What do a bullied asthmatic teenager from Bradford and a research chemist working for a confectionary company have in common?
Quite a lot, it turns out, in the case of these two. Both were born in Yorkshire, less than a year apart. Both were living in perfectly ordinary circumstances: one of them having a miserable time at school, and spending a lot of time at his local swimming club; the other commuting to an R&D job in factory production. And both of them shared a remarkable thought.
The teenage boy was watching the Olympics in 1976. He saw British swimmer David Wilkie win Olympic gold. The research scientist was driving home from work and heard an advert on the radio advertising the opportunity to become an astronaut. And both of them thought: I want to do that. I could do that. I will do that. And both of them did. The boy was Adrian Moorhouse, Olympic gold medallist in 1988. The scientist was Helen Sharman, first British astronaut, 1991.
Which brings us on to the most important thing they share in common: they are both now veterans of events at The Abbey. Helen came to open the Junior School space project just over a year ago. And Adrian came to The Abbey this week to speak to an audience of students and parents from four schools as well as partners from local sports clubs and the community.
Adrian’s talk was direct, deadpan and simply inspiring. He loved swimming as an escape from school bullying. He was told he couldn’t do it because of his asthma. As a ten-year-old he said bluntly enough that he would keep doing it, thank you very much. And he did. He fought his way to number one in the world. He went to the Olympics as favourite to win. And he failed. He came fourth. He returned home to headlines telling him to do the world a favour and retire. He was 20 years old.
As he put it, he was lost. He had no sense of purpose. He was asked during his talk what it was that helped him find it again; that helped him get his hunger back. His answer was a powerful one for us all. He stopped being afraid to fail. He discovered freedom from that fear: and he went on to become world number one for six years, world record holder, and in 1988, he went back to the Olympics and won gold.
At The Abbey we celebrate wonderful news this week: the Junior School has become the first 3-11 girls’ school in the UK authorised to deliver the world-renowned Primary Years Programme (PYP). It points our learning at the world. It encourages students to investigate, imagine and connect. And it teaches them, as we try to do throughout The Abbey, that they can aim for anything: for glory and the stars, for fulfilment and friendship, for whatever brings them joy.
When Adrian told his coach as a teenager that he wanted to win Olympic gold, the answer was: why not? Whoever is going to win that medal in ten years time is a child now, in a swimming club now, doing their best now. Why shouldn’t it be you?
He faced challenges on the way, as we all do on our journeys. He shared a brilliant piece of advice. If you are facing something tough, something scary, something challenging, ask yourself if it is something that deep down you want to do. If it is, then realise: that is your choice. You are choosing to give it a shot. You could walk away. So be exhilarated, not scared. Don’t be afraid to fail. Just try with an open heart and see what comes.
His message, first and last, was to dream big. The task is, of course, to find the dream. That’s where the kind of learning that the Junior School offers through the PYP, and that continues with ongoing Ideas + Passion at the Senior School, comes in. See how things link together. Find the bit that sparks interest and becomes a passion. And then dream big.
What matters is not where the dream lands. It is not about winning Olympic gold or the space on the rocket to class yourself a success. It is about setting your sights high, and setting off after that target with gladness and without fear. Wherever the road leads, if you can travel it with that kind of hope and that kind of freedom, you’ll get somewhere worth going.
By Will le Fleming