Physical Education - 'Every Olympian, it's been down to a PE teacher'

15th November 2013 at 00:00
Gold medallist hopes to teach and inspire students of his own

David Smith was born with both feet facing back to front. For a long time, doctors said he would never achieve his dream of competing alongside able-bodied athletes at the Olympics.

And just when it looked like he was about to prove his doubters wrong, medical staff detected a spinal tumour and he was left temporarily paralysed from the neck down.

But last year, Smith confounded the odds to recover and take a gold medal in the mixed cox four rowing event at the London Paralympics. Now he has revealed his hopes to become a physical education teacher.

At the inaugural meeting of a national body for sports teachers, the 35- year-old Highlander paid tribute to the teachers who had inspired his success. "If I hadn't had a positive experience at Kingussie High School, I would never have won a medal in London," he said.

"I came from a council estate, a background that could have really put me off on the wrong tangent. I was in a group who weren't very focused or driven, were always getting into trouble. But two people I really wanted to do proud were Kenny Deans, my PE teacher, and my karate instructor, Dave Wilson."

The willingness of PE teachers to run extracurricular sports clubs was a crucial factor in creating success, Smith said. "If someone's just doing the timetable, that's what they're there to do, but if they go into that volunteering role, you know they're passionate, and that rubs off.

"Those PE teachers might produce the next Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis, as that example is so powerful. I think every athlete who's made an Olympic team, it's been down to a PE teacher at some point in their life."

Smith hoped that the creation of national body the Scottish Association of Teachers of Physical Education would dispel any lingering notion that PE was less important than other subjects. "It's one of the most important parts of the curriculum, because not everyone is going to go to university but everyone can do sport," he said.

"PE teachers could be the foundation of a massive change in health in this country. If they can inspire people into sport, it's going to reduce obesity and diabetes. There's a much more powerful message than just creating Olympians."

He added: "Hopefully, my path will take me into PE teaching. I'd be tremendously honoured to part of a teaching group that I hold massively high in esteem."

It would be a fitting next step in what has been a roller-coaster journey for Smith. In an interview with TESS, the athlete revealed that he had wanted to compete at the Olympics from a young age but that even his mother told him it might be wise to scale back his ambitions.

Nevertheless, he threw himself into several sports, eventually turning to bobsleigh. He was on course to represent Great Britain in that event at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. But he missed out on the qualifying time by less than a second, and soon after that doctors found out what had prevented him from going faster: a large, aggressive spinal cord tumour. He was told he might not live, let alone compete again.

Surgery appeared to go well, but days later Smith woke up paralysed from the neck down. A blood clot had caused further problems and another operation was necessary. That was successful and by this time he had decided that his future lay in Paralympic rowing.

Some 14 months after surgery to remove the tumour, he won gold in the adaptive mixed cox four at the World Championships in Slovenia. Then, in London last year, he took gold at the Paralympics. Now, Smith is preparing for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, where he hopes to compete in cycling.

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