Born motivator

February 4, 2019

Former Olympian Peter Bakare has swapped the volleyball court for the school playground in order to challenge the children of the North East to change their diets and live healthier lives. Simon Rushworth reports

Success didn’t come easy for Peter Bakare. Dealt the most difficult of hands as a child growing up in London’s Canning Town, there were times when his single parent mother was forced to rely on the support of a local friary in order to keep her family fed. There were no special treats, no lavish trips and no access to the latest technology.

“We had friars in the area and they had a shelter which supported local families and distributed food,” recalls Peter. “We relied on their help massively. They even gave me a typewriter which allowed me to explore my passion for writing – without their help I’m not sure I’d be where I am today.

“It wasn’t easy, but it gave me a unique perspective. And it led me towards the place I’m at now. When I look back at how I ate as a child, the one thing I remember is that sweets and treats were so expensive. As a result, they were out of reach for me and my sister.

“Rice, by contrast, was cheap as chips. Or cheaper than chips! I just didn’t have the chance to eat loads of cakes and stuff and at the same time I was always playing outside because we couldn’t afford a PlayStation.

“These days, it’s a lot easier for young people to eat poorly and take very little exercise. I might not have realised it at the time but my personal circumstances actually helped me health-wise.”

What a teenage Peter lacked in many of life’s perceived basics was offset by the unswerving support of his mother and a determination to realise his dreams. Still to hit his 30s, it’s testimony to the Newcastle-based entrepreneur’s unflinching self-belief that he’s gone on to achieve more in a decade than most will manage in a lifetime.

Sport, albeit a significant chapter in a classic underdog tale, is only part of Peter’s incredible story. Prior to picking up a volleyball for the first time, the aspiring animation artist saw his fledgling work displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London and it was that first brush with success that led to theatre work, scriptwriting and more.

“I always wanted to do animation and create a cartoon from the off,” explains Peter, the brains behind the brand new Nutri Troops brand and creator of a series of colourful characters aimed at tackling the growing crisis in child obesity.

“I used to draw caricatures and for a while, as a kid, that’s how I used to express myself. When I wanted to take my art more seriously I entered a competition. That led to my work being displayed as part of London Platform art and in the National Portrait Gallery.

“At that point, I was told by industry experts that in order to progress in animation I needed to learn about lighting and acting. I needed to understand how to bring my characters to life and make them more convincing. I tried stand- up comedy and bombed at it! But I went back on stage and joined the youth group at the Stratford Theatre Royal.

“I also did some radio and I’d joined the Talawa writing group. My writing was seen by E4 which was putting together the first series of Skins. I was asked to go to a London basement and was handed a 60-page script to critique. I felt way out of my depth and admitted as much to the television people but they valued my honesty and took me on.

“I was 17 when I got the chance to work on the Skins’ scripts. It was a God-given opportunity. Not long after that, I started playing volleyball. I loved the work I was doing with Skins but I struggled to do both – and complete my college work.

“In the end, I chose volleyball. When it came to deciding where my future lay, I was given some great advice: my body won’t be in its prime for long but I can use my mind for a long time after the body has passed its peak!”

Peter smiles when he admits that time is now. But the initial advice proved to be prophetic.

Within five years, he was mixing with the world’s greatest athletes and representing his country at a hometown Olympic games. “I could actually see the theatre in Stratford, where I used to perform, from my window in the athletes’ village,” he recalls, as he looks back on the life-changing experience that was London 2012.

“For the majority of the people competing, it was an exciting opportunity to perform in front of a passionate British crowd and experience everything that our wonderful capital can offer. For me, it was different. For me, it was a case of coming home.”

Having sidelined his burgeoning scriptwriting career and put animation on the backburner, Peter had thrown his heart and soul into volleyball – a sport that had been assured its place at London 2012 despite a lack of mainstream recognition.

“My basketball coach at college was also a volleyball coach and he asked me to start playing the latter,” adds Peter. “I was 18 and I’d never picked up a volleyball.

“I was very reluctant to play. I didn’t really want to. I found myself constantly dunking the ball and giving points away. But my coach must have seen something. He kept telling me to stick with it and keep trying.

“As a college, we performed well in the British Championships and went on to play at the London Youth Games. In one of the first games, I went up against my namesake – and future Team GB team mate – Dami Bakare and after the game his coach encouraged me to attend the England junior training camp and try out for the national team.”

