As the Lithuanian swimmer Ruta Meilutyte touched the wall of the Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Park on Monday night a huge cheer went up a couple of hundred miles away in Plymouth College's main conference room. Fellow members of the school's elite swimming programme had been given a few precious hours away from the pool to see how 15-year-old Meilutyte would fare in her first Olympic final.
"It was just wonderful," said Stephi Baker, a spokeswoman for the private school that is quickly gaining a reputation as a key centre for elite athletes across a range of sports. "We are extremely proud of her winning a gold and it is so exciting to see one of our pupils at the Olympics."
Earlier Tom Daley, the British diver and another Plymouth College pupil, had come a disappointing fourth in the synchronised 10m platform diving, and later this week two other swimmers from the school – 15-year-old Jamila Lunkuse from Uganda and 17-year-old Jade Howard from Zambia – will take part in the London Games.
A decade ago the idea of the college producing a string of Olympic champions seemed fanciful. It was a successful private school dating to 1877 but, unlike some other private schools, it did not have a particular reputation for producing elite athletes. According to Baker, that all changed in 2000 when a decision was taken to build a 25m pool at the school. The local swimming club was invited to use the facility as its base, and within a couple of years the school had set up an elite swimming programme.
Fast forward 12 years and the school has more than 60 elite athletes from 27 countries and runs academies in modern pentathlon and fencing, rugby and basketball as well as successful programmes in sailing and squash.
The standard fee for boarding is £24,000 but for those who are good enough there are scholarships. "We offer these pupils the whole package," said Baker. "It is about having the top sports coaches in each discipline and it is also about having the academic education that you get here. On top of that it is about looking after the wellbeing side of things for our pupils and the mentoring that brings together both schoolwork and sport."
The sporting standards that many of the young athletes reach mean that schoolwork is regularly interrupted with international competitions, so the academic programme is tailored to individual pupils' needs, with e-learning and long-distance tutoring available to ensure they do not fall behind.
As the elite swimming programme began to gain an international reputation the school set up academies in other sports and has 60 elite athletes – and a formidable reputation among rival schools. "It is fair to say that when it comes to county cups and things we tend to clean up … we are pretty strong across the board," said Baker.
By Matthew Taylor, The Guardian. Click here to read the article © Guardian News & Media Ltd