Me and my school photo: Denise Lewis remembers training to be an Olympic athlete and winning her first gold medal aged 21

Yvonne Swann

Last updated at 10:31 PM on 10th February 2012

Denise Lewis, 39, is an Olympic Gold medalist, Strictly finalist and London 2012 ambassador

Denise Lewis, 39, is an Olympic Gold medalist, Strictly finalist and London
2012 ambassador

Here I am at 15 on a school trip to Boston – my first time in America. Another pupil and I won the holiday in an IT competition.

I grew up in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. My father left my mum before I was born and she raised me, an only child, on her own. It was a struggle for her to make ends meet, but she was always very self-sufficient.

I loved my nursery school and stayed in touch with my teacher, Wendy, for years. She told Mum I’d be the first female prime minister because I had something about me. Obviously Mrs Thatcher beat me to it!

I was a bit reserved, but confident and sociable. Woden Primary School was another happy place. I had a charismatic Polish-born teacher called Mrs Kozlowski.

She had beautiful handwriting, very swirly with lots of slanted loops, and I tried hard to copy it. She was friendly but quietly firm, and had a deep voice, big hair, glasses and always smelled of perfume.

I already loved sport when I was at primary school, especially the long jump, and the Welshman who took us for PE, Mr Moyle, was very inspiring. I had some lovely friends there too, and I used to organise races for us during break-time.

When I was seven I watched the 1980 Moscow Olympics on TV and was mesmerised. I said, ‘Mum, I want to be an Olympic athlete!’ She took me seriously and I joined Wolverhampton and Bilston Athletics Club.

I trained there after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Mum’s dedication and self-discipline certainly rubbed off on me. As a child I thought, ‘Well, if I want to be an Olympic athlete then I need to learn how to become one.’

Denise lives in London with husband Steve and their three children

Denise lives in London with husband Steve and their three children

So that’s what I did. By the time I was a teenager and at Regis Secondary Modern, I was training at a bigger club in Birmingham, which meant a 90-minute journey each way. I was always lugging a kit bag and schoolwork from place to place.

I had brilliant coaches every step of the way and a mother who really believed in me. As a parent I’m sure she was worried I wasn’t able to give enough time to my schoolwork.

I was competing around the country from the age of 13, mainly at long jump, but by the age of 16, because of the wide range of athletic disciplines I was made to do as I progressed at my club, the heptathlon became my event. I never looked back.

I loved school but left after my GCSEs and went to college, first to get a couple of A-levels – English and PE – and then to do a computer course.

College was OK, although less fun than school. It was a very scary time; I was facing the unknown and had so many questions. Should I have studied harder and gone to university Was I as good as I thought I was at my sport

But the Commonwealth Games in 1994 changed everything. I was 21 and won Gold for the heptathlon. It was an extraordinary moment. Mum breathed a sigh of relief. She must have wondered at times whether it was all worth it. Now she knew it was.

Denise is participating in Breast Cancer Care’s Pink Ribbonwalk in May, visit