Athletics: Baulch wonder over one lap

Mike Rowbottom meets the Welsh sprinter whose rise takes another stride at tomorrow's world indoor championships
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Jamie Baulch still winces at the recollection of his last experience at the Palais-Omnisports in Paris-Bercy, where he returns tomorrow in search of the world indoor 400 metres title.

The 23-year-old Welshman, whose unbeaten run indoors this season has established him as Britain's clearest medal prospect, crashed to the track in the 400m final of he 1994 European indoor championships after a collision that arose partly from his lack of experience.

Baulch, whose main achievement until then had been winning a world junior sprint relay gold medal in 1992, recalls the moment when his French challenge ended shortly before the bell for the final lap.

"Everyone broke across the track and then the Russian guy caught his feet up with mine," he said. "I fell so hard, there was no way I could continue. I was almost crying, if I remember rightly. I had hurt my arm and my knee.

"I was very inexperienced. I didn't know how to run a 400 properly. But I think I've moved on from there in the last couple of years."

That is an understatement. Since his setback, Baulch, with the coaching assistance of fellow Welshman Colin Jackson, the world high hurdles record holder, has established himself as one of the leading British one-lap runners at a time when the quality in that event is at an all-time high.

Last season, after winter training with Jackson and Linford Christie in Australia, Baulch lowered his 400m outdoor best to 44.57sec, missing out on an individual place at the Olympic trials but earning a silver medal in the Atlanta relay alongside Roger Black, Mark Richardson and Iwan Thomas.

This year, after another highly profitable sojourn Down Under, he has been unbeaten indoors, taking 0.17sec off Todd Bennett's 12-year-old British and Commonwealth 400m record of 45.56 in the process.

That European final in 1994 launched the career of another British 400m runner, Du'aine Ladejo, who won the event and added the outdoor gold medal later that year before retaining his indoor title in Stockholm last spring. But, after a disappointing Olympics, a disillusioned Ladejo has now turned to the decathlon event. The curious turn of events is not lost on Baulch.

"Sometimes when guys are constantly winning, they can't handle it when they lose," he said. "But all through my athletics career, ever since I was 10 or 11, I have had defeats. As a junior I was very small and I was always, always losing. But in a way, I think it was a good thing for me that I learned to take a beating.

"I've had some real disappointments, of course. Seeing Roger and Iwan run in the Olympic final and thinking: 'It could have been me', that wasn't fun. But things don't get to me too deep. I'm not one of those people who mope around thinking, 'Oh God, I didn't do this, I didn't do that.' I just like to get on with things."

Jamie, adopted when he was five months old by Marilyn and Alan Baulch and brought up in Cwmbran, clearly has a natural resilience: a natural ebullience, too. His habitual grin from beneath ginger dreadlocks has been one of the cheeriest features of a troubled new year for British athletics.

The key to his advance, he maintains, lies in the work he has done with some of the best sprinters in the world. "I've listened a lot this winter, and everything I've been told I've remembered," he said. "Once you've got down to 44.5 for the 400, that is the way you improve.

"Lots of things that Linford said to me, I thought, 'Oh God, it's so easy.' He was setting the training routines for everyone, and running along with us. He would tell us to lift our hips as we came round the 200 metres bend. Or he would say that when you get to 20, 30 metres, you are at your full speed, so why try to run any faster? I would get to 50 metres and then try to kick, which would slow me up. It seems obvious now I think about it.

"If you are training with someone who is trying too hard you will tense up yourself. If you are with experienced runners like Linford or Frankie Fredericks you can't believe how relaxed they are and that rubs off on you.

"Linford is 6ft 3in and I am 5ft 8in, so when I am running next to him I'm doing everything I can to match his stride, to do what he is doing by picking my knees up. You get into good habits."

Profitable habits, as well. Last month Baulch earned his biggest single payday so far - pounds 12,000 - by winning the Ricoh Indoor Grand Prix. "It's come all of a sudden for me," he said. "If I ever get to the level where Colin and Linford are, I would love it, but I haven't really thought about it to be honest. I'm not going to Paris for money. I just want a title."

The Palais-Omnisports awaits part two of The Fall and Rise of Jamie Baulch.