All-rounder ready to join the elite; EUROPEAN CUP: With the Olympic Games looming, British athletes have an added motivation in Madrid this weekend

Mike Rowbottom meets Denise Lewis, a British record-breaking multi- eventer who is on the threshold of greatness
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When Denise Lewis surprised even herself by winning the 1994 Commonwealth Games heptathlon, the impact upon the gathered sporting press was enormous. "It was as though I had landed on the face of the earth that morning," she recalled.

Two years on, she is establishing herself as one of Britain's highest- profile women athletes. Lewis goes into this weekend's European Cup in Madrid on a high after breaking Judy Simpson's 10-year-old British heptathlon record. Her performance in Gotzis, Austria, last weekend, where she finished second behind Syria's world champion Ghada Shouaa with 6,645 points - 22 more than Simpson - has lifted her into a new category as a competitor.

Among those Lewis defeated was Germany's European Champion, Sabine Braun. When she competes in her next heptathlon, at this summer's Olympics, she will be a real medal contender.

Comparisons with that other British multi-eventer, Daley Thompson, are hardly appropriate. But at 23, Lewis has the time and potential for achievements which will make her part of Britain's athletics establishment.

And as one of the most striking pin-ups in the Olympic fund-raising calendar put together by Sharron Davies last year, Lewis, who will also feature in a forthcoming Adidas poster campaign, has the looks to maximise the commercial possibilities of greater projection.

The best performance by a British multi-eventer since Thompson was winning world and Olympic titles, saw this Birchfield Harrier break personal best in four of the seven designated events in Austria and match her best in another. Ironically, her worst discipline was the javelin, which had effectively secured her Commonwealth gold in Auckland when she threw it five metres further than she ever had before to record 53.68 metres.

Lewis has worked harder on the weights than ever before this winter but, above all, she and her coach, Darrell Bunn, have worked on improving her basic speed. "We felt it was the key to the whole range of events," she said.

The most dramatic evidence of her improvement came when she reduced her 200m best from 24.80sec to 25.06, rounding off a first day in which she had reduced her 100m hurdles best to 13.18 despite a head wind and equalled her high jump best of 1.84m, and improved in the shot from 13.58m to 14.36.

Amassing points in multi events is like stacking plates - one false move and the whole thing comes crashing down. Thus Lewis went into the second day in Gotzis with masses to lose and, when the weather turned against her in the long jump - the event in which she will compete here tomorrow - she was full of trepidation. But a leap of 6.60m kept her on course and she went into the last event, the 800m, knowing the record was within reach.

Just as in Auckland, Lewis spent the 50-minute gap between events preparing with her personal trainer and physiotherapist, Kevin Lidlow, whose travel had been assisted from the fund of pounds 7,000 which Lewis has received this year from seven Birmingham businessmen.

"I was lying there saying: 'Kevin, I'm really scared. I've got the same scared feeling I had at the Commonwealth Games'," she said. "At times like that you go on an inward journey when you really do search your soul, asking yourself whether you can do it. You have to answer your own question. But Kevin was taking the tension out of my brain, massaging confidence into me. He said he was was talking to the next British record holder."

Another personal best of 2min 16.84sec confirmed his faith. "I don't usually show the depth of my emotions," Lewis said, "but, when I finished, it was beautiful. It really was. The crowd knew what I was feeling, and so did my competitors.

"It has sunk in now. I'm very proud and a bit shocked. At first I kept very calm about it but I find myself chuckling now and again when I realise what I have actually done."

Lewis, who has never known her father and was brought up by her mother in Wolverhampton, hopes her achievements will encourage other local youngsters to follow her path. "I am basically a very ordinary person," she said.

But with extraordinary abilities.

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