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What a difference: A PE teacher makes athletes of villagers young and old

PE (physical education) teacher Suat Ari was born in Balikesir, Manyas in Turkey in 1984. Although he initially placed in university exams at Pamukkale University’s history department, he changed his mind in his third year and switched over to Pamukkale University’s Sports Sciences Faculty. “As someone who has been actively involved in sports since I was eight, becoming a sports teacher was my dream,” Ari says.

One of Turkey’s major philanthropic organisations, the Sabanci Foundation, has been selecting people for its ‘Changemaker’ programme since 2009. Ari was one of five Changemakers in the 12th season of the program which received more than 4,000 applications.

In Denizli’s Eziler village, where people make a living as farmers, Ari has been an inspiration to all with the change he has created through sports. Thanks to Ari, all 120 students in the school have become licenced athletes and made their names in Turkey.

“We witnessed the unifying and all-encompassing power of sports personally during the first golf tournament in the village in July,” Sabanci Foundation General Manager Nevgul Bilsel Safkan tells TRT World in an email.

“We are proud to support Suat Ari who has introduced children and teenagers to sports, who has made lesser-known sports familiar with them through his efforts and energy, and has achieved success in the province and nationally,” she continues.

Ari feels as if he started his vocation on the first day when he found out he had placed first at the entrance exams for Pamukkale University’s PE Teacher programme. He says that in addition to the full curriculum he learned from, he is still in touch with his teachers and continues to learn.

“In 2011 I was assigned to Adiyaman’s Besni municipality Sambayat town. We made amazing progress in four years,” Ari tells TRT World in an email interview. His students became Turkish champions in sports they had never heard of before, winning many cups. In 2016 Ari was assigned to Denizli’s Guney district Eziler village.

He says he is originally from Aydin’s Incirova. In Adiyaman he taught bocce, basketball, football, tennis, orienteering, wrestling, darts, and handball. His first day at work in Adiyaman was a snow day (February 7, 2011). He had been very excited and became disappointed that he couldn’t get to work right away. “I left Adiyaman after four years with fond memories.”

Ari says he trains students in numerous sports branches, such as rugby, cricket, bocce, darts, orienteering, hockey, korfball, softball, hemsball (a Turkish sport that was invented in 2011 – link in TR), floor curling, skating, tennis, and golf.

The reason he has chosen the lesser-known sports is because “I want to make a difference in our village school with few pupils in up-and-coming sports branches. I want to get sports out of the dominance of football. When you say sports people immediately think of football, which is so unfair to other sports.”

Ari says because of his innovative nature, he tries each year to get a hold of equipment for a different sport. “We’ve had some trouble getting equipment in the past. Because the equipment for these sports is expensive, I had to continually seek a sponsor. The new sports branches intrigued the kids.”

Asked what he would like to impart on his students, Ari is very clear: “I always say ‘First a good person, then a good player.’ We always respect the team we’re playing against, and the referee, and value playing a good game.”

Ari says it was because of these values he instilled that his team was able to be elected the Fair Play Team of the Year by the Hockey Federation, where you would usually see a lot of cards from the referee, as it can be a rough game.

“I aimed to touch these kids’ lives with sports. In time we reached that goal, and not just with children but the entire village,” he adds. “This was the departure point of ‘Everyone’s an Athlete in this Village’ project that led to my selection in the 12th edition of the Sabanci Foundation’s Changemakers programme.”

Ari says he is touched that his students who did not have sports in their lives before now want to join the national team and represent Turkey. “In fact I want to build a sports town, embodying this sports spirit throughout the village. We have come so far, especially with the support of the Sabanci Foundation Changemakers Programme. I am getting ready to organise the village olympics, which is one of my biggest dreams, more professionally and with more assured steps.”

Ari points to the change in parents, noting that at first they wouldn’t let their children participate in sports. Eventually it turned around, with the parents themselves playing sports with their children. He gives an example of a parent who said “Nothing will come out of sports you’re wasting your time,” asking for a live stream so they could watch their child participate in a game out of town.

“The same parents met us with fanfare playing drums and zurna and lighting up fireworks at the entrance of the village at midnight on the night we returned from Bolu winning a championship. Unforgettable memories!” Ari reminisces.

Ari says the positive feedback from parents, who tell him “Teacher, at first we thought you were making futile efforts, we wouldn’t even dream of this [victorious competitions, winning cups]” makes him very happy and motivates him to go even further.

“I believe I turned a village that had seen no sports for 50-60 years into a sports village. They took cups in sports they didn’t even know the name of after joining the national team and placed sports right in the middle of their dreams,” Ari enthuses. He tells of his plans to bring sports to life in other villages in nearby villages, for which he says he needs the support of the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

“I’ve been standing in for the Director of Youth Sports District for two years. If I get appointed for this position, I will be able to officially go to neighbouring villages and practice sports with the children there,” Ari says. “Then I can realise my dream of going to the Olympics by starting up Village Olympics [as a first step].”

“I want to train athletes the same way we succeeded in Eziler, especially in olympic branches, and have them join the national team on their way to the Olympics,” he says of his ambitions.

“We have held the first golf tournament in Eziler village, with the participation of an 80-year-old villager. The villagers all say they have never seen such a thing before, and think that the new generation is exceptionally lucky,” he adds. He believes that the ‘olympics’ held at the village could be an inspiration for the entire country, and that much success will come from athletes trained locally, then nationally, towards international victories.

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