Such good sports

12th October 2007 at 01:00
Lynn Cameron recalls breaking up a recent argument in her class. When she asked what it was about, a boy turned to her and said: "They're saying you were at the Olympics, Miss but I don't believe them." "Well I actually was," she told the astonished pupil.

A softly-spoken PE teacher at St Saviour's High School in Dundee, Lynn doesn't make a big thing about her other life as one of the world's top competitors in her sport. "It's not the fact that I don't want to promote it," she says. "It's just... if they ask I will tell them."

She is one of a handful of teachers who have set their sights on Olympic glory. Away from the elite sports which demand full-time commitment, they are managing to combine a rigorous day job with the dedication towards becoming one of the best in the world at their chosen discipline. Whether it's on the canoe course, the hockey pitch, the judo mat, the rowing lake or the curling rink, they aim to one day compete in the world's greatest sporting event.

Lynn's passion is the strangely fascinating sport of curling it's likened to bowls on ice, but with the added spectacle of team members frantically sweeping the ice in front of the moving "stone" to help it on its way.

Curling glided gently into the national consciousness five years ago when a team of Scottish women brought home Britain's first Winter Olympics gold medal for 18 years.

Lynn, 28, came in the wake of that, representing Britain in the subsequent 2006 games in Turin when the team came fifth. Now she is working towards a place in the squad for the Vancouver games in 2010.

"That whole experience of being in my first Olympic Games was unbelievable," she says. "We stayed in the Olympic Village for a couple of nights, and the atmosphere with all the athletes arriving that's when it really hit you.

"And the opening ceremony was a real eye-opener. Just walking into that stadium in front of thousands of people and then Pavarotti singing it was fantastic." Lynn grew up with curling. Her parents both played and she spent her Saturdays watching before being old enough to join a school club. In her teens, she worked her way up through the junior circuit and won her first Scottish junior title in 1997.

On top of her training schedule, competing often takes her abroad, for which she gets paid leave. Fitting this in with her teaching job depends heavily on the support she gets from her school and education authority.

What does she love about curling? "You're using so many different skills within the sport, you have the team work, you have individual responsibility, you have the technical element, you have tactical awareness everything is encompassed within it.

"It's also very different from the business of a ball on a field. It's ice, stones and a brush. It's unique and, as much as the sport is growing in Scotland, a lot of people still don't actually know what it is. People say, 'Oh is that when you have a stone and you shove it along and sweep?'"

England hockey player Scott Cordon, 27, has just been selected for the Great Britain men's training squad to work towards qualifying for Beijing. His sport comes into its own when he's teaching PE at Wood Green High School in Wednesbury, West Midlands. "It's extremely useful," he says. "Especially when you're focusing on the academic side of the subject. If you're teaching about elite-level sports and drugs testing and how the procedure works, that's something I have to go through myself. It's a great benefit to the kids because they don't just think it's a member of staff reading something out of a book. They understand I have been there and done that."

The fact that he is playing at all is a huge achievement. Three years ago, Scott suffered a serious wrist injury and a surgeon told him he had only a 33 per cent chance of using his hand again. But he has made a full recovery following reconstructive surgery.

Scott says his Olympic bid wouldn't be possible without his school giving him paid leave and colleagues who cover for him while he's away. The specialist sports college is also an ideal place to train before and after school. Plus, he finds teaching a release from the relentless training.

"It's quite nice when you're playing so much yourself to do a variety of different sports at school," he says. "It gives you a break from it. You're training every evening and most mornings. It's nice to do the other sports in the curriculum during the day."

But for some Olympic hopefuls, teaching alongside the pressures of their sport is out of the question. Rower Alastair McKean, 28, taught geography and history at Canterbury High School in Kent, but left last July to train full time in the run-up to the 2008 Paralympics.

"It dominates my life," he says. "I have no time for a social life. You have to make sacrifices friends, family. It's a 24-hour-a-day thing." In his teens he rowed at club level, but he was seriously injured in a motorcycle accident eight years ago and lost most of the movement in one arm.

Adaptive rowing which allows people with physical disabilities to take part in the sport gave him the opportunity to re-establish himself as an athlete. He first made the Great Britain adaptive rowing squad in 2003, and won gold at the 2005 World Championships in Japan.

While teaching, he found his sport helped break the ice with pupils, particularly those with behaviour issues. "Students think it's cool," he says.

Another athlete who found striving for the Olympics and her teaching job incompatible is Georgina Singleton. She left Sneyd Community School in Walsall last Christmas, where she was assistant head of maths, to focus on her judo.

She put her teaching career on hold because there is no place for it alongside her gruelling training regime at the University of Bath. "I just couldn't do it if I was working at the moment," she says. "I train four times a day, on average for six or seven hours, and to keep my weight as it is, I have to run eight to 10 times a week. And on top of that, I live on a diet of 1,500 calories a day. Imagine that in a classroom full of children testing your patience."

Georgina has practised judo since she was five and began competing at 15. She retired from judo in her mid 20s after struggling with her weight. But now she is nearly 30 and has decided to return for one last bid for glory in Beijing next year. "I have to be in the top five in Europe to go to the Olympics so it's a long road," she says


If you're looking for complete commitment to a sport, look no further than Helen Barnes. A 35-year-old primary teacher from Nottingham, she is a top slalom canoeist whose ambition is to represent her native Ireland at next year's Beijing Olympics.

Helen recently faced a crushing disappointment at the Olympic qualifying world championships in Brazil when her canoe hit a rock under water and sent her off course. "I had been paddling well in training, was injury free and felt great," she says. "I was just incredibly unlucky."

She now has one last chance to qualify next March. Even if she doesn't win a medal, it's just the chance to take part that counts for Helen. "To go to the Olympics and to race well in the Olympics is my ambition."

She spends a third of her year supply teaching at Candleby Lane Primary School in Nottingham and saving money to compete. Outside teaching, canoeing is her life. She starts training at 6.30 in the morning, before teaching, and then goes back to it at the end of the school day.

Being a teacher helps take her mind off her punishing schedule. "The second I walk into the classroom I forget that I have just had a bad run that morning in training. If I feel really tired, I walk into the classroom and suddenly I have to be switched on."

What do her pupils make of her sporting prowess? "The kids are aware of what I do they think it's cool," she says. Though apparently they are more impressed with her place in the Guinness Book of Records than her Olympic bid Helen holds the world record for the fastest time for 100 Eskimo rolls in a kayak. "I don't know how much they know at primary level about the Olympics," she says. "I think they think I'm a bit mad to get up so early in the morning."

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