Athletics: Rawlinson rockets into the big time

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The Independent Online
AS WEDNESDAY night became Thursday morning Chris Rawlinson stood in the lobby of the Nova Park Hotel, headquarters of the Zurich Weltklasse meeting, as if it were the top of the world.

Six hours earlier the 27-year-old Yorkshireman had changed his life with a startling performance over 400m hurdles in what was his first-ever IAAF grand prix race.

His winning time of 48.14sec, third fastest of the season, had established him as a serious medal contender for this month's World Championships. He was up from 14th to third in the all-time British list. Even better than that - $11,500 (pounds 7,000) in prize-money meant he could pay off his student loan.

Before Wednesday's race the largest single sum this former Royal Marine and TV Gladiators contender had earned from the sport was the pounds 200 he picked up at Sunday's Open Meeting within Loughborough University, where he recently completed a sports science degree.

As the superstars came and went in Zurich's chaotic post-event hubbub - Olympic 100m champion Donovan Bailey, multiple world record breaker Noureddine Morceli, proudly carrying a very young baby - the man from Rotherham could reflect upon this one sweet fact: he had arrived.

Already the agents had flocked around him. One buttonholed him as he stepped off the track. Another rang on his mobile phone. And by midnight Rawlinson had thrown in his lot with another successful Yorkshireman, Kim MacDonald, whose large array of clients is made up mainly of African distance runners.

Perhaps Rawlinson had mentioned his own plans to run the 800m. So desperate had he been to get races on the international circuit that, earlier in the day, he had seriously discussed attempting that distance in order to secure more opportunities.

Now, though, all was changed. He already had invitations to compete in the final two IAAF Golden League meetings in Brussels and Berlin. It was hard for him to take it all in. "Tonight has been unbelievable," he said, face creasing into a grin beneath his peroxide-blond quiff. "I can't pinpoint why I am running so fast, but if I carry on like this, without being blase, I could be a gold medal contender in Seville."

Having lost the best part of the last two seasons to injuries, Rawlinson has made up ground swiftly this year, improving his best from 49.69.

Only two Britons have run the event faster - David Hemery, who won the 1968 Olympics in a then world record of 48.12, and Kriss Akabusi, who set the British record of 47.42 in winning bronze at the 1992 Olympics.

After finishing second in the European Cup in June Rawlinson was taken aside by Hemery, who is now president of UK Athletics. "David told me that his success had been all about staying power and hurdling technique rather than speed," Rawlinson recalled. "It's the same with me."

Support has also been expressed by Britain's former world and Olympic 400m hurdler Sally Gunnell, who spoke to Rawlinson before his Zurich race. Now Akabusi's record is in his sights. "I haven't spoken to Kriss yet, but I intend to," Rawlinson said. "His strength was running rather than hurdling. I'm the other way round. But I know there's more to come. I have put pressure on myself now, but that's OK. I do better under pressure."

Rawlinson has clearly been driven by ambition throughout his life. He joined the Royal Marines at 18 because he had heard they were something out of the ordinary, but soon bought himself out in disillusionment. His hopes of advancement in the TV Gladiators series only lasted two rounds, but as an athlete he looks ready to go the distance.

Three years ago, after failing to qualify for the 1996 Olympics, Rawlinson had his chest tattooed with the Japanese pictogram for "courage". It serves as a reminder to him of his continuing aspirations in the sport. On Wednesday night he took that courage in both hands.

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