It’s 2005. For the last three years, I’ve been coaching sports in a Primary School in Elephant and Castle, London. Last year, we had discovered SportsHall Athletics. We got our application in late for Area Championships; a competition between 16 Primary Schools in Elephant & Castle, where the winning team progressed onto the Borough Championship, against the best teams in Southwark. I picked eleven of the fastest children from Year 6, (the top year in Primary) and one kid from Year 5; a small boy named Michael who was showing promise.
We turned up, not knowing what to expect, and got our arses kicked. Six Field events, and seven Relay races. We had never seen the Field events before, never picked up a plastic Javelin, never heard of Speed Bounce, or tried the Triple Jump. We were in last place by the time we got to the Relay races.
The Relays are seeded into heats, depending on the Field results. We were placed firmly in the bottom heat.
My team had obvious speed and fitness, but lacked discipline, and were heavily penalised. We were a mess; running out of lane, dropping the baton, not sitting on the mat, knocking over hurdles. The biggest problem was show-boating. My kids would do just enough to win their heat, slowing down before the finish and playing to the crowd. Unfortunately, the Relays were scored by time and the other heats ran faster.
We came last.
A year later, we won.
I had spent the year preparing my team, with Michael as our captain. We were not able to get the Field equipment, so I improvised with what we had. The Headmaster had lanes painted on the playground, so I didn’t need to come in early every morning with a chalk and meter rule.
This would be my last year working here. Outside of school, I was settling down slightly. I had stopped playing around (stopped playing the teachers) and I got together with the girl of my dreams. My running career was not going smoothly, but I had a training camp in Kenya booked, which I was really looking forward to.
I no longer depended on my job, which made me better at my job.
I had learnt a lot as a coach. I had learnt how to shout so loud and viciously as to scare the wits out of a 10 year old. But now, I was learning how not to.
I had orchestrated an incredible turn around, to transform my team from losers to winners, in a single year. But our prize was the chance to represent Elephant & Castle at Borough Championships, only one month away. There are 75 Primary schools in Southwark, most with far better facilities than ours.
In that month, our team of twelve practised at play-time, lunch and after school. We became super organised; flawless baton changes, immaculate hurdles, and lots and lots of explosive running.
I would come down into the playground and the kids had already taken the key to the store room, set up all the mats and assembled the hurdles (cones and bamboo sticks), and were lined up patiently waiting for me to blow the whistle. We got to the point where I had very little to do, so would walk around shouting “I’m the best”.
To which they would respond in unison;
I’M THE BEST!
We arrive at the sports hall for the Borough Championship, kitted out in specially made event t-shirts, with Elephant & Castle printed on them. There are no weak links here, all these teams have been doing this for years. It shows. Out of the twelve teams, we are the only debutantes. A big indoor arena with 150 kids, teachers and officials, and parents upon the balcony, is a very loud, very intimidating place.
We are coming up against bigger schools, with more money and equipment. They are in a different league to those we faced in the championship to get here. We commence with the six Field events. Tia has a screaming javelin, picks up the plastic and foam missile for the first time since the competition a month ago, and launches herself into the top three. But overall, we are not doing well.
In the final half of the competition, the Relays, the events are held by splitting the twelve teams into two races of six. The top six teams are placed in heat A, and the bottom are in heat B. We have finished the Field events nearly at the bottom of the leaderboard. We will be in heat B. Heat A is usually where the medals are decided. It is not enough for us to win Heat B, we must also run faster than all the teams in Heat A.
I have briefed the kids on this, time and again. Our time to shine is going to be the Relays, we are the fastest and fittest team here. Running requires no equipment. We can still do this. Although, it is a mathematical impossibility to win the competition now, we have a very slim chance at a bronze medal, if we win all seven races outright.
The hall is cleared of all the apparatus, the teams form neatly to one side, and the first Relay is set out.
The first race is the boys 2 x 1 Lap Relay. Two boys, one lap each. The shortest, simplest race. This race depends on the ability to accelerate quickly. Standing start. 20m sprint to the turn board, 40m back across the hall, turn board again, 20m sprint to the middle of the hall, baton change. Three accelerations per runner.
I send the two boys onto the arena, I am busy with my clipboard, organising the runners for the next races, making sure they know when they are up, are drinking water, checking shoelaces etc… The referee calls for silence, I hush my team and look up, then the stare.
Michael is standing at the start line, baton in hand, staring at me.
Even now, as I sit here, searching into a deep fog of grey, half-formed memories, trying to recall events from so long ago, that stare cuts like a laser through space and time. I can see him now, his bright eyes burnt onto my mind like white fire.
Everything stops. I rise out of my body and over my own head. I am looking down on the two of us as I zoom out of the building, above the trees, through the clouds, away from the planet, up up up, until there is nothing but darkness and the two of us; alone in the silent universe, locked in that stare.
I come hurtling back down, speed of sound, back into the bright bustling world, into the gym hall, full of colour and sound. Hot, stuffy air, the smell of sweat and rubber. I jump back into my body, behind my own eyes. Michael is still there, staring bang right at me. In three years, I’ve never seen him look like this. But it is a universal expression. It is pure, abject fear. It dawns on me then; everything hinges on Michael at this moment. The captain, my main man; always wins, always up for a fight, always wants to race, any time or place. He has been to a dozen sports competitions, never batted an eyelid. And is now frozen with fear.
I would love to tell you that I stood there, like a real coach, and gave Michael a confident knowing look, maybe a nod, one that reassured him instantly. But I was struck with fear too. I had pinned everything on Michael’s shoulders. All those years of work, all leading up to this, now depended entirely on how Michael performed in the next ten seconds. It looks like he is going to choke.
Now, amongst the other competitors, Michael is suddenly so small. I just want to put my arm around him, lead him safely away. All I can do is stare back. I’ve never felt so helpless. This is too much pressure for one little boy, what was I thinking?
What pep talk had I given him?
You’ve trained incredibly hard, this is your race, just go out and do what you do, everything will be fine.
We absolutely need you to go out and destroy everyone right now, and if you don’t we will all fail. And I will fail. And it’s all on you.
Maybe I didn’t even say anything. Just called him up and ushered him out with no second thought.
It is all crashing down on me now.
On your marks.
Michael adopts that perfect stance of his; he doesn’t flinch a muscle as he waits for the whistle.
Then…Explosion of noise.