Athletics: Dynamic Ladejo whips up a quiet storm: Roger Black's closest rival has made dramatic progress in the past few months. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
WE thought we knew Du'Aine Ladejo. He was the well-spoken, affable one who went about his business with a wide smile. So who was this intense, dissatisfied athlete sitting at a press conference beside a jubilant Roger Black?

Black's joy was understandable. After a nightmare of illness and uncertainty he had reassured himself that he was still a contender, at the very least, by winning the national 400 metres title earlier this summer in under 45 seconds. At one stroke, he had qualified to challenge for an unprecedented third European title.

Ladejo acknowledged Black's achievement graciously, but when conversation turned to his own performance the response was a soliloquy of self-flagellation. 'Never again will I do that,' Ladejo said through clenched teeth. 'Never again will I underestimate an athlete like that. I went into the race thinking it was my race. And I blew it.'

An unusual response for him, as he now acknowledges. But a vital one. Such has been the level of the 23-year-old Londoner's subsequent performances that he goes into next week's European Championships as the man most likely to deny Black his ambition.

Since that June day in Sheffield, he has finished as silver medallist behind the Olympic champion, Quincy Watts, in the Goodwill Games and beaten Black twice. The second of these victories, at the Monte Carlo Grand Prix on Tuesday, saw him break 45 seconds for the first time in his career. Now he, like Black, has 44.94sec to his credit - and nobody else in Europe appears to be close to that level of running.

If Ladejo does win in Helsinki, woe betide anyone who views it as anything less than a British triumph. Ladejo's accent may be a touch transatlantic following his six years of study in the United States, but this child of a Nigerian father and half-English, half-Nigerian mother was born in Paddington and resides in St John's Wood. 'If I had been to university in Leeds, that wouldn't make me a Yorkshireman,' he said. 'I'm a Londoner. There is not one ounce of American in me.'

Had he felt differently, he might now be earning mega-bucks with a top American football team in the NFL. As an exchange student at a high school in Ohio, his potential was immediately evident to a watching NFL scout.

''The first play I ever received was a five-yard throw which I turned into a 56-yard run,' he recalls. The scout tried to persuade him to sign up at UCLA with a view to a professional career. But the British newcomer had other ideas, and chose the University of Texas, where he majored in communications and indulged his talent for athletics.

For a while, running was no more than a hobby. But some serious training in the winter of 1991-92 saw him run 45.25sec at the NCCA. That summer he won an Olympic bronze medal after running in the heats of the 400 metres relay.

But it was not until this year that he began to establish himself as an individual runner. What did that, more than anything else, was winning the European indoor title in Paris in March. 'That was a turning point for me,' he said. 'Beforehand, I thought: 'Wouldn't it be great to actually win something.' When I found at last that I could do it, it calmed me.'

Ladejo displayed great resilience and nerve in taking that title, coming through the hurly-burly of the rounds with assurance and avoiding the trouble in the final which engulfed his British rival, Mark Richardson. The only time Ladejo lost his composure was when he tripped at the finish line, bringing down the silver and bronze medallists. They could all afford to laugh by then.

That victory has made life a lot easier for Ladejo, but there are several sponsors hanging back to see if he can get a medal in Helsinki. He mentions it without rancour, but his performance in Paris earned not one headline. It did not take a student of communications to work out that there was still a little way to go on the publicity front.

Accordingly, he has set up his own promotional company. The name is taken from Mrs Ladejo's description of her gentle but dynamic son - Quiet Storm. Ladejo has high ambitions for the company, which he hopes to get involved in film production.

For the moment though, he is concentrating his energies on the track. The mental resilience he has displayed thus far is complemented by physical reliability in an event notorious for its casualty rate. While Black, checked first by injury and more recently by illness, has recovered to challenge for the European title again, other hugely talented one-lap runners - the British record holder, David Grindley, the former record holder, Derek Redmond, Richardson and the European junior champion, Guy Bullock - have all been hors de combat. Ladejo has been able to make the most of his opportunity.

'I just seem to be blessed with the body type to be able to cope with the event,' he said. 'I'm touching wood as I say this, but I haven't had major problems with injury. A lot of that has to do with the strength training which I do with Clive Manley at his club in Tufnell Park. It works on strengthening the parts that are most susceptible to injury.'

Ladejo's racing style has also been worked on assiduously in recent weeks under the guidance of the man who coached Redmond to his best performances, Tony Hadley. 'I was always known as a fast starter who faded away,' Ladejo said. 'But I have been varying the way I run.'

His most recent performance in Monte Carlo, where he passed Black in the final 15 metres, underlined his flexibility. 'I have the confidence now to run at my own tempo,' he said. 'As far as opponents are concerned, you don't catch them up so much as pass them up. It's all about finding my own niche.'

That is something this outgoing character has already done. Adding a European outdoor title to his indoor one would put him into a new category altogether, but he does not see even that as an end in itself. 'The L-plates are still firmly stuck on my car,' he said. 'It's a highly tuned car and I've still got to find out how to use it properly. Whatever I do in Helsinki, there's a lot more to come.'

(Photograph omitted)