Street sprints and borrowed hurdles: how primary school teacher Jessie Knight became an Olympian

·6-min read
Jessie Knight will compete in the 400m hurdles and 4x400m - AFP
Jessie Knight will compete in the 400m hurdles and 4x400m - AFP

When Jessie Knight represents Team GB in the 400m hurdles and 4x400m relay in Tokyo, expect to hear some high-pitched squeals emanating from a leafy corner of Surrey.

The 27-year-old Olympian is also a popular teacher at Danetree Primary School in Epsom, and her pupils are her biggest fans. The children watch her races on TV. They draw pictures of her. And they even stopped fidgeting and swinging on their seats in class, in case they slip and accidentally stub her toe.

“My pupils absolutely love it,” chuckles ‘Miss Knight,’ as she is known to her pupils. “They are just so interested in what I do. You could ask any of my class what my 400m hurdles PB [personal best] is and they would know what it is and where I did it. It’s so nice to share this story with them; I feel like they are on the journey with me. Hopefully I can inspire them to do anything that they love doing and reach their own potential.”

Her fellow teachers have been just as supportive. “The staff have always protected me,” she explains. “When we did a fitness club at school they were like: no, no, no, you need to recover!”

Knight’s journey to Tokyo has been an eventful one. Having competed to a high standard as a national-level athlete, she reluctantly quit the sport in 2017 to focus on her teaching duties. But the urge to compete soon returned and in 2018 she began training again. She made her breakthrough in 2020, winning the 400m at the Glasgow Grand Prix and the British 400m hurdles title. This year she won the 400m hurdles at the Ostrava Golden Spike event, claimed a silver medal with the 4x400m relay team at the European Indoor Championships, and lowered her 400m hurdles PB to 54.69.

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

But what fascinates most of her friends and admiring fans is how she has managed her training around her work. As the Olympics drew closer, Knight went part-time, teaching three days a week, before taking the final term off work in order to focus on her Tokyo preparations. But for most of the past few years, Knight has been working full time, squeezing in training around classes and homework-marking duties.

“I don’t actually know how I managed to fit it in,” she reflects. “I was very fortunate when I went part time. But when I had that good race in Glasgow [in February 2020] I was working five days a week. I’d asked for the Friday off work and my school was so supportive. But I’d been teaching Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, then travelled to Glasgow on the Friday feeling quite tired, but just pulled that race out.”

Most of her training sessions have taken place in the evening after work. “I’d leave school at 6pm so I was training for 6.30pm, and then I didn’t really get home until 9.30pm or 10pm at night,” she recalls.

Knight says that the secret to staying fit when you have a busy job is to really enjoy whatever exercise you do. “When I took 2017 away from the sport, I missed it so much so I said to myself if I am going to go back I am going to give it everything and make it work. My poor friends; I didn’t see them for probably a year. And I had absolutely no social life. But I was doing something I absolutely love doing.”

Training in a group also helps to sustain her motivation when fatigue kicks in. “Even on my days off I tend to still train in the evening because I would rather be with my coach and my training group,” she explains.

Knight’s training is a blend of sprint work, gym sessions, core drills and mobility exercises. For speed and cardiovascular fitness she does between two and 15 reps of 600m drills, depending on the pace and the intensity. On other days she does 15 reps of shorter but faster 200m drills, or eight reps of 300m sprints.

To increase her flexibility and power, Knight also performs mobility and walking drills. “We can get shin splints over the winter or sore feet because we’re doing a lot of volume, so we introduced a lot more exercises where we walk on our toes or heels to improve our mobility and technique,” she explains. “The key mobility drills for me are A skips and B skips and we also walk over hurdles at different speeds to build our hip mobility. We also do lots of explosive jumps to strengthen our legs.”

To galvanise her body against injury, Knight performs an eclectic mix of conditioning circuits, many of which can be done at home. “Each week we do an ab circuit, a glute circuit, a resistance circuit with bands, a med ball circuit and a strength circuit,” she explains. “For example, we do a five-minute abs circuit of crunches, Russian twists and things like that. When I was younger I would just run, run, run but I was getting injured quite a lot because I wasn’t strong enough. Now my body can take the load. And on my days off I do a lot of stretching and yoga.”

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

During lockdown last year Knight resorted to sprinting up the street outside her home, to the bemusement of her neighbours. She also borrowed a set of hurdles from a local secondary school so she could practise in the park. “We all coped and worked hard; it proved that I can push my body, just because I love doing what I do, even if our circumstances have shifted,” she reflects. “I’m quite proud that I got out there, even though we didn’t have the perfect preparation.”

Maintaining a healthy diet wasn’t easy when she was busy with work every day. But Knight says the key is to get organised and plan your meals in advance. “I always used to prep my lunches for the week ahead,” she says. “That was a big help. But I like to eat healthily. For breakfast I tend to have eggs. Lunch is a mix of carbs, protein and veg, like a risotto. I get more carbs from rice and pasta than from bread, which has a lot of sugar in it. I would then have a snack at about 5pm – a banana or a yoghurt – before training. But often I wouldn’t eat dinner until 10pm so I’d have a protein shake straight after training. It wasn’t always easy.”

Despite her impressive motivation, organisation and resilience, Knight admits there is one obstacle which is harder to overcome than a set of waist-high hurdles: the staff room biscuit tin. “After I had my year out of athletics, I said to myself: ‘When I am coming back, I’m giving this all or nothing, so you can’t keep having sweet treats!’” she laughs. “And that is particularly difficult as a teacher, because in the staff room we manage to have a lot of tea and biscuits! I never say I can’t have anything. But it is just about having a small treat now and again.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting