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Athletics: Hansen puts trust in going the distance

ASHIA HANSEN didn't get where she is today without self-discipline. But the current world indoor champion and record holder for the triple jump appears to have difficulty accepting her public image.

"The media seem to see me as this mature person," she said yesterday with a disbelieving gurgle of laughter. Clearly this does not square with her own assessment of herself.

Speaking at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham, where in less than three weeks' time she will appear at the trials for this year's World Championships in Seville, she admitted that she was a stubborn sort of person. And habitually late - a failing her coach, Aston Moore, was happy to confirm. She is untidy, too, although this failing is mitigated by the fact that the athlete who is currently lodging in her Birmingham home, the 200 metres runner Katharine Merry, is the opposite.

The diamond stud that appeared in Hansen's navel a couple of years ago now has a companion in the centre of her tongue. She did it, she says, because others had copied the belly-button idea and she wanted to be different. To her knowledge, no other athlete has yet added a tongue stud.

Another thing about Hansen - despite the fact that her coach thinks she should diet to regain her optimum competitive weight of 10st 4lb, she cannot forsake her beloved curries. But she is clinging to a valuable piece of information handed on by her nutritionist. Apparently, she can eat as much chicken tikka masala as she likes without worrying, because, you see, it's made with yoghurt, not cream. Touching faith.

Such human fallibility was part of Hansen's intrinsic appeal when she began to make her mark on the international scene in 1994, benefiting from her natural aptitude for the new women's event of the triple jump. The talent of this long-limbed newcomer - born in the United States, but adopted at three months by an Englishwoman and her Ghanaian husband - was obvious. But a sequence of disastrous showings in big competitions - she failed to qualify at the European Championships of '94 and the following year's World Championships and failed to record a mark at the 1996 European Indoors - led some to question her mental resilience. "People were saying I couldn't handle the pressure," she said. "But the fact was I simply wasn't good enough at the time."

She is now. At 27, Hansen is at the top of her event, a proven competitor with medals and records under her belt - last year she won the European Indoor and Commonwealth titles, in March this year she added a World Indoor gold - and a clear view of how to achieve her remaining ambitions.

Those have been bolstered in the past three years by the guidance of Moore, the former British triple jump record holder. Since March, Moore has been able to work as her full-time coach, travelling with her to important meetings.

This season has already been similarly eventful for Hansen, who underwent a foot operation soon after winning the World Indoor title and consequently made a slow start to the outdoor season. Her frustrations came to a head the day before she competed in Lausanne on 2 July. "She got really angry with herself and she was saying things like: `What the hell am I doing?'," says Moore. "I said: `Let's do something about it, then.' We talked it through and suddenly, whack! It was fixed." The next day she won in a distance of 14.66 metres, her best of the season.

Hansen is working towards a pre-set target distance in Seville next month. She will not disclose how far it is, but will say that it is further than her current best of 15.16m. Denise Lewis's recently expressed doubts about whether she will be fit enough to do the heptathlon in Seville could mean an even higher profile for Hansen should she achieve success. But any inquiry about the possibility of establishing herself as Britain's foremost female athlete is firmly fended off. This is difficult territory - particularly as Hansen and Lewis do not get on. "I respect her as an athlete," Hansen said of the European champion. "She's absolutely brilliant. But we've never really got on since we were so high, competing in the long jump together as juniors."