A few weeks ago, 46 – year – old Andrew Beech from Battersea, shared the stage with British tennis coach, Judy Murray, coaches to Sports Personality of the Year Cricketer, Ben Stokes and coaches to Olympic Sailing Champion, Hannah Mills. From humble beginnings to unexpected recognition, Andrew looks back on his remarkable journey…
Married father of two, Andrew Beech, grew up on a rough estate in Wandsworth where crime and drugs go hand-in-hand.
“We would hang out with the older kids who sold drugs”
The youngest of three boys, Andrew was often left to his own devices and learnt to fend for himself from an early age:
“My mum worked all the time and my dad did his own thing. As children, we grew ourselves up. I remember trying to break open frozen sausages and stabbing my finger as a kid because no one was there to help me cook them.
Everyone from my estate was involved with drugs - there were smack heads and drug dealers. We didn’t play football. We would hang out with older kids who sold drugs – that’s what they did. We watched and learned. I was born into this - I was involved with gangs and drugs from an early age.”
Andrew was eventually lured into becoming a young ‘runner’ for gangs:
“There were always parties where people did drugs. People would pay me £20 to keep a parcel of speed or a bag of cocaine under my bed. They would send me to pubs to pick up drugs. No one suspected kids. I was an innocent kid.”
Not surprisingly, Andrew’s lifestyle played havoc with his education. He didn’t have a good experience at school, regularly got into fights and felt neglected:
“Everyone thought I was just a little kid who smelled of drugs and was probably going to have a bad life. I was pushed aside. The only thing I could do at school was sport, but no one realised that.
I left school without any qualifications. I’ve never had GCSES – a normal part of life. I had low self-esteem because I lacked a proper education. In the back of my head I felt like I wasn’t as good as other people.”
Andrew’s brother is serving life for murder
As he got older, Andrew would ‘debt collect’ for the gang and violence was never too far away from his family:
“I saw people rob each other over drugs – people who were supposed to be friends. I saw friends stab people for no reason. At times, my dad and my brother were in a very bad way. Knife crime is really big.”
Due to his brother’s crack cocaine addiction and debt problems, Andrew’s family suffered the consequences:
“No one in my family knew about my brother’s addiction. I found out when I came home and saw some big guy walking out of our house with my TV. I asked him what he was doing and he said my brother owed him £5K, then he threatened to stab me. My dad was sitting there not knowing what was going on.”
Andrew’s brother’s addiction landed him in prison where he’s currently serving life for murder.
Life on the road was tough
Andrew knew, in order to avoid the same destructive path as his brother, he had to make some changes:
“I spiralled out of control until the age of 21 when I realised I needed to get a proper job and stop being involved in gangs. Being a van driver was the only thing I knew how to do in life - my only skill. I wasn’t qualified to do anything else. I was able to drive a 7.5 tonne lorry. That’s when I calmed down a bit and actually started working for a living.”
Eventually, Andrew got married and started a family, but life on the road as a lorry driver took its toll:
“I drove a lorry all over London and England for 10 years. I would do a lot of overtime from six in the morning until seven or eight at night. I’d always be on call. I seemed to be away from my family all the time. I would hardly see them.
Being a lorry driver was really stressful - I felt like I was going to have a heart attack or a nervous breakdown. I was dealing with road rage every day and I had to deal with angry clients who hadn’t had a proper service. They’d be very abusive which made me depressed and frustrated. It was affecting my wife and kids because I was unhappy all the time.”
Going straight wasn’t easy
Although Andrew had a job, he was still dabbling with drugs on the side. He had to make some stark choices:
“I never had a relationship with my brother. When I asked him what he would choose out of family and drugs, he chose drugs.
My wife made me realise that I had to choose too - it was her or the drugs. I decided I didn’t want to do this anymore.”
As Andrew finally began to leave behind his old life, he discovered God and became a Christian. He decided to give back to his community by driving a minibus voluntarily for local women’s group ‘Women of Wandsworth’. As a keen runner and martial arts enthusiast, he also started a free running group for single mums and kids’ karate classes at his local church.
His newfound faith helped him cope with life’s next chapter.
Fulfilling his calling
Andrew’s job became so unbearable, that he decided to resign, but his manager persuaded Andrew to wait:
“My manager said: ‘Hand me your resignation letter tomorrow. Just give me one day.’ I agreed and came in the next day. Everyone was called into the staff room and was made redundant. If I had resigned the day before, I would have lost out on my redundancy money.”
Andrew felt that God was calling him to become a Personal Trainer, but with limited education, low self-esteem and scepticism from others, he had no idea how he was going to get there:
“I didn’t want to be a driver any more. God was making a new path for me to become a Personal Trainer. Some people were saying: ‘You can’t just go off and do that! You’re a driver with no education - how are you going to be a Personal Trainer?’ I didn’t know how, but I believed that’s what God wanted me to do.”
Fortunately, ladies from the ‘Women of Wandsworth’ group recognised how good Andrew was at leading their running group and encouraged him to take up fitness professionally:
“They raised the money for me to do a YMCA Level 2 Gym Instructor course at South Bank where I met YMCAfit Tutor, Patricia White. After the course, I wanted to learn more, but my redundancy money was running out. Patricia suggested I volunteer at the YMCA Club.”
