Athletics: Gardener ready to come in from cold

Athletics: Sprinter aims to put `Three Musketeers' in their place in Sunday's challenge race at Gateshead
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The Independent Online
MAURICE GREENE had just flashed across the line in Athens to lower the world 100 metres record to 9.79 seconds. As the American began his celebrations, the number of reasons Jason Gardener - watching from the sidelines - had to be unhappy doubled. Like every other sprinter, Gardener reacted to Greene's achievement in knocking 0.05sec off the record as if he had received a body punch. But what made it worse for the 23-year- old Bath sprinter was the fact that he felt he should have been in the race. Earlier in the evening at the Tsikliteria meeting he had reduced his personal best from 10.25 to 10.08 in what was his first race of the outdoor season. It had been far from a technically perfect run, and, on a warm, windless evening ideally suited to sprinting the likelihood that he would have gone yet faster is one that will always nag at him.

"You could say I was pissed off having to watch," Gardener said yesterday. "I had run the second fastest time of the night in one of the two earlier races, but I found out they were not heats. The final was by invitation only."

And Mr Gardener was not on the list of invitees. For a hugely talented athlete who never seems to have a fair shake of the stick in terms of recognition of his achievements, it seemed this was the story of his life.

But life looks as if it may be about to change for Mr Gardener. After his second race of the season tomorrow night on what he hopes will be a fast track in Dortmund, he will take part in a special challenge event at Sunday's Gateshead Classic which has been put together to reflect the sudden emergence of young talents within British sprinting. Gardener will line up alongside a field which includes the 25-year-old Darren Campbell, the reigning European champion and 21-year-old Londoner Dwain Chambers, who earlier this month became only the second European after Linford Christie to run faster than 10 seconds from the 100 metres. These are the Three Musketeers of British sprinting, although other flashing young blades, such as Marlon Devonish and Scotland's Ian Mackie, are also on the scene. Mackie, recovering from an Achilles injury, is also in the Gateshead 100.

"Now Linford's retired, everyone wants to establish themselves as Britain's number one," Gardener said. "Sunday's race is really important to me because you ride off confidence and I would like to go into the World Championship season having beaten all my British rivals."

According to Dave Lease, who has coached Gardener in Bath for the last seven years, the reaction of his charge to Chambers' recent time of 9.99sec was one of intense irritation. "He was upset that Dwain had beaten him to the sub-10 mark. Because Jason knows it's a question of when, not if, he beats it himself."

Chambers, who runs with the Commonwealth 200 metres champion, Julian Golding, under the coaching direction of Mike McFarlane, is represented by Nuff Respect, Christie's management agency. So is Campbell, who ran 10.04 to win the European title last summer. He is also coached by Christie.

Gardener, back in Bath, has always been something of an outsider in sprinting circles. There have not been many top class sprinters from the West Country - Mary Rand, the 1964 Olympic long jump champion may have been the last - and as a talented member of Bath AC in the early 90s, Gardener encountered defeatism which he reacted strongly against. "There was a feeling that the best athletes were all in London or Birmingham. But I didn't accept that. I didn't want to settle for being the best athlete in my area so I started travelling around to widen my racing experience."

He was soon assisted to that end when Lease, who had returned to Bath having spent some time as Scotland's national coach, joined up with him. Gardener happens to be Lease's sister's nephew, and the coach recalls how she was the one who first indicated what kind of a prospect the 16- year-old was. "She kept telling me `our Jason can run'. And I would say to her `all right Sue, I'll keep an eye on him'."

Although Bath University now has a well equipped training centre for elite athletes, such facilities were not in place at the time when Gardner could have used them. He and Lease sorted out tracks and weight rooms through contacts Lease had built up in a 17-year teaching career in the city. Although they use the university facilities on occasions, they largely stick to their favourite old haunts even now. "We train most often at a track in Melksham which is a bit derelict and old," Lease said. "But it's nice and quiet and we can do what we want without interference."

Lease, who competed in the World Trampoline Championships of 1965, has brought something of the discipline and technique required for that sport into his sprint coaching. In combination with Gardener's natural ability, this has produced a runner notable for his loose, fluent style. "I've got videos of Jason racing", Lease said. "He looks like a Cheetah, his eyes don't move when he's at top speed."

Gardener is now coming to the end of what both he and his coach regard as a three-year apprenticeship. But his current level of achievement has only been reached after two traumatic years of problems with an inflamed back and a mysterious, intermittent cramping of his legs. "I began to question everything when it kept happening," Gardener said. "I began to wonder if it was all in my mind and if I was really cut out for running fast."

The turning point for him came just after he had been beaten in the semi- final of the 1997 World Championship trials. He was told that a study of athletes who had suffered cramping at the previous year's Olympic trials showed a possible correlation between the effect and the ingestion of creatine, the legal protein powder taken by many athletes for strength and endurance.

Whether this was the key or not, it seemed to work for Gardener whose form recovered dramatically after he stopped taking the substance. In February 1998, he won a silver medal at the European Indoor Championships in Valencia, banishing the unhappy memories of the same event three years earlier, when he had been disqualified for false starting in a final where he was favourite to win.

In March of this year, after his first full winter's training for three years, his consistency on indoor tracks was rewarded with a world indoor bronze medal over 60 metres behind Greene and his fellow American Tim Harden. "The greatest thing about winning the bronze in Maebashi was that it showed me I could become a truly world class sprinter," Gardner said.

Like every other sprinter in the world right now, Gardner can see Greene disappearing over the horizon. But he believes that the new crop of young British sprinters can motivate each other to improve their general performance. "Maurice's world record moved the goal posts," he said. "It's up to us now to chase after them."

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