Athletics: Ridgeon dedicated to the sport he loves

Mike Rowbottom talks to a British prospect for tomorrow's European Cup hurdles who, three years ago, was told by doctors he would never run again
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The Independent Online
Tomorrow will be the third anniversary of the end of Jon Ridgeon's career. He will mark it by running the 400 metres hurdles at the European Cup final in Madrid.

When Ridgeon snapped his Achilles tendon in Bratislava, Slovakia, three years ago while making a second comeback from injury, medical experts said he would never run again.

At 26, the athlete who had had it all going for him - blond good looks, Cambridge degree, world high-hurdles silver medal while still in his teens - had to endure it all going away from him.

Now, however, Ridgeon is about to win his first international vest since 1992 after completing comeback No 3 - and it was no coincidence that his choice of venue for a final preparation should have been last Wednesday's meeting in Bratislava.

"I had some absolutely horrendous memories of Bratislava," he said. "There were some ghosts to lay."

For Ridgeon, an intensely competitive high achiever, the frustration of the past few years has been immense. He channelled his energies into a media career which involved him interviewing athletes for satellite TV, but the sense of being cut off in his prime never left him.

It was only after another operation on his Achilles tendon last year - his fourth in all on either foot - that he began to think the unthinkable once again. The surgery, which was simply intended to repair him sufficiently for recreational activities such as tennis, restored sufficient movement for him to contemplate hurdling again.

Six months ago he resigned from his media jobs and dedicated himself, heart and soul, to getting fit once more, training in America, South Africa and Australia.

At last Saturday's Welsh Games, Ridgeon marked his first race on British soil for four years with an exuberant victory in blustery conditions.

When he saw that he had broken 50 seconds - recording 49.87 - he grasped the air in front of him for joy. "I love athletics more than anything else," he said afterwards, and you could see the truth of it.

In the overall scheme of things, Ridgeon should have been equally delighted to have come through Bratislava unscathed. But he was less than thrilled at having finished sixth in 50.12sec, albeit on a windy, rainy night.

That reaction, though, indicates the extent of his recovery. Ridgeon is no longer always looking at the overall scheme of things, or pinching himself to see if he really is on the track. He has crossed over into becoming a competitive athlete once again.

"Instead of being elated at having finished a grand prix meeting again, I was disappointed because I had wanted to run 49.5sec," he said. "Now I am looking for a fast time on Saturday to take me on to the Olympic trials. The focus quickly changes when you are back in athletics."

Not that Ridgeon has completely lost the sense of satisfaction at having re-entered the world from which he had been exiled.

"It did occur to me when I was putting on my tracksuit two or three minutes after the race that this was a much better situation than it had been three years ago," he said.

"I have given up a lot to make this comeback. I have gone from quite a safe world to quite an uncertain one. But, when I was sitting on the plane today, I couldn't help thinking that all my old colleagues would probably be in office."

His savings have been almost exhausted by funding his foreign training in recent months, but Ridgeon is on the brink of earning money once again as a jobbing athlete.

In his training diary, Ridgeon has inscribed a New Year's resolution that he will not get stressed about competing, but will simply enjoy it when it happens.

"I have trained for six months," he said. "I have done everything I can. If I do make the Olympic Games eight years on in a different event, it would be a dream come true. It would mean so much to me. But, let's not kid ourselves, I'm still not world class."

Tomorrow, however, in the first event of the weekend, he can take another big step towards that ambition.

"Everything is going perfectly," he said after his Welsh Games run - and resisted the impulse to touch wood. "There is no pressure on me," he added with a laugh. "I'm retired."

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