“It was what I had been looking for all of my life”
Andrew enjoyed volunteering at the YMCA Club and learnt many skills while helping others. He facilitated gym inductions, ensured people exercised correctly and tidied towels. Volunteering enabled him to freely access exercise workshops and courses (Aqua Aerobics, Sculpt, Exercise to Music, Kettlebells, TRX and Supple Strength, etc). He benefited from meeting experienced YMCA Club fitness experts and was really impressed with the space:
“When I walked through the doors, I’d never seen anything like it! It was my Mecca! It was what I had been looking for all of my life - an environment which emphasised that your health and wellbeing was important. In lots of other gyms, you just lift weights, but the wellbeing bit is missing. It had been missing from my life.”
Andrew volunteered at the Club for nearly three years. Little did he know that every opportunity was helping to boost his confidence and learn new skills:
“I thought I could never do that – go into a studio in front of people and teach them, but Programme Manager, Adrian, would let me cover a sculpt class or an occasional TRX class. Every time I did that, I was learning something new. Although they needed cover, they were indirectly training me and building my confidence.”
Andrew won the YMCA Club Volunteer of the Year award in 2014. He decided to invest in his future by taking out a loan to pay for the YMCAfit Level 3 Personal Trainer course.
Andrew learnt a range of skills at Central YMCA
Not a naturally academic person nor – by his own admission – IT savvy, Andrew was nervous about doing the course:
“I couldn’t even use a computer properly - the online stuff was very hard for me to learn because I can’t sit down for that long. People in the background like Adrian, Nassim, Terri and Hamit – they took time out to help me study, which they didn’t have to do. It was beyond their call of duty. When I passed my PT course, I was over the moon.
I’ve learnt life skills too, like how to communicate. When I was younger, I wouldn’t even talk to you, but now I’ve learnt how to engage with people. Today, I’m not afraid to look people in the eye now, whereas before, I didn’t want people to look at me.
The YMCA has given me so many skills. They want people to know how to exercise safely and effectively. They offer free workshops because the YMCA actually care about people who use their facilities.”
Mind, body, spirit
Andrew has always appreciated the holistic approach at the YMCA Club, and how it’s supported his faith:
“The YMCA with its Christian ethos is very different from other training providers. If it wasn’t for a place like this where I could pray in the chapel when I was feeling low and have people mentor me, I don’t think I would have had the same result. God was present for my spiritual healing as well as my physical education. I wouldn’t go anywhere else to do a PT course.
Sure you can book an online course elsewhere and do a practical workshop with someone you’ve got no bonding with, but there’s no real connection. There’s a bond here you can never break with people – the YMCA Club is more than just a gym.”
Giving back to the community
After he qualified as a PT, Andrew began to work out in parks and built up a community client base through word of mouth and Facebook. Mums would bring their prams at lunchtime and do a TRX workout. For the last two years, Wandsworth Council have funded Andrew’s kids’ karate tournaments. He’s also started going into schools to teach children a range of fitness including Zumba and karate:
“The kids are going home with ‘I love Zumba’ stickers! I met one seven year-old kid called Tommy who was a bit like me - always angry and getting into fights. He does Zumba and karate with me. Now he’s gone from an angry school kid to a greenbelt in karate and loves it. Instead of being angry, he could be a Zumba or karate Teacher when he grows up. It’s really inspiring to see the affect I’ve had on him.”
A fitness company specialising in wellbeing called ‘Enable Leisure’ approached Andrew with a job offer so Andrew now works with people with mental health issues alongside his private PT work and other projects:
“What I love about my job is getting people to engage with their community who wouldn’t normally engage – teaching people with mental health issues to be confident enough to go to the gym by themselves or Somali kids and their mums who find it hard to trust male trainers or supporting so called ‘un-athletic’ people’ or overweight kids. I see their worth and not what they look like.
I love to see people who’ve been written off, thrive. People who supposedly don’t look the part or who aren’t supposedly good at sport are actually getting their chance.”
Winning ‘UK Community Coach of the Year’
Enable Leisure recognised Andrew’s enormous contribution to health and fitness within local communities and nominated him for ‘UK Community Coach of the Year’:
“When I won the award, it was so overwhelming – I was in tears. I thought there was no way that I could win something like that. Why would people vote for me? I’ve always suffered from low self-esteem. I didn’t feel worthy of an award. I couldn’t believe some guy from Battersea with issues was sharing the stage with famous, international, Olympic coaches.
But when I heard what people were saying about me in the nomination film - how I’ve changed their lives, how I’ve helped them overcome their challenges and made a difference, I realised I should take a bit more pride in myself.”
Andrew’s fitness career has continued to thrive and he hasn’t looked back:
“I could never go back to my old life - I don’t miss being a lorry driver. I earn a good living now by doing this.”
Secret of Andrew’s success
Andrew attributes his success to a number of factors:
“The YMCA has changed my life. I used to be a really broken person, but they’ve taught me how to be professional and how to help and care about others. They don’t realise what affect they’ve had on me. I always carry out what they’ve taught me - put people’s needs at the heart of what I’m doing and make sure they’re safe.
My faith is everything - now I put Jesus at the forefront of my life and my life’s a lot better.”
Following on from his recent award and recognition, alongside his other work, Andrew has been hired by Thames Christian School in Battersea to teach boxing to their students.