The tougher the better for Jean: Ruth Picardie meets Britain's top Gladiator, who is not afraid to take on snarling blonde Amazons or 38-ton lorries

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
As we walk past Tesco in Rugby, a man in blue overalls interrupts: 'Sorry, but are you . . .?' The woman smiles and nods. 'Could my son have your autograph, please?' he asks. Already a pro, she requests the boy's name and signs the scrappy photograph the man has brought. 'Hang tough] Best wishes, Jean Klenk.'

Life has changed dramatically for Jean Klenk since New Year's Day, when ITV broadcast the final of its high-rating Gladiators competition, which pits guest athletes against a resident team in a series of gruelling events. Within days she was trailed by the Independent, interviewed by a local radio station, and invited - via her new mobile phone - to appear on The Big Breakfast, open a local store and take part in a celebrity tug of war. The News of the World wants to accompany her to Disneyworld, where she plans to spend some of her pounds 5,000 prize money.

Her achievement was not simply to beat 9,000 other 'contenders', as they are known, to win Gladiators - although it is no mean feat overcoming a snarling Amazon in front of 8,000 screaming children, especially when the show's host, Ulrika Jonsson, repeatedly emphasises that you are only 5ft 2in (157cm) tall and, at 36, the oldest woman in the competition.

But Jean is double tough. For the past five years she has driven a 38-ton lorry for Tesco, the only woman in a team of 70 HGV drivers based at Hinckley in the Midlands. Individual trolleys, when loaded with a full whack of Pedigree Chum, can weigh up to half a ton.

Jean is three-times British champion in the demanding Korean martial art of tae kwon-do and also an enthusiastic boxer. In the summer months, when she is not busy training, she rides an 850cc Norton Commando motorcycle.

Her autograph slogan, 'Hang tough]', refers to the Gladiators final in which she chipped a bone in her right hand, tore a tendon in her elbow, and sprained a wrist and ankle. The next day she flew to California to compete in the international finals. The team doctor said she was too badly injured, but Jean insisted on competing against a 6ft 3in blonde called Sky. Despite her injuries, she reached the final three and came away with dollars 500. No wonder colleagues once presented her with a badge bearing the legend 'Jean. I'm incorrigible'.

But the 'feminine' Jean is also a glamorous blonde, wife to Stu, and the mother of six-year-old Joseph. (She stopped running when she was seven months' pregnant, resumed training before she left hospital, and says she is 'definitely' not having any more children.)

Her first sporting triumph was as a teenager, winning the 'Glamour Girl Walk', a marathon organised by a local hosiery factory. She then gave up training in favour of motorbiking until encouraged by a friend to get in shape. She even manages to look OK in Tesco's standard grey trousers, maroon jacket and striped tie, with hair neatly pinned up, gold jewellery and and light make-up.

For the cover of the Tesco staff magazine, in which she was featured as one of the store's 'Winning Women', Jean was photographed in a glitzy black dress and red lipstick, looking like Hillary Clinton's little sister. Not bad for a girl who left school at 16 with a CSE grade 2 in typing, and spent the next three and a half years in a hosiery factory, putting elastic in knickers.

'I get bored very easily,' Jean says. 'I like a lot of variety. My two best friends are housewives. I say to them, 'How can you stand it?' '

Her regime is punishing, not least because of Tesco's shift system, which mixes night and day work and has a minimum shift of nine and a quarter hours. She trains every day if she can, with a male friend who tried unsuccessfully for Gladiators, mixing running, circuit training and weight training with the boxing and tae kwon-do.

Her mother, Elsie, who recently left her cleaning job because of ill health, helps with Joseph (who has his own bedroom at his grandparents' house a couple of miles away), picking him up from school and making him tea. 'Kids that stay with their mam all the time lose their confidence,' Jean says.

Her housewifely duties are done on the hoof, but done they must be, because there is no self-sacrificing house-husband in the background. Stu, a quiet bloke who set up his own HGV repair business when he was made redundant as a lorry driver four years ago, 'wants me to stay at home. He gets fed up. Any man would. He'll have a bowl of cereal if I'm not at home to cook.' Posters of babes on motorbikes adorn the walls of their comfy semi.

New man he may not be, but Stu doesn't complain too much now that Jean has cut back on her martial arts training. 'He were the one who said, 'Why don't you go for your heavy goods?' in the first place,' she says. 'Driving trucks was in the family. I like being out on my own. I don't like being cooped up. To be stuck in an office is dead boring.' Stu has also set up a punching bag in the back garden. 'Once I've made me mind up, he knows there's no going back.'

Support has come from other men, too. 'Steve Clarke, my training partner, is the person, besides me husband, who has always had confidence in me. He inspires me to go and do well. In the Gladiators, he kept saying, 'You can take her'. He said, 'You'll win it' from day one.'

Then there is her father, Ian, a big, friendly truck driver and former boxer. 'We wanted a lad,' he says. 'Got three girls. If she'd been a boy, she'd have been a boxing champ. My father boxed with Freddie Mills (the former world light heavyweight champion). I was the Far East champion in the Royal Artillery.'

'I used to dress her like a boy,' says Jean's mother, Elsie, who had five brothers. 'She were a tomboy. Took after me.'

'She's always done her own thing,' Ian says. 'She's done it all herself. The harder it is, the better she likes it.'

It hasn't always been easy: most female HGV licence-holders are owner-drivers, because firms refuse to employ them. Jean initially applied for a supervising job at Tesco, thinking she wouldn't be considered as a driver. But then the transport manager suggested she have a go.

Today, the site training officer boasts about the company's equal opportunities policy, but hints at 'resentment' among the men, at least one of whom has a sticker in his cab saying: 'Keep Clear: Bastard On Board'. Smartly suited store managers hover at delivery times, but only two drivers turned up to watch her in the Gladiators final.

Jean doesn't let it get her down. 'The more people put me down, the more determined I get. If you're strong-willed, you'll win. I'm competitive in everything. In this job, it's them and me.' Spoken like a true gladiator.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments