This sporting life

18th March 2011 at 00:00
School of Sport at Bellahouston Academy creates young athletes good enough to represent Scotland in the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. But physical prowess is only part of it

There is a poised and easy grace about young athletes that transmits itself to anyone nearby, even when all they are doing is standing still or strolling around. But the soothing feeling vanishes when the gymnasts at Glasgow School of Sport start tumbling across the huge hall and their high-speed handsprings, cartwheels and somersaults take our breath away.

It lasts only a moment. Tensions ease and smiles return when the capacity audience realises that, 10 feet in the air and spinning like Catherine wheels, the slender bodies and strong minds are still in control. It's an exhilarating display, one high point among many in the spectacular showcase at Bellahouston Academy.

"People say they don't know what School of Sport does," says director Angela Porter. "So we wanted to share our students' success and give them a chance to demonstrate what they can do."

No fewer than seven young students, past and present, competed in the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games as part of Team Scotland (see panel), including Olympic hopeful Michael Jamieson, pipped for gold by a tenth of a second in the 200-metre breaststroke.

The silver he won that day was Scotland's first medal in the event for 36 years. But, for Michael, who speaks from the podium, the memory still smarts. "Thanks for allowing me to watch the last five metres of that race again," he says with a wry smile.

Kareena Marshall, now a physiotherapist and Scotland hockey player, recalls her time at the School of Sport, with its hard conditioning sessions: "When your legs are swimming in lactic acid and you're thinking of every excuse to get out - that's the difference between good and world- class athletes. Here, at the school, you're urged to take that extra step by some of the best coaches in the country."

Sporting prowess is only part of it, she says. "I learned valuable life skills. I'm an expert in time management. I gained the confidence that lets me speak to you today. I learnt discipline. You don't just become an athlete. You leave here a well-rounded, confident, capable individual, ready to tackle whatever life throws at you."

Identifying and nurturing talent from an early age is what Scotland's only specialist sports school has been doing, with steadily growing success, since 1999. Two of its current students - Carly Smith (S3) and Cara Kennedy (S2) - have already been selected for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014. Fresh from their spectacular gymnastics display, the girls are smartly dressed and set to go shopping.

"We've been friends since we were seven," says Cara. "We met at the trials to get into the Glasgow squad. We've been doing gymnastics even longer, though," Carly adds. "We started at Jumping Jack classes, which are for lively toddlers."

Becoming good enough to put on a breathtaking performance like today's takes that long, Cara says. "We train four to six hours every day, except Wednesdays."

Having a close friend all the way makes a difference, says Carly. "We encourage each other, particularly when one of us is scared of doing something. Our coaches do that too, but it's nice when a friend says you can do it."

Balancing schoolwork and training can be a struggle, says Cara. "But the thought of a gold medal at the end keeps you going. It gives you a glow."

Gymnasts start younger and succeed earlier, Angela Porter points out. "They say it takes 10,000 hours to master any sport - or, indeed, anything else. So whether our students are gymnasts, swimmers, hockey or badminton players or athletes, they get a big chunk of those 10,000 hours - in school hours and outside them - during their time with us."

This is just as true for swimmers such as Michael Jamieson, now approaching his peak at the age of 22, and gymnasts such as Lynne Donaghy, who peak earlier. She represented Scotland as a 14-year-old in the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

"Competing for your country at that age was amazing," says Lynne. "I was aiming for the Commonwealth Games in 2006, too, but I injured my knee and had to retire. I'm still a bit gutted."

Now a graduate nurse at Yorkhill Hospital, Lynne looks back with fondness on her time at School of Sport. "I was one of the first seven pupils, two gymnasts and five hockey players. The school has expanded so much since then. It's great to see it so successful.

"I learnt such a lot here, because you did your sport and the academic side at the same time. You learnt to prioritise. It made you strong. Gymnastics will always hold a bit of my heart. But I love nursing and working with children - and it is nice to have a social life."

Fresh from a weightlifting demonstration that got the audience more pumped than the students, 14-year-old long-jumper Joseph Amouzou says it's all good at School of Sport. "The training is the toughest part. Being able to do that helps with your school subjects. Time-management is important. We get taught that by coaches.

"School of Sport has helped me so much. I used to think of myself as a weak, skinny boy. When I was young, I'd never have believed I could do the things I do now."

It's an effect that is not just limited to a few, Angela Porter believes. "We coach our students to become top performers - national and international athletes. But there is a wider effect. They go out to their communities. They become role models and ambassadors. They coach young people. They inspire them."

There is a knock-on effect, too, on mainstream pupils and teachers at Bellahouston Academy, says head Ian Anderson. "I wondered what was in it for us, when I first came here six years ago. What does the main school get from having these students and coaches on campus and in school?" Infectious optimism is an important part of it, he says.

"There's a positive approach, a feeling of starting each day afresh. Senior students here become prefects and buddies, so there is social as well as curricular integration. There is motivating learners through active involvement in their own learning. There is setting targets. We learn about monitoring and tracking pupil progress from the coaching model used."

What stands out most clearly at School of Sport at Bellahouston Academy is that the students are on a journey, says Mr Anderson. "There is a sporting journey and a learning journey. Neither ends when students leave. The journey goes on, right through their lives."

School of Sport at Bellahouston Academy is a collaboration between Glasgow City education service and Glasgow Life:

The road ahead

What does the future hold for the Glasgow School of Sport in tough financial times? And how secure is its funding?

A spokesman for the Scottish Government told TESS: "The previously ring- fenced funding for national centres of excellence, including the School of Sport at Bellahouston Academy, was rolled-up into the local government finance settlement with effect from 1 April, 2008. For Bellahouston, the funding was pound;575,000.

"Although the provision for national centres of excellence is still used in the needs-based distribution formula, there is no separately identifiable funding. If a council were to withdraw this service, this could impact on the future funding allocations for that council.

A spokesman for Glasgow City Council said: "We have no plans to change any aspect of School of Sport."

Magnificent seven who competed in Delhi

Kenny Bain (hockey): "I've got so much experience and I'm quite talented. But sometimes talent doesn't get you anywhere. It's about hard work and dedication."

Kirsty Gilmour (badminton): "You don't know many people in the Scotland team. But you're all wearing the Scotland kit. So you feel like one big unit."

Ryan McKee (gymnastics): "I saw all the gymnasts from different countries and what they were doing. So I know what I need to do."

William Marshall (hockey): "Twenty thousand people on a pitch - I've never experienced anything like that in my life. To score a goal in the last game, with my mum and sister watching, was just amazing."

Amy Gibson (hockey): "I'm doing photography now because I knew from my hockey that I was a hands-on learner. I pick up things by doing them, rather than reading in a book or writing essays."

Michael Jamieson (swimming): "People say, `How can you be disappointed with your first major international medal on a stage like that?' It shows I'm hungry for more success."

Kareena Marshall (hockey): "You're expected to be a full-time athlete and hold down a full-time job. But you understand that at School of Sport. The time management skills and organisation take you through to uni and a career."

Delhi Seven on YouTube

Facts and figures

School of Sport has 126 pupils from 13 different local authorities, more than half from beyond Glasgow, says Angela Porter.

"Our students have represented Scotland in their sport on more than 200 occasions and exceptional pupils have competed successfully at youth level in Commonwealth (two gold, one silver) and Olympic (one gold, one silver and one bronze) competitions. Three-quarters of our students have gone on to higher and further education."


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