My best teacher - Sir Steve Redgrave

7th January 2011 at 00:00
The Olympian credits his love of rowing to his form tutor, who always went the extra mile for pupils

It is fair to say that I was no academic at school. I went to Great Marlow School, a comprehensive in Buckinghamshire, and it's there that I found rowing.

I had a pretty easy life at school. I was the tall, big guy who didn't get picked on. I was only once pulled up in front of the deputy head. There were five of us boys who had been messing around - four got the slipper but I was just told off.

I got on very well with most of the teachers and was reasonably well- liked, but it was Francis Smith, the head of English and my form tutor in Year 8, who I most looked up to.

His two loves were rugby and rowing. We were mostly a football-playing school and I was reserve goalie for the school team. I also played cricket for my house - anything to get out of lessons.

Rowing was definitely not a mainstream sport at the school, but Francis asked me if I would like to give it a go. I must have been about 13 or 14 at the time and was a good head taller than the average boy, so I was the right height for a leverage sport.

We would go down to the Thames during games on a Wednesday afternoon. I loved it but found the co-ordination quite hard to grasp at first. Twelve boys from our year started out rowing but just the four of us kept going with it. We ended up going to the river every day after school.

The school was on the other side of town to the river, so we would always meet at Francis's car and he would drive us there. After the session, he would drive each one of us home as well.

Once he had dropped us all off, it would have been a 15-mile round trip for him. It was all in his own time and at his expense. It was Francis's enthusiasm that made the difference to me. He had come across rowing during teacher training, and although he wasn't that good at it he loved it.

He was more of a trainer than a coach. He would make us work hard but he wasn't that big on technique. It seemed to work, though: as under-14s, we entered seven competitions and won seven.

We had a very friendly relationship with him. Outside of school, we called him by his first name - Francis, or people also called him Ricky. Things were easygoing, but we still had great respect for him. I guess the difference was we had a bit more freedom outside of school, and on the river that was allowed to blossom.

He was cross-eyed and he got a little bit of teasing about that. If he looked at you directly, you knew you could get away with stuff because he wouldn't see. But no one really messed around with him. He was a very strict disciplinarian in school. I remember one or two kids from very large, disruptive families were in his class, and he would get them to do physical challenges when they misbehaved.

He taught English in an old science lab, which had big wooden tables and high stools. He would make the naughty boys come out to the front, kneel down and hold the stools out in front of them. They would last a matter of seconds. Instead of looking tough, they were made to look like fools.

I think he saw my potential. I was still with him when we tried to compete in the Junior World Championships. We just missed out.

I left school at 16 and became a single sculler. Francis wasn't that experienced at sculling so he got me another coach. But Francis was still captain of the Marlow rowing club so it was easy to keep in touch.

We still see each other about twice a year. He looks the same now as he did 40-odd years ago. He has the same dry sense of humour. He was obviously very proud when I won the gold medals and was always there with a funny one-liner.

If it wasn't for Francis, I would never have got into a rowing boat. And without his passion and enthusiasm, I wouldn't have had the experiences I went on to have. Perhaps I would have played rugby and been good at it, or maybe I would have been terrible. I'll never know.

Sir Steve Redgrave is a five times Olympic gold medal-winning rower. He is an ambassador for Gleeds, management and construction consultants, and was talking at the first birthday party for the Transformation Trust, an education charity: www.transformationtrust.org.uk. He was talking to Hannah Frankel.

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