Sophie Maxwell is a shining example of what a bit of faith can do. A teenager spiralling into a life of homelessness and drug-taking, she tells Jo Davison how she found a saviour in a sports coach...
She was a 14-year-old with a feral streak when he met her.
But the young sports coach at Don Valley Stadium looked beyond the tough little cookie act.
He saw the real Sophie Maxwell, a school drop-out hiding her unhappiness behind a wall of attitude, her pain beneath a muffling duvet of drugs and booze.
A girl with intelligence and drive, just waiting to be channelled in the right direction.
"She had this energy; a spark. The X Factor... whatever you want to call it," says Rob Creasey, the man who, without ever meaning to, ended up becoming Sophie Maxwell's mentor, adopted big brother... life-saver.
He was a university student working as a volunteer at Don Valley stadium when Sophie strode in, announcing she wanted to be the next Kelly Holmes and asking for coaching.
It was her survival instinct kicking in. The teenager living a life of truancy, homelessness and drug-taking had been watching the Sydney Olympics and it had fired her with a goal for the first time in her life.
"I decided I wanted to be an athlete," she recalls. "Doing sport had always made me feel good about myself and for a while made me forget all the bad stuff in my life."
The bad stuff? Now 23 and an incredible success story, Sophie is still too traumatised to speak of it beyond the briefest summary; "From my earliest memories, my home life was unhappy; it was abusive," she says.
"I rebelled at school. I was always in trouble at High Storrs. They suspected some sort of attention deficit disorder and I got detention after detention.
"But I was great in games lessons; I was a natural and that confirmed to me that I wasn't worthless. Plus it got my blood pumping and my heart racing, which made me feel alive."
Eventually, she walked out of school and never went back. "When I was really young I couldn't escape what was happening at home and at school. But when I got into my teens I just took myself off. I'd go off playing sport or walking my dog all day long."
And when Sophie's mum took the decision to leave home with her children, life became even more unstructured.
"We were basically homeless. We went to live with relatives, then friends. Eventually I went my own way and ended up in a succession of hostels," she recalls.
"I carried around all I owned in a black bin bag. Its contents got smaller and smaller with every place I stayed at.
"I didn't think life held anything good for me. Then I saw Kelly Holmes winning bronze at the Sydney Olympics and I knew what I wanted to do – I wanted to be like her."
She got a shock, though: on day one at Don Valley, Rob made her run the 800 metres. "It nearly killed me – I'd got a 20-a-day cigarette habit and I was a drinker," she laughs.
The girl who had kicked against authority for years didn't flounce off, though; she did everything asked of her by the young man less than a decade older than her.
"Why didn't I rebel? Rob always spoke to me with respect," she says. "He encouraged me to do better without ever putting me down or nagging.
"And he was committed to me. Two days a week, he would be there, waiting. The constants in my life became sport – and Rob. Walking into Don Valley became like walking into my cathedral, my place of calm."
Rob had instinctively realised Sophie needed someone to focus on her and direct her drive.
"I didn't judge her; I just saw her as a girl who needed help," he says.
"Sports coaches don't just teach someone how to build stamina and muscle. We have to have emotional intelligence," he grins.
"You need to be able to spot someone's strengths and challenge them to keep taking on bigger and bigger challenges but you also have to nurture them too. You can't break their spirit."
Nevertheless, he worried about her every time she left their twice-weekly coaching sessions.
He knew she was doing drugs – usually cannabis and ecstasy and eventually heroin – that she sometimes slept on park benches and lived mostly off packet noodles.
Rob said: "I was frightened she wouldn't turn up one day because something bad had happened to her.
"I would have loved to have wrapped her up in cotton wool and taken her away from all the demons but that wasn't what I was there for. And sometimes people have to hit rock bottom before realising they need to change themselves.
"Instead I focused on making every minute she spent with me quality time, building her self-esteem and giving her a chance to grow."
Sophie carried on with her reckless lifestyle, unaware of his concern.
It took a couple of years and the death of a friend from a heroin overdose, before she finally got herself clean.
"I knew I had to straighten my life out – and that was what Rob wanted me to do. I'd train hard, then head out to party hard. Until I saw a friend die," she reveals.
"I was very new to heroin; he had been using it for a few years.
"His girlfriend and I didn't realise he was dying; he was laid out on the floor, snoring after a fix and we thought it best to let him sleep.
"But a few hours later he was dead. He was only 24 and I saw him being put into a body bag. One of the hardest things I've ever had to do was to tell his parents."
Realising it could so easily be her next, she stopped the drugs. These days she doesn't even drink.
She became an athlete – from the age of 16 to 22 she competed for the City of Sheffield Athletics Club – and from 18 she began coaching, too.
To everyone's amazement, the girl who had turned her back on education begged for a place on a sport and leisure course at Sheffield's Norton College.
She passed with flying colours, then got herself a degree in leisure and events management at Sheffield Hallam University.
While studying, she found out about the university's Enterprise Centre, which helps students turn their business ideas into reality, and decided on her next goal: to set up a system which would help young people experiencing the difficulties she had once faced.
She founded Adventure Workshops Education, which now motivates reluctant young learners throughout the city.
"I help kids who don't go to school to re-engage with the national curriculum," she says. "Recently, I gave a session which involved teaching Pythagoras's theorem in a field!
"I see myself in all of the kids and I hear Rob in my voice when I talk to them."
Nine years on, the relationship between Sophie and Rob is just as strong.
She says: "He laid the foundations for everything I've done. He gave me balance, taught me how to stick at things and how to motivate myself – Rob is like my big brother and I don't think I would be alive today if it hadn't been for him."
Last week, Sophie's achievements were given national recognition. The homeless charity Crisis named her as one of its five Changing Lives Champions for 2010.
The charity awards applaud formerly homeless people who have transformed their lives in the face of adversity and Sophie won two of its major accolades.
Her adopted "big brother", who coaches and motivates other young people experiencing difficult times through his job with the council education department's extended services team, couldn't be prouder of her.
But Rob isn't at all surprised: "I always felt that whatever Sophie set out to do, she would achieve. That she would make waves, not ripples," he says.
"She is doing great things in this city and having helped her to find her path has been a really humbling experience."
To find out more about Sophie's business, go to www.aweducation.co.uk.
To find out how the Enterprise Centre can offer support, go to www.shu.ac.uk/business
Got a view? Leave a comment below.
CLICK HERE FOR The Star subscription offer. Use offer code STAOP0001 to get 25% off.
Follow The Star on Twitter and Facebook:
For breaking news and sport follow The Star on Twitter at www.twitter.com/sheffieldstar and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sheffieldstar .
JOIN THE STAR READER PANEL: The Star is YOUR newspaper, so tell us what you think about it and what you want to see - CLICK HERE.
Don't miss our daily pull-outs - only in the The Star: Monday Star Sport, Tuesday Class Act; Wednesday Business; Thursday Grassroots; Friday Time Out; Saturday Retro. Subscribe to The Star - CLICK HERE
Join the Star reader panel
Main news index
South Yorkshire's environmental news
More business news
More Rotherham news
More Doncaster news
More Barnsley news