Leeds athlete Connor Wood tells how sport – and the belief of his teachers – transformed his life
Tipped as a future Olympian, the talented Leeds runner stormed to victory in the 200 metres at the British Athletics Indoor Championships earlier this month.
Not only that, but at the age of just 20 he is a popular and widely-respected teaching assistant at one of the city’s biggest schools.
Turn back the clock a decade, though, and his story looked like it might have a very different outcome.
Connor arrived at Abbey Grange Academy in West Park aged 11 as a self-styled rebel after what he admits was a difficult early childhood.
His behaviour caused frequent problems for staff and within a year he was facing the prospect of being permanently excluded.
All that changed after he found athletics aged 13, with a win in a 100 metres race at the John Charles Centre for Sport seemingly acting as something of a lightbulb moment.
In a powerful illustration of how bonds forged in the classroom can last a lifetime, one of the people who helped him realise his potential is now his boss at Bishop Young Academy in Seacroft.
Paul Cooper was an assistant principal and PE teacher at Abbey Grange when Connor arrived and watched him develop from tearaway youngster to a young man going places.
Paul moved to Bishop Young as principal in 2017, with Rachael Cole – formerly head of PE at Abbey Grange and another major influence on Connor – joining him as vice principal.
They brought Connor in as a teaching assistant in May last year, after he returned from a 12-month athletics scholarship at Northwestern State University in Louisiana in the United States.
And, nine months on, he is revelling in both his role at the school and his burgeoning track career.
Connor, who lives in Hyde Park, told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “I was lucky enough to have a support network at school when I was younger, even when my behaviour was difficult they still stood by me.
“If that can happen to me, then hopefully I can have a similar impact on other kids.
“I go to work thinking someone at school could have their life changed today and it might be me that helps them make that change. That’s what gets me up every morning.”
Recalling the day at the John Charles Centre that set Connor on the path to a brighter future, Paul said: “I took him to this athletics competition in the school minibus and had a conversation with him on the way down.
“I basically said, just give it a go and stick at it for a few weeks to see if you like it.
“We could see he had some real talent and after he won that race, on the way back in the minibus he was saying how much he had enjoyed it.
“Through our athletics contacts in the area, we introduced him to City of Leeds Athletic Club and a coach and that was really the making of him.
“He started training pretty much every day of the week, showing real discipline, and his behaviour in school changed as a result.
“I wouldn’t say he turned into a model pupil overnight, but there was certainly a dramatic improvement.
“He had previously been a bit of a handful, although there was never any nastiness in there.
“He was just a bit lively, as a lot of students are when they come to us. There was a spark there, and it was just a case of finding a hook for him.
“By the time he was 15, he was working with younger students, mentoring them and becoming a really positive influence on those with similar backgrounds.
“Now he’s with us on the staff here and he’s a fantastic role model. We are incredibly proud of him.”
Sale Harriers athletics club member Connor is now aiming to take his sporting life to the next level and hopes to turn professional in the next few years.
Reflecting on the difference that running has made to his outlook, he said: “I think it has taught me about persistence and the importance of discipline.
“In a sport like football, you can sometimes afford to be a bit lazy, because you have 10 other people on the team, but in athletics it’s just you.
“I remember Brian [Scobie, Connor’s coach] telling me that I could make a go of this, you have real talent. He created a little dream for me and I haven’t looked back since.”
The latest step towards achieving that dream came in the national 200 metres final two weekends ago, when he took gold with a personal best time of 20.94 seconds.
Next are the European U23 Championships over the summer and, from there, it will hopefully be onwards and upwards for the lad from Leeds.
“My end goal is to accumulate medals,” said Connor. “I want to get through the next four to six to eight years and finish it with a medal in the Olympics, the World Championships, the Commonwealths.
“I think when I was younger I had quite a lot of questions I wasn’t sure about and that affected my behaviour at school and my attitude to life.
“As I’ve got older, I’ve realised those questions aren’t important. It’s about the people who support you and help you to be the best you can be.”