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by Richard Sidaway
School days are supposed to be the best days of your life and part of that experience usually involves some strenuous physical activity. I asked some colleagues to give me their recollections of what happened to them on the sports field and beyond, and this is what they told me…
When I was about ten, the football team from our year inexplicably made it to the cup final of the local schools’ league. I say inexplicably because I only remember us losing nearly every match we played. Anyway, in the final I set up the winning goal, a brilliant cross to my mate David who headed the ball in just before the final whistle. I still have a photograph of the team holding the cup.
I remember having to lead a group of eight boys on a school expedition for the best part of two days when I was a teenager. Even though we got lost at one point, I managed to keep them all together and got them from one end of a large forest to the other and back by sheer force of will. I was chosen to be the leader, I think, because I was the only one who knew how to read a map! When we arrived back at the campsite we found out that all the other groups had cheated and hitched most of the way instead... I felt a bit of a mug, but also rather proud of myself at the same time for having done it properly.
Learning to swim, learning to drown
I learned to swim comparatively late, I suppose, I was maybe nine years old, but my brother had a traumatic experience which nearly put him off for life. We lived in the USA for a while and had access to a university pool where the coaches had trained the American Olympic team. In those days, though, their idea of teaching kids how to swim was to tie a tin can to their ankles with a bit of string, throw them in the deep end and shout ‘Swim!’. I’m surprised my brother survived at all. He could only have been about six at the time.
One of my earliest physical feats was probably going on a ten-mile walk for charity when I was about seven. I went with my older brother and my Dad, but they didn’t make much allowance for the fact that my legs were shorter - I had to go at the same pace as them! Even so, I made it and raised quite a lot of money from school friends and teachers who had agreed to pay me for every mile I walked.
I remember one dark, wet afternoon in February being herded out onto the school field and having to run three miles across country while the rain came bucketing down. Soon we were all drenched to the skin, shivering with cold and the only way to stay warm was to keep running. One of the gym teachers, who had been sitting inside having a cup of tea, came out to meet us halfway around the course and told us to jump over a stream before we could start on the home stretch. This teacher actually stood on the hands of the boys he didn’t like as they were trying to climb up the muddy bank on the other side, so that they slid back down into the freezing water. I was disgusted by this, but of course I didn’t say anything, I was only twelve. I think it changed my view of human nature a bit after that, the fact that someone who I had previously respected could be so cynical and cruel.
Dwarfed in Germany
We went on a tour of Germany one year from secondary school to play football against three different teams there. Everyone was violently sick on the ferry going across to Holland, and the whole thing was a bit of a farce as the teacher who had arranged it didn’t speak German very well so we ended up playing teams who were three or four years older than us! Naturally we got beaten every time.
Climb every mountain
One of my best memories of early physical endeavour was climbing Ben Nevis, which is the tallest mountain in the British Isles. It was a glorious day, which is pretty rare for that part of Scotland, and we walked up in about five hours. The last bit is pretty hard going as it’s a zigzag path of big stones. We took the family dog and she had a really difficult time of it. The strangest thing was that we didn’t see too many people on the way up, and then when we reached the top it was suddenly covered with Japanese tourists. I can only presume they had been airlifted there by helicopter.
Down to earth
My cousins were always the outdoor, adventurous types, learning how to canoe and windsurf and abseil and so on. One day, one of them climbed onto the top of the house to fix some tiles with my uncle. The next minute he appeared at the kitchen door a little bit dazed and his mother, who was cooking lunch, looked at him in surprise and said: ‘What are you doing here? I thought you were helping your Dad.’ ‘I’ve just fallen off the roof, Mum’, he said. Apparently he had overbalanced and toppled over backwards. Because he had recently been doing parachute training -his latest hobby- he had rolled over automatically when he hit the ground, without thinking. This was a big, old two-storey house and he must have been at least 10 metres from the ground, but he didn’t have a scratch on him!