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The Stare. Chapter 4

Michael and Robbie

They were in Year 3 when I joined, and now they were Year 6. They had grown into the fastest two kids in the school. And they couldn’t have been more different.

Robbie was tall, skinny and good looking. He was naturally lazy and didn’t care to race all that much. Quiet and intelligent in the classroom. But often day-dreaming. He liked playing running games. Some days he would win races, in the most obscene fashion, starting from the back, then ghosting past everyone with effortless grace. Other days he would finish last, and would be just as happy about it. He didn’t play football. He liked running, but could take it or leave it. I found it infuriating. I decided to sit him down one day, and give him a piece of my mind:

You are wasting your talent. If you just try you could have a real future in running. You need to get your act together…

He stopped coming to my lessons. I would ask him to come back. He would say yes, then not come. He would go into the other playground and smell flowers. I remember asking two girls to go and find him one day, and bring him to me. They came back and reported that he was smelling flowers. I didn’t understand. I had to go and see for myself. There he was, a foot taller than the young kids he had elected to play with. They were all going around the perimeter of the playground, smelling flowers.

When he did, finally, come back, months after our talk, I made sure he had all the fun and space he needed. I never lectured a child again.

Michael was small, one of the smallest kids in the year. But he was a square. Solid through, remarkably strong. Not especially academic, but always focused and trying hard. I once counted him doing 50 press ups, when most kids his age were unable to do one. He never finished out of the podium in a race. Desperate to win every time. In that first year, when I was really struggling and didn’t want to do it anymore, it was Michael’s little face, smiling up at me, that I couldn’t refuse. He was always there, ready to go. He loved to run, he had to run, he resented the bell every time it stopped play.

Anything I asked him to do, he would do without question. It was paying off. He would watch athletics on TV, he would eat his greens, he was our best player on Tag-Rugby, he was a strong swimmer, he was great at football, and, by the time he got to Year 6, after three years of dedicated training, he was the fastest. Robbie would sometimes wake up from whatever daydream he was in, and decide to win. But this was happening less often. Robbie cared not, but Michael hated getting beaten by Robbie. It drove him. His acceleration was incredible. At 11 years old he could beat me over 30 meters.

He developed a stance on the starting line; which required incredible strength, flexibility and balance. He would lift high onto his toes, one foot in front of the other, bend way down over his front knee, with opposing arm high in the air behind. Head almost touching the ground, but neck cranked up to look straight ahead. My hips would hardly even allow me into this position, and even if they did, I would only topple over. I used to get him to lie on the floor at the start of races, just to give the other kids a chance.

My favourite kids (secretly) were always the naughty ones; Debo, Joseph, Tia. But I loved Michael. I never once had to tell him off. The only time we disagreed was when I informed him he hadn’t made the Cross Country team, he nearly cried. It broke my heart. He had been well beaten in the trial, but still couldn’t comprehend he wasn’t selected. I should have selected him anyway.

When our school discovered Sportshall Athletics, it was like a gift from the gods. I had been training the kids for precisely this type of racing, without knowing it. It meant much more to me than Tag-Rugby. My last competition as coach at Invicta School would be the Sportshall Athletics Borough Championships, with Michael as captain. He had been there to witness our loss at the Area Championship last year, and he was the captain when we won the next time. Robbie didn’t make the team (I don’t think Robbie knew there was a team).

The Relay races have just begun, Michael is running leg 1, race 1…

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Russell Bentley
Russell Bentley
Track runner. Trained in Kenya, Won the Snowdonia Marathon 2018, PB Berlin Marathon 2:20:20

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