Athletics: Lewis and Backley back on gold trail

Hopes of British success in Seville rise after leading prospects recapture their form at AAA Championships

BRITAIN'S PROSPECTS of World Championship success in Seville next month brightened distinctly after yesterday's CGU World Trials and AAA Championships, where two of the country's best prospects produced long awaited evidence of their true worth.

In the men's javelin, Steve Backley won with a throw of 87.59 meters, his best of the season and seventh furthest in the world this year. And Denise Lewis, like Backley, a European champion from last summer, indicated that she is back in earnest pursuit of a world heptathlon title after competing in four events over this weekend.

"I think I will be going to Seville with a realistic change of winning gold," said Lewis, who has spent two months recovering from an injury to her calf. "I would not step out on the track otherwise. I'm just behind where I would ideally like to be right now, but the injury has cleared and there's no doubt about Seville. I've had a very satisfactory and successful weekend."

Yesterday Lewis came second in the long jump to the Commonwealth champion, Jo Wise, recording 6.50 meters, just nine centimetres adrift of the distance she produced when winning the European gold in Budapest last year. She then produced the same 100m hurdles time as she had in the Hungarian capital, finishing sixth in a race won by Keri Maddox in 12.97sec.

On Saturday, Lewis had finished fourth in the shot-putt with 15.10m and sixth in the javelin, off a shortened run-up, with 46.30m.

Backley, whose throwing has been awry all season, had promised to produce a big early throw here and appeared to have done so as he launched the spear out toward the 90m mark. But he fouled on that throw and had to wait until his fifth attempt to achieve his breakthrough. He will travel to Seville without his old friend and training partner, Mick Hill, who could only manage fourth place, four centimetres behind Mark Roberson's 80.23 as Nick Nieland rose to the challenge for a second place of 81.83.

"It's my first win this year," Backley said. "I haven't been worried at all by anything or thought that I had done something wrong in my preparation. I've known a big throw is there all along. Hopefully in Seville the big throws will be something to look forward to - frankly that's the only time that really matters."

Katharine Merry became the third fastest ever Britain in winning the 400m in 50.62. But only after she had won an argument with her coach, Linford Christie. The former World and Olympic 100m champion had wanted her to run her more recognised distance, the 200m, but Merry was desperate to maintain her hugely promising form over a distance she had raced only six times previously.

"Linford thought that if I ran a good 200 here it would help my 400m," she said. "But I thought the opposite - if I ran a good 400, then my 200s would benefit. In the end, Linford agreed to let me run the 400, and the main thing I wanted here was to do something good for him to show him I was serious about the event."

She managed that in style, finishing 15m clear of her nearest challenger for a time that only two other British runners have bettered - Phylis Smith, who ran 50.40sec in 1992, and Kathy Cook, whose 49.43sec of 1984 still stands as the British record.

Merry recalled meeting Cook a few years ago during a photo shoot to publicise the AAA Championships. "She ran 11.1 for the 100, 22.1 for 200 and 49.43 for the 400," Merry said. "I should remember those times because those are the kind of targets I am aiming at."

But if the meeting was inspirational, the advice thatMerry sought from her new-found guide was not exactly what she wanted. "When I asked her about how she had trained she just said `I hated it all, Katharine' and I thought `Oh right. Thanks for that!' We are very different kettles of fish."

But they have at least one thing in common - both have won the 100, 200 and 400m titles at AAA Championships.

For the first half of her post-race press conference, Merry - who set world age bests for the 100m as a 14-year-old - was still breathing heavily. But she insisted that the only problem she had was in her head, where a build-up of lactic acid was giving her sharp pain and impaired vision.

Her vision of where she wants to go from here, however, is clear. "I want to do the 400 in Seville," she said. "And I want to do the 400 next year at the Olympics and make a major impression."

First, however, she has to check with coach Christie. "I saw him briefly after the race, and he was smiling, so I think he'll agree," she said with a grin.

Kelly Holmes continued her strong progress towards Seville - where she is inclined to run the 1500m - with a runaway victory over 800m in 1min 59.86sec.

In the men's 800m Curtis Robb - who like Holmes has suffered grievously with injury in recent years - secured a world championship place by finishing third in a race won by Mark Sesay in his first competition of any significance since the 1996 Olympics.

Julian Golding, Britain's Commonwealth 200m champion, also indicated he is right back in form with a smooth victory in 20.20 sec ahead of Marlon Devonish.

Following Mark Richardson's withdrawal from the 400m final, in order to safeguard a niggling injury in his right hamstring, Jamie Baulch, the world indoor champion, won the title in 45.36, with Solomon Wariso clinching a trip to Seville with second place in 45.52.

Results, Digest, page 9

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