a bit of a shock to the system, when she came 22nd out of 30.

She has also chosen a sport in which Britain has traditionally been strong, winning four of the 12 medals available, including one gold, since the women's event was introduced to the Olympics in 2000. Four British women achieved the qualifying standard for Beijing, but there were only two places. Among those who missed out was Mharii Spence, ranked 15 in the world but only the third best in Britain.

"The level of performance of athletes is very high in this country," says Peter Hart, chief executive of Pentathlon GB. "We have got some of the best women pentathletes, if not the best, in the world." He was not surprised Miss Hunt struggled in last winter's trials. "I think it was quite a new experience for her," he says. "In some sports, you can come out of nowhere, but when you are battling against one another, as you are in fencing, it is tough."

Pentathletes usually have about six years' training under their belt before they can mount a credible challenge at international level, he says, and the majority will have already trained hard in one particular discipline for years before that. Most pentathletes at international level are under 27, while Miss Hunt is 30, and the majority of the British pentathletes spent their teenage years swimming, running or horse riding, moving to specialise in the five disciplines as they get older.

This year's hopefuls train at a national centre at Bath University, where they have access to top-of-the range facilities, all funded by UK Sport. Her base may be picturesque, but Miss Hunt is operating on a comparative shoestring. "She is going to struggle unless she has a really good summer," adds Mr Hart.

Even her coaches acknowledge the enormity of the task. "She will have to have the perfect storm to win," says Greg Whyte, a former modern pentathlete and now a sports science professor at Liverpool John Moores University. Professor Whyte knows what it takes to succeed, having competed in the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics. He also has experience of taking non-athletes to a high standard: he coached comedian David Walliams for his swim across the Channel as well as Eddie Izzard for his feat of completing 43 marathons in 51 days.

"An Olympic athlete needs the right pre-determined genetics, in terms of physical ability and capacity for injury, and the right psychological attitude," he says. "Natasha is attempting to do this in only four years, but you need incredible willpower even to get to this stage."

Despite the doubts, Miss Hunt is determined to carry on in the belief that her can-do approach and the expertise of her support crew will carry her through. She has also been buoyed by interest in the concept of turning an ordinary member of the public into an Olympian in four years. She has appeared in newspapers and magazines, as well as on television, which has led to claims that it is all a publicity stunt. Not surprisingly, Miss Hunt dismisses these suggestions.

"It is not glamorous or famous at 6am," she says. "It is wet and cold. Your muscles ache every time you have to step out the door, but you have still got to go and run for an hour. If I wanted to be famous, I would have gone on Big Brother and flashed my pants."

The publicity has had an upside, though. Her Olympic effort has no official funding, so she has had to rely on free equipment and bulk supplies of energy food that have resulted from her media appearances. Her coaches are donating their time, intrigued by the possibility that she could succeed and what that can mean for the rest of us.

"We want ordinary people to believe that they can aim high," says Mr Parsons. "We also want to dispel some myths about the Olympics along the way, one of which is that you have to have been training since you were 10 years old."

Despite his reservations, Mr Hart agrees. "The concept is what the Olympics are all about - inspiring people to get off their backsides," he says. "I think it shows that you have got an open and transparent system that any able person like Natasha can compete."

Of course, if she fails, it will be a major disappointment. She has already devoted two years to the project, and could spend another 18 months training before she discovers if she will make the British team. True to form, she is looking on the bright side. "The very worst that can happen is that I have got very fit," she says.

But she will also have a new set of skills to fall back on. After she qualified as a fencing instructor, she has starting providing lessons for schools. "Rob and I have developed a legacy with the fencing which can only get bigger and better and I am proud of that," she adds.

Even now, two years in, there are still times when the challenge seems almost overwhelming. But having come this far, she is determined not to give in.

"I still get nervous, especially when it is a speed session, because you know it is going to hurt - you know you are going to feel dreadful," she says. "But you have got to push yourself. Otherwise it is not going to happen."


- Fencing

Athletes take each other on in bouts of up to one minute.

- Swimming

200m freestyle swim in a pool.

- Riding

Competitors are given a horse chosen at random, just 20 minutes before going into the riding arena where they complete a showjumping course.

- Running and shooting

Athletes combine a 3km run with three bouts of target shooting.

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