Abbie Thorrington came within a hair’s breadth of representing Britain at the Olympics. The principal of Ipswich Academy and former professional triathlete tells Jess Staufenberg why she would never now leave schools for sport
When Abbie Thorrington was three, she had so much energy that she and her dad cycled from Ipswich to Felixstowe. For those who don’t know Suffolk, that’s a two-hour round trip. Just to repeat – she was three years old.
“My brother and sister were slowing us down,” she tells me with a grin (NB. they were older).
It was the start of a long effort by her dedicated parents to channel Thorrington’s considerable energy into purposeful activiy (she suspects she has undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and was diagnosed with dyslexia as an adult).
And without her parents’ guidance, Thorrington says, she would not have become a principal two years ago in her hometown. But it’s probably also that same energy that got her here: she started teaching at 26, and is a principal aged only 34.
Some years after the bike trip to Felixstowe, she and her dad were in a local shop where they saw a notice about a triathlon at a nearby private school.
“Neither of my parents knew what a triathlon was, but they could see it involved swimming, running and biking, which is what I did all the time,” Thorrington says.
At eight she had a BMX (a low-hung bike for tricks) and was forever tearing around on it. Her dad entered her on her BMX. “It was because of finances,” she says. “I was into a lot of sports and rightly my parents wouldn’t just let me have anything.”
But despite being on a bike not designed for racing, she won. “My dad only entered me to use up some of my energy!”
Thorrington then competed in triathlons around the country, with the family coming along with a picnic. “It would be a bad day if I didn’t come home with five gold medals,” she smiles.
But despite this success outside school, her primary school in the deprived part of Ipswich where she grew up was failing to channel her unusual neurology and talent.
In year 6, her teacher told her parents her achievement data was below average and she would never get any GCSEs. Her father was so disgusted with the teacher, he never went to parents’ evening again.
“Since then, I’ve got 11 GCSEs, A-levels, a first-class degree,” she says. “I went back to that teacher in my primary school and I showed him what I’d done. He was surprised. I said to him: ‘Never underestimate a kid again.’”
It was her secondary school – and her sport – that saved Thorrington. Again, her parents had made a crucial intervention, by deciding against sending her to Holy Wells High School, a local failing school.
In fact, it’s the very school Thorrington leads today (it was an academy under the now-closed Learning Schools Trust, before it was rebrokered to Paradigm in 2015).
“If my parents hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be sat here talking to you,” she nods. Instead she attended the “brilliant” Kesgrave High School, which supported her. But it was many years before Thorrington could admit to her own pupils she had once been predicted to not get a single GCSE.
“It’s actually embarrassing,” she says. “That’s how I saw it before. Now, I’m proud of it.”
Thorrington has clearly climbed some personal mountains, and to illustrate the point, a pupil’s picture of two mountaineers climbing a hill hangs on the wall. “I always tell the children we’re on a journey together climbing a mountain, and sometimes you find it easy and sometimes you find it really hard.” She looks again at the picture. “I didn’t realise they listened that much!”
But her biggest personal mountain was yet to come.
Her teenage life became triathlons: she dropped her beloved football. “I can’t manage people who don’t try! With triathlon, I only had myself to blame – with football, I’ve got ten others who can let me down”.
Thorrington’s routine was astonishing: a 5am swim, breakfast, a short sleep; then cycling, lunch and relax, run or gym, tea, bed and repeat. She was training 35 hours a week, paid by sponsors (“more than I was paid as a teacher,” she notes drily) and in love with life. After her last exam in sport and exercise science at the University of Essex when she was 22, she was off again.
“My mum was waiting in the car park because I was going to the world championships in Canada. That was the kickstart of my career,” she says. “I lived my childhood dream. I travelled the world free, met amazing people, and got skills that money can’t buy.”
But a key moment in 2012 turned Thorrington towards teaching.
“Team GB had three female spots for the Olympics. So everything is fair, there’s a selection criteria. I was the third-ranked GB triathlon athlete.” In other words, she was expecting to get the third spot. She didn’t – and to this day, has to live without understanding fully why.
“My childhood dream was to go to the Olympics, and that was whipped away. Literally overnight I thought I can’t do it anymore. I could have only given 90 per cent from then.”
A devastated Thorrington trained first as a teaching assistant in 2012, then as a PE teacher at her old school, Kesgrave High, before moving to the old Holy Wells school. in 2014 when it was in special measures.
Its sponsor, Learning Trust Schools, would later admit it “hadn’t done enough” to improve the school before handing it to Paradigm.
But Thorrington had found a new focus. “I wanted to give the community the secondary provision they deserved. I didn’t want to walk out on them.”
From then on she became the school’s SENco, spurred on by her own school experiences, then assistant principal when the school received a ‘good’ Ofsted grade in 2019, before becoming principal in 2020.
“There hasn’t been a day when I’ve thought I will go back to sport. Sport is so cut-throat,” she says.
But the skills and aptitudes she gained in sport have clearly contributed to her vertical ascent to headship. “Sport and my upbringing…it gave me that utter determination, never giving up, that there’s no such word as can’t.
“It gave me the resilience to re-evaluate and say, let’s go again.”
It could make her sound hard-edged, but Thorrington radiates a warmth and strength that makes me want to go outside and bat one for the team.
In line with her experiences, she has focused on teamwork and determination as principal at Ipswich. For instance, she has brought in a house system to encourage competition – and last Friday was sports day, allowing pupils to compete and be crowned a winner.
She was also concerned the school had “gone a bit downhill” as a regional sporting power, but now talented sports students are being nurtured and entered for competitions, which is “putting Ipswich Academy on the map”, she says with a smile.
But she strongly criticises the lack of government focus on physical education in schools. “It isn’t a high enough priority. We’ve got even more sedentary since Covid. When students first came back after Covid, it was scary – their ability to keep going through an hour, wanting a rest, it all suggested they hadn’t been as active.”
So now her students do endurance, speed and hand-eye coordination tests at the start and end of year, so they can track their progress. It sounds like it’s needed: just last month, type 2 diabetes referrals nationally for children jumped 50 per cent in one year, and now more than a quarter of children are leaving primary school obese.
Her school has also tapped into Paradigm Trust’s ‘Hinterland’ programme for extracurricular opportunities, taking students on adventure courses and abseiling. “One little boy rode a bike for the first time.”
Thorrington has had an extraordinary life: I suspect few school leaders have been so close to selection for the Olympics. And I also wonder how many people, surrounded by the glamour and glory of international sport, would choose to become a teaching assistant.
“Before I saw myself as individual sport, I now see myself as doing team sport,” she say s. “I’m 100 per cent committed.”