Phillips Idowu

15th August 2008 at 01:00

The most influential teacher in my life was Humphrey Long, my PE teacher. He was a cool guy - old, but cool. He must have been in his sixties by the time I started at Raines Foundation School in Tower Hamlets, London, but he could still do all the sports. He was head of PE when I started and although he was semi-retired by the time I finished, he was still around. He was the first person who took me to a track, the first person who taught me how to triple jump.

I was about 11 at the time, in my first year at the school. I wasn't tall then - I didn't grow until I got to sixth form - but I must have had long strides. He watched me play basketball and noticed something about my strides starting a bit further back than the rest.

Mr Long had been a PE teacher a long time, so he knew when he saw good sports people. We had a lot of future sports stars at that school - footballers and one of my classmates is now a judo player who was at the past two Olympic Games with me.

He didn't have to say much to convince me to go to the track. I was always active and loved sports, so I went as soon as he suggested it. I didn't know that it was going to turn into my career, but he put me on the first steps to where I am now.

Mr Long got me to go down to Mile End Stadium and work with the coaches at Tower Hamlets Athletics Club. I did some bits and pieces at first, just messing around rather than training properly.

Triple jump only became my event after I went to my first English Schools' Athletics Championships in 1997. I won my school's sports day, then did the borough championships and won that, then the school asked me to represent Tower Hamlets at the London Schools Athletics Championships. When I won that they asked me to represent London at the English Schools' Athletic Association - it all snowballed.

I was born and grew up in Hackney, on the De Beauvoir Estate, and that's where I went to primary school. But in primary I was always in trouble. I changed a lot when I went to secondary school; I quietened down and chilled out a bit. It's all down to Humphrey Long. I had a lot of admiration for him. He was always there to help, and if I needed anything he was there to do it. If I needed spikes or other kit he would go out of his way to get it for me.

The school wasn't that big on athletics, it was more into basketball - we were national champions in four of the five years I was there - so I was, literally, the track and field team.

So it was inspired of him that he saw the potential in me for triple jump and guided me in a different direction. It certainly paid off.

He was laid back, that's what I liked about him. I rarely saw him lose his cool with anyone and he related to us. We were all young black kids and a lot of us were from Hackney, but he could relate to our lives. He had this way of getting us involved in the school in all kinds of ways.

I remember playing rugby. I had never played rugby in my life. There weren't any pitches in Hackney and it's not really a sport you do in the inner city, but he got me playing it.

Mr Long understood us and he went way beyond the role of a teacher. He was head coach of the east London basketball team at the time and was involved a lot in our lives outside school.

I haven't kept in touch with him recently. I used to go back to the school and help coach during the summer, and watch the kids compete, which was great fun. Sometimes I go back after I've been to a major championships, or been on TV, and I'll sit in the stands and the kids will look at me thinking: "What's he doing here?"

I gave out some achievement awards a couple of years ago and bumped into him then, but I haven't seen him for a while. I'd like to. I have a lot to thank him for.

Phillips Idowu is the World Indoor, European Indoor and Commonwealth Games triple jump champion. He is favourite to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing. He was talking to Matthew Brown.

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