Lift me up

21st April 2006 at 01:00
Few could balance a full-time teaching post with training for the Commonwealth Games. But one weightlifting PE teacher tells David Mattin she couldn't have won gold without her students

Michaela Breeze flitted across our television screens last month, in triumph. Decked in the red of her Welsh ancestors, she powered her way to a weightlifting gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. But Ms Breeze's circumstances make that formidable achievement even more impressive. After all, how many of her competitors had to write three weeks' worth of advance lessons plans for Years 7 to 12 before they boarded the flight to Australia?

That's business as usual for the 26-year-old, a PE teacher at Ivybridge community college, a specialist sports college in Devon. She combines full-time teaching with a heroic training regime. "It's an exhausting schedule," she says, "and it leaves little time for anything else. But I just get on with it." Her gold medal for Wales places her among an elite group of teacher-medallists at this year's games, which includes England's Sue Gilroy, a Barnsley primary teacher who took gold in wheelchair table tennis.

Michaela Breeze started weightlifting as a teenager, and was competing in international competitions at 14. A bronze at the 2003 European championships preceded her triumph in Melbourne, where she broke the games record by lifting a massive 100kg in the snatch competition. So how does she combine world-class weightlifting with drizzly hockey lessons, pupil assessments, and staffroom meetings?

"First, I have a training session at lunchtime," she says. "That's only 50 minutes. Then I'll do two and a half hours after school. At weekends I'll either be training, or travelling to competitions. And sometimes I'll do a 6.30am start in the gym, if I feel that I'm falling behind.

"I'm home by 6pm. Then it's lesson planning and paperwork, and bed by nine.

I know that's early, but I'm exhausted by then.

"I've wanted to be a PE teacher since I was a girl; my dad was one too.

Sport gives children a chance to shine in school who otherwise might not, and I get huge satisfaction from seeing that."

The gold medallist was back at work the day after returning from Melbourne last month. And the demands of her job don't end there; this year part of her training grant from the national lottery paid for a supply teacher during the three weeks she was at the games.

"Everybody at the school has been supportive. It's a small community here and I'm always getting stopped in Tesco. The kids loved it when I brought the gold medal in to school.

"With parents, I'm sometimes fighting the preconception that weightlifting is bad for you, but it's safe if it's done properly. We use extremely light weights. It's not my aim to turn pupils into weightlifters. I want to teach them basic fitness and self-discipline, and how to lift a heavy box without putting out their back."

For those children who are keen, though, Ms Breeze runs an after-school weightlifting club, and currently has some junior international competitors among her training group of around 30 pupils aged 11 to 18. That means more extracurricular hours, spent driving a minibus to competitions nationwide.

Her pupils' energy and enthusiasm, she says, are a vital part of her success.

"Sometimes I think it would be nice to be a full-time athlete," she says.

"But when I'm low, I gain strength from the pupils in my training group. If I trained alone, I think I'd fall into a rut, but within the group there's a camaraderie; we feed off each other. It's inspiring."

Good news, given that the European championships, in Poland, are just a week away.

Michaela Breeze appears on A Question of Sport on May 5 at 7pm on BBC1

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