By Gerhard Waldherr
It’s around half four in the afternoon. They must be coming soon, like they do every day. Moses, Annie and the rest. 30 to 40 teenagers and young people. Connie Henry sits on a park bench outside a sports centre and tries to explain how they live. “It’s not easy for them,” says Connie. “They grow up in an area full of gangs and drugs. They have to find out who they are and what they want and they’ve got no one to help them.” The parents are stuck in their own identity crises, are uneducated and mostly out of their depth. Orientation? Perspective? “But how?” asks Connie, who once taught geography in a school in the area. There was a boy there who behaved in an obviously disinterested way. She asked why. He said: “Why should I be interested in the world?” He was 15 and had never been out of London.
The setting for this story is Willesden, in the Borough of Brent, North London. Where houses that all look the same stand between little parks and trees. The brick facades are sooty and there’s junk in the front gardens. The High Road, Willesden Lane and other main streets are filled with row after row of betting shops, launderettes, dry cleaners, pizza joints and Chinese takeaways. On the pavements are Indian women in saris and Muslim women with veiled faces. Red-nosed men are smoking outside the pubs. “Willesden isn’t the London you know from the TV,” says Connie. “This isn’t Buckingham Palace, Notting Hill or Chelsea. There’s unemployment and crime here. Kids tread a very fine line here – either you take on social responsibility or you become a drug dealer.”
Connie is a big, athletic woman. She was a triple jumper, ambitious, but never quite in the top rank. Her best placing was third at the Commonwealth Games in 1998. And she says it’s not so much her sporting talent that she has to thank for that. “What I can do is focus. And I’m uncompromising in everything I do.” That’s also how it was in 2007, when the company operating the new sports centre in Willesden asked Connie if she wanted to rent the stadium and changing rooms for an athletics academy. Connie did want to. She charged one pound twenty per person for each training session and had a problem. Although 50 kids turned up on the first day, the money didn’t cover the cost of the rent, the coach and paying herself a salary. Subsequently a few schools took a share of the costs. But that wasn’t enough either, at any rate not for Connie’s salary. In the spring of 2009, when she was lying in bed with chickenpox, she said to herself: “I’ve got enough money and willpower left for two more months.”
Now 500 children and young people train at Connie Henry’s Track Academy. They're looked after by ten coaches. First, Connie was saved by the London Sports Trust, a charitable organisation where the former British sprinter Natasha Danvers works. Danvers was excited by Connie’s philosophy of not only promoting sporting achievements. Connie says: “If we produced an Olympic athlete, that would be great, but we're just as much about social and academic development.” Those who train with her must go to school, have a job or be looking for one. Five mentors work as life coaches and there is one private tutor. Connie sees herself as “coach, friend, surrogate mother, teacher and psychologist”. She’s strict in all these roles. “You come to training on time, you take your hood off when you’re eating, you don’t text when you’re sitting at the table with someone.” Her credo is: “No success without discipline – in sport as in life”.
Take Moses Bawo, aged 20, son of Nigerian immigrants and a talented sprinter. But then Moses fell in love with a girl, as a result got mixed up with a dubious crowd and left school. Connie called Moses’ mother in. She offered the young man a job as her assistant, on one condition – back to school or no more Athletics Academy. Moses says: “That was an eye-opener. As a result I learned that you need a goal in life.” He dropped his girlfriend, went back to school and saved the money he earned from working for Connie for a trip to California. Together with three of Connie’s other athletes, Moses trained with Christine Ohuruhogu, Olympic 400 metre champion at Beijing 2008. They did their own washing, cooked for each other and were, as Ohuruhogu found, “fantastic pupils”. Moses, who in the meantime is studying sport science, says: “The Athletics Academy is the thing that got me on the right path."
Or take Annie Tagoe, now 17, who came to London from Ghana at the age of seven. Two years ago Annie came to Connie, or rather Miss Goodwin, her teacher, sent her. Miss Goodwin said to Connie that the girl was clever and talented, but after being expelled 32 times she didn’t know how she could help her any more. Annie explains: “From the first day, Connie was very strict with me, but she also supported me totally in everything. She was always there when I needed her.” In the meantime, Annie took part in the Youth Olympics in Singapore, where she was fourth over 100 metres and won bronze in the sprint relay. In addition, she was the British Junior Champion over 60 metres. “It’s simply a good feeling,” says Annie. “I'm doing something for my country, I can travel, I’m something special.” Connie says: “Previously she had no control over her emotions. Now she can work them off on the track and learn positive lessons from them.” Annie says: “When I run, I can be completely myself.”
Last year the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation included Connie‘s Athletics Academy in the circle of supported projects. The TV cameras were there to record the occasion. The parents of the young athletes came in their Sunday best. Members of the Laureus Academy sat on a podium – Sebastian Coe, Michael Johnson, Steve Redgrave. A middle distance runner, a sprinter and a rower. Legends, lavishly decorated with Olympic gold medals and World Championship titles. They talked about the power of sport and how it can change lives. How it supports you whether you win or lose and imparts values. Connie said: “We all need role models. Here we’re striving for the best possible physical achievements too, but our kids also understand that what you can do as an athlete is nothing if you don’t develop yourself as a person.”
It’s a lovely event. The parents allow themselves to be photographed with the stars. Coe jokingly called Connie “Miss Uncompromising”. A teacher from a nearby school said: “Sport and education fit perfectly together.” Moses’ mother made a speech. Ukachi Bawo said: “Our children must exercise their bodies and their brains, so they don‘t go to waste. Sport gives them the ambition to make something better of their lives and it gives them self-belief.” After that a small, slim girl came up onto the podium. She wore purple lipstick and her hair was spiked up with gel. It was Annie. Asked about her success, she answered not with medals or personal bests, but said: “I learned to improve my behaviour here”. And then everyone went out into the stadium and the stars ran back and forth against the kids for fun and for the photographers.
It's now five o’clock. Connie has to go – they’ve arrived in the meantime. Moses, Annie and the rest are waiting. But before she goes, she says: “I feel sorry for today’s young people. They’ve got 20 TV channels, computer games, internet, mobile phones and social networking at every turn. They can always put something into one device or another and get distracted, get a sensation or an illusion. They socialise in a world where everything is fast and transitory and, in the end, it all means nothing. How can they find their inner voice there?”
Blue sky over the brick houses. A warm breeze wafts through the trees. “We must help them to listen to their inner voice,” says Connie. “Like all young people, their voice says to them: ‘You can do something, you are exceptional’.”