Greg Rutherford: Olympic gold rush's unsung hero
His long jump joy, sandwiched between the more celebrated feats of Ennis and Farah on 'Super Saturday', has made him hungry for more, he tells Simon Turnbull
Thursday 13 December 2012
Four months on, in the bitter chill of winter, it seems like a midsummer night's dream. Did all of that drama really unfold on the big stage in Stratford on the evening of 4 August? Three British gold medal winners arriving, London bus-style, in the space of 45 spellbinding minutes in the cacophonous crucible of the 2012 Olympic Stadium?
Even now, Greg Rutherford can barely believe it. And with good reason. It was boggling enough to behold from one of the 80,000 seats circling the track and field arena. What must it have been like to be smack in the middle of that "Super Saturday" for British sport, as Rutherford quite literally was?
The golden-haired long jumper from Milton Keynes found his Midas touch amid the glorious pandemonium of Jessica Ennis clinching victory in the heptathlon and Mo Farah setting out on his winning run in the 10,000m.
"It was crazy," Rutherford reflects "It's something that no British athlete will ever experience again. That's sad on one level, but you've got to understand that was the greatest Olympic Games that's ever been hosted – and probably ever will be.
"The crowd understood what was going on. They understood when to cheer, how to cheer, how to get behind you. When I went out there for the long jump final, the crowd were going mental. Then Jess came out for the final event of the heptathlon, the 800m, and the place just absolutely exploded.
"Then she destroyed the field in the 800m field and again it was a complete frenzy. And all of a sudden there was a lull and people realised there was another British guy with the chance of a gold medal.
"I was across on the other side of the track getting ready to jump. And then I managed to win a gold medal and it turned into this incredible madness. And then Mo went out and it was just..."
The Olympic long jump champion has run out of superlatives. His face is wreathed in a smile and his eyes have misted over.
"I've literally never experienced anything like that in my life and certainly never will again," he eventually continues. "But it's something that I will cherish forever."
So will the rest of us who were lucky enough to have been there. Looking down from the stands as Farah completed the golden three-quarters of an hour, surging to victory off the final bend, the memory abides of Rutherford standing at trackside, joining in the mass celebrations. He had been unable to complete a full lap of honour, having gingerly skirted his way around the perimeter of the track from the back-straight while the 25-lap 10,000m final was unfolding.
The one-time would-be Villan (a trialist with Aston Villa in his youth) was the unsung hero of "Super Saturday", his success somewhat overlooked, coming as it did in between the heroics of the established golden girl and golden boy of British athletics. He was not entirely unheralded, though.
Indeed, as The Independent had ventured to suggest two weeks before: "There could be three British golds in one night, the second day of track and field competition. After all, Greg Rutherford is joint leader of the long jump world rankings in 2012."
At an early-season meeting at Chula Vista in California, Rutherford had jumped 8.35m, regaining a share of the British record with his long-time domestic rival Chris Tomlinson. His world-beating potential had long been evident.
Back in 2006, when The Independent on Sunday ran a monthly series spotlighting possible home medal winners at the distant London Olympics, Rutherford was chosen as one of the "12 for 2012". Later that year, aged 19, he showed a tangible glimpse of his talent, winning a silver medal at the European Championships in Gothenburg. Up to the summer of 2012, however, he managed to claim only one further major championship medal, a silver at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010.
That was due largely to Rutherford's proneness to hamstring tears – and to other assorted setbacks on the health front, such as the kidney and lung infections that left him in a Beijing hospital the day after the 2008 Olympic final. It was only after coming under the wing of Dan Pfaff that he started to gain the physical strength and competitive consistency that proved the springboard to his Olympic success in London.
Renowned as the coach who guided Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey to Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996, Pfaff was lured to Britain in 2009 by Charles van Commenee, the head coach of UK Athletics. In his time as director of the Lee Valley national performance centre in north London, the native Texan's expertise in biomechanics helped to transform the fortunes of not just Rutherford but of pole vaulter Steve Lewis and javelin thrower Goldie Sayers too. Both broke British records this year.
Pfaff has returned to the United States, having served his contract with UK Athletics, but Rutherford intends to join him in Phoenix in the new year. There is good reason for the 26-year-old Briton to believe that Pfaff – a former protégé of Tom Tellez, the coach who guided Carl Lewis to three Olympic long jump golds – has only just started to scratch the surface of his true talent.
It took Rutherford just 8.31m to win Olympic gold and his lifetime best remains his 8.35m joint British record jump. He stands joint 65th on the world all-time ranking list. He would need to improve to 8.66m to make the top 10 but clearly sees his future on the far side of 8.50m.
That is what makes life so sweet for Rutherford as he recovers from two post-season hernia operations and looks to the future. He has the ultimate prize of Olympic gold in the bag but has considerable room for improvement yet. Tom McNab, the coach who guided him to the European junior title in 2005, once suggested that the natural limit of Rutherford's ability lay beyond 9m. Mike Powell's world record, set in 1991, is 8.95m.
"I've got a huge opportunity now to perfect the technique I've been working on under Dan," Rutherford says. "I want to turn the speed and the power that I've got into something that really is a respectable distance. As much as 8.35m got me to world No 1 this year, if you look at the all-time rankings it's not an impressive distance.
"Winning the gold medal has given me a lot of confidence. I've proven to myself what I always thought I could do – which is to go out there and beat everybody else.
"Going forward, I just know that working with Dan is going to be a good thing. That's what's fuelling me. I want to get out there, train harder and do something special and win those titles. I'm still relatively young. I'm hoping to have two more Olympics in me.
"As much as it's awesome to have won gold in 2012, I have other things I want to achieve in my career. I want to make myself one of the greatest ever long jumpers – and for me to do that I can't just rest around saying, 'Oh, I won the Olympics.' That's not going to get me anywhere.
"I can feel the desire to go out and prove I'm not just a one-trick pony."
Inspired by the Newcastle Flier
It was not quite a super Saturday for Jock Rutherford at the old Crystal Palace on 15 April, 1905. In the southern suburbs of the city where his great grandson would strike Olympic gold in front of 80,000 in 2012, the right winger lined up before 101,117 for that year's FA Cup final. He was on the losing side, Newcastle going down 2-0 to Aston Villa.
Still, Greg Rutherford's great granddad won the FA Cup with Newcastle in 1910. He also won the First Division title with them in 1905, 1907 and 1909. Jock Rutherford, known as "the Newcastle Flier", was one of the finest footballers of the Edwardian era. He won 11 caps for England and played for Arsenal at 41 (still a club record).
"He was a winger, so that must be where I've inherited my speed from," said Greg Rutherford, who himself had trials with Aston Villa aged 14. "I am pleased I picked track over football," the Manchester United fan says. "I don't think I could have emulated what my great-granddad achieved."
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