Athletics: Lewis relives the legend of Mary Peters legend

Click to follow
WHEN DENISE Lewis stood on the podium as European heptathlon champion on Saturday evening, watching the image of a fluttering Union Jack on the Nepstadion screen, the sight moved Britain's other great women's multi- events champion, Mary Peters, to tears.

The Irishwoman, whose narrow defeat of the German favourite Heidi Rosendahl at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich was one of the outstanding performances in British athletics history, stood only yards away from Lewis, having taken part in the medal ceremony.

It was a fitting gesture that concluded two days of involvement which saw two great athletes link across a generation.

"Someone told me beforehand that there was a bigger surprise waiting for me as well as the medal," Lewis said. "And it was Mary P.

"She had been there all through the competition, on the warm-up track, just being a presence. Especially before the long jump she gave me a big hug, a big kiss, and said she'd be there with me in spirit. Those small touches really give you that oomph.

"I'm the most successful woman in multi-events after Mary, and I think when she sees me out there she relives everything. She really knows what it's about, she knows how it feels. Those agonising hours in between events, and those mistakes that you make and what it does to your confidence." Lewis's confidence in the months leading up to these championships was buffeted by an ankle injury that, at one stage, put her contention here in jeopardy. But she comforted herself with the fact that some of her leading rivals, including the defending champion Sabine Braun, of Germany, and the Pole who eventually won the silver, Urzula Wlodarcyck, were also recovering from or carrying injuries.

This was a competition that was all about the survival of the fittest or, rather, the least unfit. And the 25-year-old Wolverhampton athlete proved strongest in both mind and body to add a prestigious gold to the Olympic bronze and world silver she has won in successive years.

A winning javelin throw of 50.16 metres sent her into the last event, the 800 metres, with more than eight seconds in hand over her nearest challenger. But she felt the turning point occurred in the first event of the concluding day when she beat the overnight leader, Natalya Sazanovich, in the long jump - supposedly one of the Belarus athlete's strongest events.

The camaraderie of the heptathlon is such that many of Lewis's rivals came up to encourage her before the 800 metres. "All the girls were aware that I was up for the gold, and they were saying things like `Good luck' and `Come on, Denise, you can do this'." Braun, who had been seeking to add a third European title to the world gold she took ahead of the Briton last year, was one of the first to congratulate her. Later that evening, the German bought champagne to help Lewis celebrate.

Braun plans to be back in top shape for next year's World Championships and the Olympic Games of 2000, where Lewis believes the present Olympic champion, Ghada Shouaa of Syria, will be back to defend her title despite the back injury that has prevented her competing for more than a year.

Three weeks from now, Lewis will defend the Commonwealth title she won in her breakthrough year of 1994, after which she will have just three weeks off before beginning her preparations for the 1999 World Championships in Seville. As last winter, she will work in Amsterdam with the man now in charge of her training, the Dutch multi-events coach, Charles van Commonee.

Asked if she would swap everything she has won to emulate Peters with the Olympic title in 2000, she responded without hesitation. "Yes. Wouldn't anybody? This is why we're in the event. I am a championship person - the feeling, looking at the flags, seeing the Union Jack, the support, the preparation, getting it right, trying to get it right, making mistakes and having to rectify them. It's something special." The experience obviously holds good for Colin Jackson, too. Eight years after winning his first European title as a 23-year-old, the Welshman collected his third European gold with a time of 13.02sec, his fastest for four years, and 0.06sec inside his championship record of 1994.

He recorded the same time in his semi-final, and had he not hit the eighth hurdle in both races, he would have achieved his secondary aim here of returning to sub-13 seconds territory.

"Even at my age I'm still learning," he said. "But the important thing here was to win. Putting 13.02's back-to-back within an hour, that's fine enough." Now both Jackson and his coach, Malcolm Arnold, believe that the opportunity is there to get back among the Americans and establish himself as a serious contender for next year's world title.