Athletics: Lewis set to tackle her first hurdle

World Athletics Championships: Heptathlete aims to pave way for British team with dominant performance
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The Independent Online
DENISE LEWIS will gain an immediate measure of the task facing her here in Seville this weekend as she sets out in pursuit of the world heptathlon title. Drawn in the opening heat of the 100 metres hurdles, she will be flanked by her two main rivals for the gold medal - Syria's Olympic champion Ghada Shouaa, and Eunice Barber of France.

Shouaa, Lewis, Barber - will that be the order in which they will stand on the podium tomorrow evening? Lewis believes it can be, and if she is right it will get Britain off to the ideal start in the seventh International Amateur Athletic Federation World Championships. But first she has to get off to her own ideal start in the first of her seven disciplines, a race which opens nine days of action on the reputedly super-fast Mondo track.

"The opening event is crucial," said Lewis, whose relatively poor performance in the hurdles at the 1997 World Championships ultimately enabled Germany's Sabine Braun to beat her to the title. Lewis put that slip down to the fact that she had had to get up in the early hours of the morning in order to prepare for the race, which was scheduled to avoid the Athens heat.

There will be no such problem today, as Lewis begins her competition at 10.05am local time. "It is a good timetable so I think I can afford to wake up somewhere in the region of 6am," she said. "Believe me, that is a good lie-in!" In terms of major titles, Lewis's career has been a steady upward curve since she arrived on the scene with an unexpected victory in the 1994 Commonwealth Games. Since then the medals have been steadily amassed: European Cup champion in 1995, bronze medallist at the 1996 Olympics, world silver medallist in 1997 and, last year, European and Commonwealth champion.

Yet Lewis's preparation for what she hopes will be her first global title has been far from smooth - even as late as July she was uncertain whether she would be able to compete here because of an injury to her lower leg which disrupted her season in May, forcing her to miss a couple of weeks training under the direction of her Dutch coach, Charles van Commene. "I've had to come through some difficult times to get this far," she said.

But any lingering doubts about her fitness have been dispelled in the last four weeks as she has competed in individual events at the CGU World Trials in Birmingham and meetings in Malmo and Hechtel.

"My form now is as good as I could have anticipated," she said. "If I think of everything I have gone through I could not have predicted that I would be in as good a shape as I am in now." Having arrived on Thursday from Madrid, where she had been training alongside Kelly Holmes, Lewis has had time to assess a field which contains good and bad news for her aspirations.

The good news is that Dee Dee Nathan, who heads the 1999 lists with 6,577 points - only 159 points less than Lewis's personal best - failed to qualify for the United States team. The bad news is that Shouaa, who has hardly competed since winning the Olympic title because of a serious back injury, has returned to the competitive arena, having achieved the qualifying mark at the last minute on home ground.

"Like any Olympic champion they only step onto the track when they are prepared to do something special, so she is the one to watch," Lewis said. "She is the big unknown, as everyone knows what she has done in the past." Lewis refuses to rule out Braun, despite the fact that she beat her conclusively in Budapest last August, but the German is the least of her worries.

Barber, who missed last season with a back injury, has been in extravagant form this year. The former Sierra Leone national, who now has French citizenship, delighted home supporters at the Paris grand prix meeting last month as, dreadlocks braided with blue ribbons, she won the long jump in a national record of 7.01 metres.

The Frenchwoman also recorded a personal best of 12.94sec in the hurdles, which she will also contest as an individual event here. Luckily for Lewis, Barber has a weakness in the shot putt, where her best is two metres behind that of her British rival.

Had circumstances been different, Barber might have been a domestic as well as international rival for Lewis - she has stayed often in England, where her sister has married and taken up British citizenship, training at numerous venues such as Crystal Palace. "I had it in mind to get a British passport, but in the end I preferred to live in France," she said.

On past results, Barber should finish well ahead of Lewis this morning but by tomorrow evening it could be a different story. Lewis is loath to say the gold will be hers, but she does believe she is in better shape than when she won the European title in Budapest. Come tomorrow night, she will be looking out for the banners proclaiming her as "Golden Spice".