Athletics: Rosswess strips away advantage: Mike Rowbottom talks to the late developer starting to worry Linford Christie

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The Independent Online
LINFORD CHRISTIE'S first defeat by a domestic rival in six years, inflicted at last month's indoor AAA meeting in Birmingham, was preceded by a starting practice session with that same rival. Had he known the sort of form Michael Rosswess was in, Christie might not have offered.

Rosswess, whose career never quite took off after he reached the 200 metres final of the 1988 Olympics as a raw 23- year-old, found to his surprise that he was getting away from the blocks better. A mental lift?

'Most definitely. When you train with someone you don't fear them as much. I was surprised when Linford asked me. But I suppose he's got nothing else to gain. He's done everything.'

Rosswess's sharpness in training, and indeed his subsequent form in the 60m final which he won in a personal best time of 6.56sec, caught Christie off-guard. The world champion is nevertheless contemplating sharing a warm-weather training trip with Rosswess before the outdoor season gets under way. Clearly, a man who has spent the past five years either baiting or cowing his domestic rivals is mellowing with age.

But before that, Rosswess has the European Indoor Championships in Paris to negotiate. Next Saturday he will take on a 60m field that contains, most significantly, the world 110m hurdles champion, Colin Jackson, whom he also beat at the AAA indoors.

Rosswess, whose career since 1988 has been blighted by a depressing sequence of injuries - foot, back, Achilles tendons - has still managed to win two European Indoor bronze medals at 60m. He is confident as never before that he can do better next weekend.

In this respect, his unexpected get-together with Christie was doubly useful. 'He said that you had to go to a championship saying you were going to win. It was no use saying you were going to reach the semi- final, because then you would be knocked out in the heats. I registered everything.'

And Rosswess says he can win the gold.

He has more than the power of positive thinking to back his belief. For years, Rosswess - a powerful, leggy athlete - has been an indifferent starter who has striven raggedly to catch up. Two things have changed. His starts - as demonstrated at Birmingham - have improved dramatically. The process began a couple of years ago when Jackson's coach, Malcolm Arnold, noticed that Rosswess's blocks needed adjusting. 'It only took about five or six seconds,' Rosswess recalled. The difference has been huge.

And in the past year Rosswess - whose career and conditioning is still guided by Michael Oluban, the man who discovered him - has attended sessions run by Keith Antoine, the women's national event coach for the 100m and 200m.

Antoine also has plans to smooth out some of Rosswess's strenuous, ungainly style, although Rosswess himself has his doubts. 'I'm a bit old in the tooth to be changing to a completely new style,' he said.

If this 28-year-old from Handsworth is going to do it, he is going to do it his way.

It would be nice to see one of athletics' perpetual outsiders win himself a place in the sun. It would be a triumph too for the enigmatic Oluban. In the early Seventies he was a section commander in the Parachute Regiment and served in Northern Ireland - 'three tours without a scratch'.

Rosswess is probably unable to make the same boast about his more recent tours of duty in the pubs and clubs of Birmingham, where he works as a 'female entertainer' - or male stripper in more familiar parlance. 'Somebody's got to look after all those frustrated women,' he said with a giggle.

Seeing him finish seventh in the Olympic final just 15 months after his first race counts as Oluban's best experience in athletics. But he is confident that another memorable day is approaching, even though he cannot afford to get to Paris to see Rosswess: 'I know he would have a better chance of winning if I were there with him,' Oluban said. 'But he knows what he has to do. Michael is in the shape of his life at the moment.'

(Photograph omitted)