LIKE most lively nine-year-old boys, Keith Cook far preferred racing across the football pitch to sitting in a corner, nose in a book.
And if it was a choice between ducking and diving in a boxing ring or settling down with a pencil and piece of paper, there was only going to be one clear outcome – and it certainly didn’t involve writing.
“I hated school,” he confesses. “By the time I nine I knew that I was struggling in the classroom, though it was and sport was what captured my eye. That and creative stuff like art, drama and music. But spelling and reading? Nope, that was the hard stuff.”
But today Keith is a man with a point to make – about sport and about dyslexia, which he was eventually diagnosed with when he was 11. He is, after all, one of the country’s leading hopes in a sport typically regarded as painfully elitist – “everyone thinks fencing’s for the posh kids,” he says – but which, fingers crossed, could well see him, the son of a single mum of three kids from Pilton, emerge with an Olympic medal. Gold, preferably.
“Oh yes,” he says. “I don’t just want to make it to the Olympics, I’m going for a medal. Britain’s not won a medal in the sport since 1964. I think it’s about time.”
Keith, 30, is currently ranked as Britain’s fourth best male fencer. He has a handful of gruelling competitions ahead of him then, if all goes to plan, by March his place in Team GB’s Olympic fencing squad will be secured.
All of which is an admirable tale in itself. But place it against a background of council estate lad meets public school sport, of hastily borrowed equipment and dogged determination to succeed, and then throw in a battle with dyslexia leaving him struggling to read and spell . . . and Keith’s achievements are extraordinary.
Even now the fact that he’s poised for an Olympic squad place despite dropping out of the sport’s official Pathway programme means getting to London 2012 will be not only a major accomplishment, but something of a miracle.
Through it all he’s had his family to support him. “Actually,” says Keith, “my grandfather used to come to watch me fence. He’s the nicest man you’d ever meet and he’d feel so sorry for the kid I was beating that he used to tell me to just let the other lad win.
“So he was very supportive, but for other people!”
He is, of course, kidding. For without the staunch support of his grandfather and the sacrifices made by his mum to get him to fencing lessons and buy equipment, who knows what might have happened to the teenage Keith who skipped school because reading and writing posed too troublesome a challenge.
Today he’s at the top of his sport and travelled the world thanks to fencing – which must give hope to children and parents who suddenly find themselves having to deal with dyslexia. And it’s why Keith is about to be involved in a week of events at Edinburgh’s libraries aimed at highlighting Dyslexia Awareness Week.
For Keith, being dyslexic is probably what set him on course to becoming a world-class athlete. “A lot of people with dyslexia talk about seeing the words back to front, but I can see the words like everyone else, it’s putting it together that I found hard,” he explains.
“As a kid, all I knew was I wanted to play football, not read a book because that put me out of my comfort zone. Because I didn’t like school I tried not to go too much. I took every day as it came, I didn’t look too far into the future.”
Dyslexia was confirmed just before he arrived at Broughton High School. He had learning support but drifted away from subjects that required too much reading and writing, focusing instead on creative subjects such as art, craft and design and PE.
He joined a Leith boxing club where he learned timing and focus and found he was fast on his feet and good on his toes, vital components, as it turned out, for his later choice of sport, which, he recalls, he fell into purely by accident.
“I was asked by a friend of a friend to watch the fencing championship at Stewart Melville’s,” he says. “I thought ‘OK, I’ll go’ but I thought it was just blokes jabbing each other with a pokey stick.
“When I saw it, I thought it was brilliant. I liked the routine of putting on the kit, looking the part. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t read or write, it was a level playing field when I was fencing these guys.”
But finding the cash to fund his bus trips from Pilton to the Royal Commonwealth Pool to train, his club fees and his kit was a struggle. “It was hard,” recalls Keith. “Slowly and surely I borrowed kit. I remember once breaking my sword and desperately trying to get a new one. Now I’m throwing swords away.
“People think fencing is ‘posh boy from nice private school’, but I had to fight for what I got. I never had anything handed to me on a plate. So it goes to show that if you work hard you can get to where you want to be.”
Within two years he’d reached competition level. Before long he was making the finals of national tournaments, to his frustration always coming second.
That changed last year, however, when he won the British senior championship – a major achievement given Scottish Fencing’s membership is only 650, compared to 6000 in England.
But just as his form launched him towards London 2012 selection, Keith announced he was pulling out of the Great Britain Olympic Pathway – the priority programme that offers access to top coaches and vital funding – largely because of the demands it made on his family life.
“I’d be spending 160 days a year away from my family – I’ve got two kids, Jamie, six, and Imogen, who’s four,” he explains. “It was hard for my partner Joanne.
“It’s a vital time in the kids’ lives when they’re learning things for the first time and if I’m away it’s quite hard.”
Quitting the London-based Pathway programme meant he also had time to launch a new business to help pay the family bills – he now runs a children’s fencing programme with his brother-in-law, fencing coach Sean Walton, based on the ethos that training is affordable and far from elitist.
The down side, though, has been the impact on his competition plans: the rules meant he was dropped from the British world fencing championship team and removed from taking part in the first ten competitions of 2011.
“It was soul destroying being ranked fourth in your sport in Britain but not allowed to compete,” he says.
His place in the Olympic squad now hinges on his performance at four international competitions early next year. Keith needs to reach the last eight in any one of them – out of 200 competitors – and is training fiercely with help from the East of Scotland Institute of Sport at Heriot-Watt and sportscotland.
And at least he’s home in Currie at night to read with his children. Conscious of his own struggles, Keith has made reading a fundamental part of the bedtime ritual. “I try to make it fun for them so they grow up enjoying it. Instead of shying away from reading and writing, I’ve learned to be open about it and not scared about it. That’s how you learn to cope.”
n For more about Fencing Fun, go to www.fencingfun.co.uk or contact Keith on 07921-853 728