Leap of faith Jonathan Edwards searches for Yorkshire's golden athletes

PUBLISHED: 08:35 05 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:47 20 February 2013

Leap of faith Jonathan Edwards searches for Yorkshire’s golden athletes

Leap of faith Jonathan Edwards searches for Yorkshire’s golden athletes

One of Britain's greatest athletes coached sports-mad Yorkshire youngsters earlier this summer. <br/>Chris Titley joined them

Most of the children who were gathered at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield were not born when Jonathan Edwards set his triple jump world record.

But that didnt stop them mobbing the Olympic champion when he joined them at the indoor athletics track.

One moment Edwards was advising the girls and boys about their running technique, the next he disappeared in a rainbow scrum of young autograph hunters, his short silver mane subsumed by primary-coloured T-shirts. Eventually he got back to his feet without, it seems, a creaking joint or stiffening sinew.

Hes still in great shape. Tanned and looking 10 years younger than 44, Edwards looked as though he could swap his black hooded sweatshirt and jeans for a GB vest and shorts at a moments notice, and defeat all-comers.

Certainly the children were impressed. Meeka Roberts, 11, described how she immediately improved her triple jump distance after Edwards coached her, while Hannah Brunby, 10, and Subi Ibrahin, 11, enthused about meeting a gold medal winner.

All three are pupils at Beck Primary School in Sheffield, where they like their sport. We do lunchtime activities, Subi explained. Cricket, running, athletics, volleyball, tennis. It keeps you healthy, its not about winning, its about having fun.

They arrived at the institute to take part in the Arches Partnership Games, part of a Sheffield City Council school sport initiative which works with 51 schools and 18,500 young people.

Edwards had been invited to see the youngsters compete by Yorkshire Gold, the body responsible for ensuring our patch makes the most of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. As well as watching the athletics finals, he joined in a volleyball match the GB Volleyball team are based at the institute and watched judo and snooker.

He also met Uriah Rennie, the first black referee to officiate in the English FA Premier League. A Sheffield man himself, Rennie was there as a patron of Sport England and was watching a game of boccia, a Paralympic sport similar to bowls which is played by people in wheelchairs.

Edwards last stop was at the state-of-the-art boxing gymnasium, home to Britains Olympic boxers. Surrounded by images of past champions, including Audley Harrison and James DeGale, and under the slogan Impossible Is Nothing, the triple jumper chatted to two women boxers and their coaches.

At the end of his tour he confessed to being blown away by the institute and the schoolchildrens endeavour. You dont quite know what to expect, and I certainly didnt expect something as fabulous as this, he said.

Its an amazing facility, there are very enthusiastic coaches and volunteers who are crucial, and the kids are having a wonderful time. If this doesnt make sport attractive, I dont know what does.

As deputy chair of the nations and regions group of the London 2012 organising committee, Edwards is doing his bit to prepare Britain for its first games since 1948.

This encapsulates everything you would like to see 2012 achieve getting people involved in sport, he said.

Getting kids involved in sport isnt a new project, its not something that started when we won the right to host the games in 2005, but it was great to see the kids having the Olympic and Paralympic stars names on their backs of their T-shirts. Its inspirational stuff.

Its still hard to comprehend his sporting achievements. At one point he held the gold medals for all the four majors the Olympic Games, the World Championships, the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships.

He set the triple jump world record way back in 1995 with an astonishing hop, skip and jump of 18.29 metres thats more than 60ft. Does he think it will ever be bettered?

I hope it wont be broken. Inevitably it will be. But at the moment theyre still a long way off. The best jump in the world was done recently in the World Indoor Championships, it was a world indoor record of 17.9 metres.

Thats still 40cm away, thats nearly half a metre off the world record. So at the moment I sleep easy. When they start getting up towards 18.20 I might have some nervy nights

After retiring from sport in 2003 as Great Britains most successful medal-winning athlete, Edwards retained a high profile. His devout Christian beliefs, which at one time led him to refuse to compete on Sundays, made Edwards the ideal choice as a presenter of the BBCs Songs Of Praise. But in 2007 he left the programme after an equally prominent loss of faith.

When you think about it rationally, it does seem incredibly improbable that there is a God, he told The Times. The conversion, wrote the newspapers columnist Libby Purves, does not suggest happiness.

But today Edwards, despite a hectic schedule, looks at ease. And he says he has few yearnings to go back to his glory days. I enjoy what I do now. I had a fantastic career, I loved it, he says.

He missed out on the amazing investment in British sport delivered by the National Lottery the Sheffield institute is only one example but I couldnt really complain.

The only time that I will regret being retired is in the stadium at the Games in 2012. It would have been great to perform in an Olympic in front of a home crowd.

He thinks there might be a future Olympian or two among the youngsters he watched compete. There was one young girl who was a really nice athlete. She did the triple jump. You taught her and she jumped a few metres then shed jump further, then further again.

If any of them have got the potential to be Olympic or Paralympic champions in any of these sports then they have got an opportunity here to discover that talent and begin a journey which might take them towards that.

His advice to wannabe champions find a good club and a good coach. The other thing that works really nicely here in Sheffield is that link between the elite end and the grassroots end of sport. So youve got GB volleyball players, youve got an elite boxing centre here, youve got an elite snooker centre its that link between the very best in the world and the young kid who starts out.

It becomes more real. Because seeing outstanding achievement only on TV can seem very distant and unobtainable. When you train in an environment like this it brings it that much closer you see that the people who have done extraordinary things are just normal people like you are.

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