While the world’s best sports stars still have another nine months to wait until next year’s 2012 Olympic Games, the skills sector is just days away from showcasing the best of its international talent.
Dubbed the skills Olympics, WorldSkills London 2011 will this week take over ExCel London, in Docklands, for four days, as young people go for gold in a space the size of ten football pitches.
It’s a life-changing experience and a most definitely a career-changing experience.”
More than 1,000 competitors from over 50 countries will battle it out in 46 skills such as car repairs, robotics, floristry and cooking, in front of a live audience of an expected 150,000 people.
With figures like that, and home pride at stake, it is no surprise the 43 young people who will represent Team UK in 37 skills are taking the event – which takes place from Wednesday to Saturday – very seriously.
As Karen Woodward, apprenticeship director for the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS), explains, the journey to WorldSkills London 2011 has been “several years in the making” for Team UK.
It started, she said, around two years ago with national-based skill events to choose a select talent pool. What followed has been hours of training, with each potential competitor – akin to their sporting neighbours – assigned coaches and put through strict, personalised training programmes.
She said: “If they performed well in the national competitions, they were then put in a shortlist of around 1,500 youngsters. Then, over the last 18 months, they have been tested and trialled to prove they are the best of the best in the UK.”
But when the final squad was chosen back in June, for the selected members it was a journey well worth the time.
Mrs Woodward said: “It’s a huge privilege for the Team UK competitors. It’s a life-changing experience and a most definitely a career-changing experience. A lot of our alumni have gone on to be recognised, from WorldSkills achievements, as the best in the UK.”
Fully aware of the honour it holds to be a part of Team UK, 22-year-old floristry star Victoria Richards has gone to great lengths to ensure she is as prepared as she can be for the competition.
In her bid for gold, Victoria has reduced her working hours at the florists in Aldridge, West Midlands, where she works, to part-time and has had little time to see her friends.
But she insists it will all be worth it. She said: “When I was selected for the squad and then finally the team, it’s become more intense. I went down from full-time to part-time at work, which now means I work two days a week. You don’t get to see your friends much, but they appreciate what it is that you’re doing.”
She added: “It means so much to me. I never thought when I started that I could do anything like this.”
Despite hours of preparation, Victoria said the event is “a bit like stepping into the unknown” as she will not know what beautiful arrangement she needs to create until she steps into the exhibition hall.
She said: “With my skill, you have to learn around 20 different modules and you will get tested in eight to 12 of them. So you’ve got to know all the different techniques to ensure you’re ready for what the test could involve.”
With that in mind, how is she feeling?
“I’m feeling okay. If you asked me last week, I would’ve asked you not to mention it. I was very nervous. But now, it’s a mix of knowing what to expect, but not 100 per cent how big it will be because you’ve never done it,” she said.
Joinery competitor Adam Bushnell perhaps has more reason than most to fight for the gold medal at this week’s event.
The 21-year-old came agonisingly close to making the Team UK team for the biennial event last time out.
We have high hopes for Team UK.”
However, he is using his disappointment as motivation. He said: “I’m taking it in my stride. I’ve had a lot of training so I’m eager to get started and will be glad when it’s all over. I was knocked out at the team selection stage last year so I’ve been doing it for four years now. I wasn’t too bothered when I wasn’t selected because I knew I was young enough to do it all again. But it did make me train harder to make sure I was selected.”
Although Adam has a rough idea of what he will be asked to do, he is aware of the margins of error. He said: “With joinery, if you make it too small, that’s it. I hope to be able to get a medal but anything can happen on the day.”
However what Adam, from Oxford, is 100-per-cent aware of are the opportunities the event can bring. He said: “I’m only 21 so people tend to think I’m not that experienced but this will show I’ve got quality beyond my years.”
With just hours to the start of the competition, questions turn to the aspirations of Team UK and their potential medal haul.
The team’s bosses have high hopes for the medal table following a solid show in Calgary, Canada, two years ago. The 2009 competition saw Team UK finish sixth, up from 14th in 2007.
Mrs Woodward said: “We have high hopes for Team UK. They’ve performed well in national and international when tested against others. But it’s still a nerve-wracking time for them.”
She added: “We expect to be in the top 10. We exceeded our expectations in Calgary and this is a very good team so we expect great things from them. We want to be seen as a leader of excellence in skills.”
Picture is Ross Varnam, hoping to make sparkes fly for Team UK at WorldSkills