Mr Smith by Sir Steve Redgrave

25th April 2014 at 01:00
The most successful rower in Olympic history remembers the man who introduced him to the sport

If it weren't for Francis Smith, I might have been a rugby player. Despite growing up in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, a town known for its rowing club, I never considered rowing; it seemed to be very much a private school sport, and I was more interested in rugby.

Mr Smith was head of the English department at my local state secondary, Great Marlow School, as well as being my form tutor and the person who introduced me to rowing.

We weren't a big rowing school, but Mr Smith was captain of Marlow Rowing Club and very enthusiastic. He asked a few of us to join the school rowing club.

In my year, 12 of us tried it; within three weeks just four of us were left. But we loved it: we thought it was great fun doing it once a week in games lessons and soon we were going down to the river almost every day after school. Mr Smith made it fun and engaging.

I had two relationships with Mr Smith, however. One was coach-to-athlete, which was outside school and in which I called him Francis. Then there was the relationship in school, which was very different. Within school, Mr Smith was a strict teacher who was able to control a classroom really well.

One year, our form room was in the old science block, with high benches and tall, heavy stools. If there was any misbehaviour during form time, he would make you kneel in front of the class and hold those stools up. If you were classed as quite tough and disruptive, that brought you down to size quickly.

But I didn't rebel or become a troublemaker - I was a goody-goody.

Mr Smith was someone you had to respect, but he still communicated well with the students and had a very dry sense of humour. He was able to get across English literature, which I would class as a boring subject, in a manner that everyone could engage with.

I was dyslexic and struggled in class, certainly with languages. I found most written work quite difficult. I was always conscientious and did my homework on time but I struggled to keep up with the group.

I was better with my hands, in the practical subjects such as woodwork and metalwork. But my real love was sport; I was always more comfortable in my sports kit. And it was this side that Mr Smith really encouraged to blossom.

I was a reasonable sprinter and even made the district championships. When I started rowing, my speed ended up getting better. I won the cross-country run one year.

I wasn't going to go on to further education or university. I was probably destined to join the family building business, but sport and rowing got in the way of that.

I'm still in contact with Mr Smith, but I haven't seen him for the past couple of years. He still lives in the Marlow area. He would always avoid publicity: he was invited to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year when I won in 2000, but he didn't attend.

I know he's proud of what I've achieved, but he's the type of person to make a funny comment or pull your leg rather than congratulate you.

Sir Steve Redgrave was speaking to Darren Evans. Sir Steve supports Sporting Promise, a partnership between Sporting Pro, Matalan and the Youth Sport Trust, which ensures that children across the UK can participate in sport in school. The free initiative supports 11,000 primary schools with the delivery of PE and school sport, and promotes alternative sports in secondary schools.

Striking gold

Sir Steve Redgrave CBE

Born 23 March 1962, Marlow, Buckinghamshire

Education St Peter's Street School, Marlow; Burford School, Marlow; Great Marlow School

Career Most successful male rower in Olympic history, having won gold medals at five consecutive Olympic Games from 1984 to 2000


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