In what was a whirlwind ascension from absolute beginner to fully fledged international, Peter won a senior England cap within months and went on to win his place in the GB development squad. Animation was
also suddenly back on the cards. “The GB squad was based in Sheffield and the city’s Hallam University offered me a place studying animation. But I flunked my studies. I failed the first year and started again in the second but I struggled to commit to my course and my sport. It was my first time living away and I just couldn’t cope. I’d do things differently now.”

If not an escape route, then the offer of a two- year full-time contract playing volleyball for the Dutch club Landstede at least allowed Peter to focus fully on his sport. Determined to bounce back from the disappointment of quitting his degree course, one of the rising stars of British volleyball sought solace in his sporting dreams.

“I needed the change but it meant I didn’t really feel part of the GB group back in Sheffield,” he adds. “I didn’t really feel the buzz in the lead up to London 2012 that the other players did. I didn’t play too much in Holland, which didn’t help – I was inexperienced and playing in a very tough league.

“I suffered from anxiety and nerves and I think the other guys were getting way more excited about the Olympics than me. In March of 2012, a 30-man squad was named and I was included – it was going to get whittled down to 12 and that was my ultimate target. But even at a very late stage, there was no certainty that I’d play at the Olympics.”

That Peter did make the final cut – and go on to top score on his London 2012 debut against Italy in front of a capacity Copper Box Arena crowd, just a stone’s throw from his family home – convinced him that dreams can come true.

“That’s my message to the children I work with today,” he adds. “I came from nowhere and represented my country at an Olympic Games. If I can do it, anyone can.”

Catapulted from the relative obscurity of the Dutch top division into a goldfish bowl of media attention – with the added pressure of ‘homegrown hero’ status – Peter initially found it hard to appreciate his privileged position.

“I didn’t really understand how special it was to be competing at an Olympic Games until I started to mix with other athletes,” he adds. “I thought I knew what it was all about when it came to representing my country at an international event. But that went out of the window when I was suddenly rubbing shoulders with Serena Williams, Ryan Giggs, Usain Bolt, Lebron James and Kobe Bryant! That’s when the whole Olympic experience hit home. These were world stars I’d only ever seen on the television and suddenly I was in the same canteen as them eating my lunch. It blew my mind!”

Seven years down the line and it’s that Olympic experience, coupled with his love for animation, that underpins Peter’s mission to educate future generations about the value of exercise and healthy eating.

Post-London 2012, he joined Northumbria University and finally gained that longed-for degree in animation. At the same time, Peter became one of the faces of Team Northumbria – the most successful British volleyball club in the last decade – and realised his future lay on Tyneside.

“I look back on my Team Northumbria days very fondly,” he adds. “That’s when I enjoyed my volleyball the most and that’s why I put down roots here.”

His club may be no more but Peter has maintained his strong links with the university. “I’m part of Northumbria Enterprise,” he adds. “Graduates and students can start up a business venture and access various support. You get legal advice and help with accountancy. It’s like they see your idea as a pile of Lego pieces and then they help you to put those pieces together.”

Two years ago, Peter started building Nutri Troops – the groundbreaking programme aimed at encouraging primary age children to achieve positive goals through exercise and healthy eating, inspired by animated heroes and villains. In 2019, he is rolling out Nutri Troops across Tyneside with plans to expand into London later this year.

“After I stopped paying volleyball, I struggled to get a job and I started to research advertising theory and trends relating to children,” he adds. “I looked at characters like Tony the Tiger and the Coco Pops monkey and the kids always recognised them.

“But there was one set of characters that children simply didn’t recognise and they were the characters promoting healthy eating and nutrition. The exceptions were the Olympic mascots but they only had a very brief effect every four years.

“Nutri Troops is based on the story of the Olympic mascots and what happens during that four-year cycle between games. It’s about the ongoing battle that exists between those characters fighting to promote healthy eating and those encouraging us to eat unhealthy foods. It’s a fun approach to tackling a very serious problem and the children are rewarded for taking part in activities at home and at school.

“I’ve designed the characters myself and been able to bring them to life. Gateshead Council saw something positive in what I was doing and gave me the opportunity to take my idea into schools. They are such a proactive council when it comes to finding something different that can benefit the health and well-being of their pupils. I’m convinced that together we can make a real difference.”

Nutri Troops