Athletics: Giant leap for Smith's peace of mind

Britain's foremost high jumper has just made his first attempt in six months to clear the bar - he failed but is delighted.
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SHORTLY BEFORE three o'clock yesterday afternoon in the empty, echoing vastness of Birmingham's National Indoor Arena, Steve Smith failed to clear 2.10 metres in the high jump. He could not have been happier.

Just over five months earlier, a freak training accident had left Britain's Olympic bronze medallist unable to move his head or neck. This was his first effort over a bar since then - one small jump for Steve Smith, one giant leap for his mind.

As he approached his take-off with a full run-up, the only sound was the crescendo of his footsteps followed by a clanging and clattering as he sent both the bar and one of the supports flying. He lay still for a moment on the landing bed before flipping himself upright with the panache that has become his trademark in a seven-year international career. Three more jumps, the last of them at 2.20m, reinforced the message: he was back in business.

"There was a real sense of relief," he said. "I felt like a high jumper again. This was my first jump for almost six months and I was using a new run-up for the first time, so the whole thing felt very weird. But after this I know I can be very, very competitive again this season."

The details of the accident on 7 July remain horribly clear to him. It happened in an ordinary jump at the Wavertree track in his native city of Liverpool, two days before he was due to compete in the Oslo Grand Prix. "As soon as I landed on my back it was really painful," he said. "I couldn't move off the landing bed. But I thought that maybe it was just a matter of having to click something back into place. I hadn't ruled out Oslo."

Twenty minutes later, still prostrate and with paramedics stabilising his neck, he had ruled out Oslo - but was still thinking in terms of a month or two out of action. It was not until the following morning as he lay in a surgical collar at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, that the severity of his position sank in. "They had to give me morphine for the pain," he said. "I was so sleepy that my consultant had to wake me up to give me a diagnosis. He spouted all this jargon, and then disappeared.

"Malcolm Brown, the British team doctor, was with me at the time, so I said to him, `What does all that mean?' And he told me I would not be jumping for the rest of the year at least. I was just devastated."

In one alarming incident he had been turned from an athlete who stood at the top of the world rankings to an anxious 25-year-old wondering if he would ever be an athlete again.

Smith was in hospital for 10 days, but spent longer worrying over a succession of diagnoses. At first, it was thought he had torn intro-spinous ligaments and suffered a prolapsed disk. A second opinion presented a different picture: no ligament tear, and a disk which may have been prolapsed before the accident.

"It was a really confusing time," Smith said. "I kept thinking: If it's not clear what happened, what was to stop it happening again in the same way?"

His mind was taken off his own predicament in August, when he travelled to the European Championships as non-playing British team captain. But the frustrations arose again the following month as English athletes, including his main domestic rival Dalton Grant, swept up the titles at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. It took Smith about 10 minutes to realise that he could not face following the Games on television. "I thought to myself, `You don't want to be watching this'," he said.

By this time, however, he had decided to draw a metaphorical line underneath the events of the summer. He left Liverpool to live and train in Birmingham under the guidance of Tudor Bidder, the technical director of jumps for PAS, the Lottery-distributing body for British athletics. Bidder, who worked for most of the 1990s coaching in the Australian Institute of Sport, started Smith's rehabilitation programme, backed up by frequent physiotherapy.

A couple of months ago many of Smith's lingering concerns over his condition were allayed by another member of the AIS, Peter Stanton, who was in England to advise UK Athletics 98 on a physiotherapy programme. Stanton told Smith he had rotated his vertebrae in the accident - three had turned one way, two the other. Smith's team of physios are now concentrating on keeping them all in line.

Smith will return to the same Birmingham arena at the end of this month for the AAA's indoor championships, before turning his thoughts to the World indoor and outdoor championships later this year. But the real goal lies beyond.

"I am dedicating myself 100 per cent to doing well at the 2000 Olympics," he said. "I want to be in Sydney having done everything I possibly could to give myself a chance of winning."

Yesterday marked a significant step towards that ambition.