Olympic gold medallist Joe Clarke believes his personal story is proof that a Stars Squad programme aimed at aiding the next generation of athletes in North Staffordshire can pay off.
Clarke, who won gold in the men’s slalom canoe K1 in Rio, joined Paralympic para-canoeing bronze medallist Ian Marsden as Newcastle-under-Lyme officially launched the scheme this week.
The initiative, helped by the Youth Sport Trust, is for high school pupils performing at a national standard in their respective chosen sports and has run in its current format for four years.
It currently involves around 33 pupils from Newcastle and Staffordshire Moorlands High Schools and provides support for athletes and their parents including sponsorship.
Seven of the scheme’s youngsters have recently received funding to support their careers. They successfully applied through the European City of Sport initiative, which looks to reward and assist athletes in Stoke-on-Trent.
Academy of Sport Stars Squad Coordinator Deb O’Neill said: “Our aim is to provide elite athletes with opportunities.
“The North Staffordshire Stars squad, we think, is unique in the country. We don’t know of anyone else that runs a squad like ours.
“Evenings like this, they get the chance for some inspiration from hearing about our local athletes that have gone on to the world and Olympic stages.
“Often, we do talks about nutrition and psychology and we try to find ways of supporting them in academic life and also their sporting life as well.
“We do different trips. We try and take our athletes to world-class facilities like the Manchester Velodrome.
“We’ve done BMXing and track cycling there. The amazing thing about the Velodrome is you can go and watch Team GB train.
“As we were on the track, Laura Trott came past and we couldn’t believe it. It’s fantastic that you can go and watch and experience world-class facilities like that.”
Clarke implored students to have faith in the scheme. He admitted he once had doubts, which have since been quashed by his own success and that of fellow athletes once involved.
The 24-year-old said: “I was actually a part of the Stars programme with my high school.
“It does actually show that the programme works. There were numerous athletes that we’ve picked that I saw out in Rio.
“Even if students think this feels so far away right now, I felt the same at their age.
“I always questioned whether it was realistic to aim to get to the Olympics and win a gold medal, but my medal is proof that it is possible. That’s food for thought.”