My best teacher

11th July 2003 at 01:00
I was abandoned as a baby and left to die. The neighbours reported to police that three days had gone by and this baby was still crying in an empty flat in Islington. They smashed the door down and I was taken to hospital with malnutrition.

My life in care started in a children's home in Hertfordshire. Looking back, nobody did us any harm, but there were no cuddles or kisses either. I didn't know my biological parents existed. There was nothing to signify that they were alive: no birthday cards or Christmas cards or anything.

Once or twice, a couple came along to adopt, but they were put off because there was an old-fashioned view that we should stick to our own ethnic sector. I had been brought up on bangers and mash and roast dinners, but I was supposed to be a Muslim.

One day, when I was five, I was told by the matron that my mother was picking me up with a social worker to take me to a new children's home. I was thinking: who is this mother? I had built this image in my mind of how she would be. I was imagining a kindly old granny.

She was a rather large woman with red lipstick, a Turkish Cypriot who spoke little English. There was no warmth. I remember being told by her when I arrived at the new home in Essex to go into the garden to meet my half-brother and sister. She followed me out and talked to them in a language I didn't understand. As she introduced me, she grabbed my collar and said: "If you don't look after your sister, I am going to cut your throat."

Anyway, she didn't want me, so I stayed in the new home. It wasn't a happy time and there were plenty of clashes with the people who ran the home.

When I was 11, social services again thought it would be a good idea for me to go and live with my biological mother. I didn't want to have anything to do with her, but I was told to see how things went. I was treated as a skivvy and beaten with a table leg across my back. One night, her lover raped me. She threatened to kill me if I told anyone. I ran back to the children's home the next day.

I was playing netball for my school against a school called St Chad's when I met Margaret Whitbread. She was a PE teacher at St Chad's and was umpiring the match. I was volatile and often lippy to teachers, and I was giving her a terrible time, questioning all her decisions. She warned me and then warned me again until one of the St Chad's team, who I knew, told me: "You'd better do as she says because this is one adult who means what she says." I managed not to get sent off and thought little more of it.

Not long afterwards, I decided I wanted to learn the javelin and was shocked to be introduced to Mrs Whitbread as the coach at the local club.

When she saw me she said: "You want to throw the javelin? Well, any cheek from you like I had on that netball court and you won't be joining our group." That was the start of a relationship that changed my life. We developed a bond, and I was 13 when she asked me if I wanted to meet her family. We got on great, and there were more and more visits. One day, she asked if I wanted to be adopted. I had found my mother - it is difficult to describe how much that love and security has meant to me.

I moved to Torrells school after I was adopted. Pauline Bullock was the PE teacher. It was a happy but complex time: settling into a new home and a new institution at the same time. But Miss Bullock took me under her wing.

She would talk to my mother and make sure the other teachers understood what I was going through. She was constantly talking to me and putting her head through the classroom window and smiling at me. If I was off school, she would ring up home and ask why I wasn't there. Between them, Mrs Whitbread, Miss Bullock and sport gave me a route out of the hole I found myself in when I was a child.

Athlete Fatima Whitbread was talking to Chris Bunting The story so far

1961 Born in London

1966 Dilkes primary school, Essex

1972 Culverhouse secondary school, Essex

1975 Torrells school, Essex

1979 Wins javelin gold in European Junior Championships

1982 Wins bronze at Commonwealth Games

1983 Wins silver at World Championships

1984 Wins bronze in Olympic Games

1986 Breaks world record; wins European Championships

1987 Wins gold at World Championship

1988 Wins silver in Olympic Games

1989 Career ended by shoulder injury. Sets up sports marketing club, Chafford Hundred

2003 Writing a book to be released in time for next year's Olympics in Athens

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