DENISE LEWIS is more than half-way towards winning her second major heptathlon title following an outstanding performance on the first day of her competition here at the European Championships.
The woman who has added Olympic bronze and world silver to her collection since making her breakthrough by winning the 1994 Commonwealth title lies second in the overall standings overnight, with 3,842 from the first four of her seven events, just 28 points behind Natalya Sazanovich of Belarus, who overtook the Briton in winning the last of the 200 metres races in 23.62sec, a race in which Lewis recorded 24.75. Urzsula Wlodarczyk, of Poland is third, with 3,815.
The omens for the 25-year-old Birchfield Harrier look particularly good as the second day - long jump, javelin and 800 metres - is traditionally her strongest, although Sazanovich and Wlodarczyk also have reasonable second-day events to call upon. At this stage in the 1996 Olympics, she was sixth, and at last year's World Championships, fourth.
What made the big difference to Lewis yesterday was her performance in the third event, the shot putt, where she raised her personal best for the third time this season to record a winning effort of 15.27 metres, a massive improvement of 55 centimetres on the mark she set earlier this month at the Welsh Games.
That followed a 100 metres hurdles of 13.59sec, and a high jump in which she reached 1.83 metres, just 1cm beneath her personal best.
Lewis's joy at her achievement in the shot, which came with her first attempt, was palpable, as she turned to the British supporters and shook her fist in the air. It was a significant blow to the morale of Sabine Braun, Germany's defending champion, who, like Lewis, has been struggling to overcome injury this season and was forced to drop out of the Goodwill Games last month without completing seven events.
Lewis, who has been troubled with an ankle injury for three months, was cautious about her prospects coming into these Championships, viewing it as, effectively, the survival of the unfittest. But she rediscovered her competitive edge yesterday.
Grit Breuer, of Germany, won the women's 400 metres title in 49.93 sec. The pace was too much for Britain's pair, Allison Curbishley and Donna Fraser, who were fifth and sixth respectively in 51.05 and 51.54.
Earlier in the day, Colin Jackson and Tony Jarrett progressed as heat winners to today's 110m hurdles semi- finals.
Jarrett, who fell at the last hurdle in his last competition at the Zurich Grand Prix, had to endure a nervous time as he incurred one of three false starts before finishing clear of the field in a time of 13.51sec.
Jackson, whose only problem was the last hurdle, which he hit, won impressively in 13.31sec, easing down, ahead of one of the Germans expected to offer one of his main challenges, Florian Schwarthoff, who recorded 13.64. Falk Balzer, the fastest German in the current rankings, won his heat in 13.47.
It was a promising start for Jackson, who made an unexpected return to form at last year's World Championships, where he took silver behind Allen Johnson of the United States, and he has progressed further this year after having a successful operation on his knee and linking up once more with his old coach, Malcolm Arnold, at Bath University.
His times this year are better than they have been since 1993, when he set the current world record of 12.91sec in winning the world title at Stuttgart, and he leads the European rankings with his time of 13.07sec.
Jackson is taking these championships seriously - he missed the Golden League meetings at Monaco and Zurich in order to concentrate on his preparations. "The European Championships is something that has always been a big thing to win for me," said the man who already won two titles.
"Running more races against the US hurdlers would detract from my concentration for the main event." His hopes are high. "I will be a little disappointed if I don't duck under 13 seconds this weekend," he said. "If I am in good shape I will do all I need to win - and that will probably take me under 13 seconds."
He identified the Germans, and Robin Korving of the Netherlands, as his main threats.
Lorraine Shaw and Lyn Sprules both reached today's hammer final, with qualifying efforts of 61.11 and 60.64 metres respectively, but Katharine Merry, trained by Linford Christie, found the pace too fast to reach the 200 metres final.