Tessa Sanderson

25th May 2007 at 01:00
The Olympic gold medallist may never have achieved her dreams without the PE mistress who got her parents on side

Growing up in Wolverhampton in the late 1960s and early 70s was very different from today. There was much prejudice around and, at Wards Bridge High School, I experienced some hardcore stuff - people spitting on your school uniform, racist remarks, fracas in the playground, nasty, hurtful bullying. At times it was very tough, but somehow I learned to cope.

Fortunately, and quite importantly, I had a strong foundation at home. My parents were incredibly supportive. I could not have wished for a better mum and dad. I could tell them anything and they always took an interest in what I did.

The only problem was that they felt black people would never get the same opportunity in the future and, rightly so, I was under pressure to put my education first.

They wanted me to become a nurse and were sceptical of my burgeoning athletics career and its long-term benefits. Although I was determined to choose sport, I did not want to disappoint them and respected their decision.

Thankfully, I struck up a close friendship with Barbara Richards, my PE mistress. I believed that what she told me was right and she, in turn, trusted me. We had a strong bond, so much so that when I was 12 she came to my house to speak with my parents.

Barbara had spotted my all-round ability and reassured my family that the line of sport I was venturing into was not a fad. Once my parents realised that I would not neglect my education, they supported me 100 per cent. Had Barbara not argued so persuasively that I was choosing the right path, I doubt I would have ever have had the chance to find out if I had it in me to become a champion.

That meeting was absolutely crucial. I owe her a lot. As my parents could not afford the bus fare, Barbara would often drive me after school to our local track meeting where she introduced me to my first coach. At that time in my life, she was one in a million.

Barbara was a stern teacher. She was strong-willed but warm to her pupils.

She represented England at hockey and cricket. I will never forget the time I was supposed to make my junior international debut in Ireland at the age of 15. I had slipped and broken my ankle in the playground and, given that my leg was in plaster, I was understandably upset.

Barbara came to see me in hospital and said: "Don't worry, you will be back. Hang on in there." She also mentioned her favourite word "stick-ability", which always made me laugh.

Not long after I won my Olympic gold medal in the javelin at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, I returned to school for a presentation and met Barbara for the first time since leaving. I then saw her about seven years later when This Is Your Life hosted a special evening in my honour. The BBC had tracked her down. Barbara had never married or had children, but spent her retirement travelling the world. Her hair, still short, was much greyer now. She was even wearing a dress.

I have only seen her once since then but I know that if we were to meet up again, it would be incredibly easy to catch up. I would give her a big hug, simply to say thank you Tessa Sanderson, 51, is one of Britain's most celebrated athletes. She became the first British black woman to win an Olympic gold medal when she took the javelin title at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. She competed at six Olympics. On retirement from athletics she became vice-chairman of Sport England and now works as lead officer of the Newham 2012 sports academy. She was talking to Rob Maul

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