Athletics: Striding from Kilburn to the high roads: Gary Cadogan flew to LA yesterday to mix with the elite. Mike Rowbottom on a man overcoming hurdles

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The Independent Online
GARY CADOGAN sat in his bedroom on Monday night contemplating empty wardrobes and the biggest gamble of his life. His bags were packed for a flight to Los Angeles, where he will spend the next five months training with world and Olympic champions; before setting out he needed to hand in his resignation at the Kilburn Times, where he has worked as a self-employed advertising salesman. 'I'm relaxing,' he said. Really? 'I'm petrified,' he said.

Cadogan's sudden rise to becoming Britain's leading 400 metres hurdler at the age of 27, after a respectable but unremarkable nine- year career as a 400m flat runner, has been as inelegant as that of Kriss Akabusi six years ago.

Many have been the shattered hurdles since he took up the event last year - Haringey track-mates called him Timberland, Machete Foot or Crash Bang. Less damaging in only the literal sense have been the stutters when the stride pattern has gone awry, such as the one which saw Cadogan drop out of contention in this year's World Championships semi-final.

John Regis, the world 200m silver medallist with whom he has trained on and off for the last six years, joshingly calls it the Ali Shuffle. But Cadogan believes he is about to learn how to float like a butterfly.

In company with two other habitues of the New River Stadium - Regis and Tony Jarrett, the world 110m hurdles silver medallist - he will train at UCLA with Kevin Young and Quincy Watts, Olympic champions at 400m hurdles and 400m respectively, under their coach John Smith.

Regis and Jarrett made the same trip last winter. But for Cadogan, who replaced the injured Marcus Adam as the third man in the party, it represents a huge step into the unknown. From Kilburn to Beverley Hills. 'It's daunting to think about it,' he said. 'I will be training with people I usually see on TV. To change events, to go from absolutely nowhere to where I am now - the whole thing is a dream come true. But I don't want to go out there and bomb out.'

The first indication he received of his new standing came soon after the World Championships in August, when Frank Dick, Britain's director of coaching, spoke to him about the possibility of working with Ed Moses, arguably the greatest 400m hurdler ever, at the University of Irvine in California. As it transpired, Moses was unable to guarantee a commitment to such a collaboration because he was under pressure to finish work on his business course. But the discussion - after he had completed only his 12th race at his new event - was enough to leave Cadogan dazed. 'I thought, Christ almighty, is this how far I have got after just 12 months? I was really excited.'

The decision whether to accept the invitation subsequently extended to him by Andy Norman, the British Athletic Federation promotions officer, was nevertheless a difficult one. The primary reason for delay was Gary Oakes, who ran 49.11sec for the 400m hurdles to win bronze at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Oakes persuaded Cadogan to switch events, and has coached him since then.

'I didn't want it to seem like I was just using Gary to get me from A to B. He was the only man who had faith in me. But he realises it is a great opportunity,' Cadogan said.

It is nevertheless an opportunity which is likely to provoke rumblings of suspicion and discontent in certain quarters of the domestic scene. The suspicion centres on the perceived attitude towards drug abuse in California - where the underground steroid user's handbook has long been popular in some athletic circles.

'You hear rumours about America in general from books by people like Charlie Francis,' Cadogan said. 'If I thought certain athletes over there were popping pills I would be basically disgusted. But I know they are not. So I have got no qualms.'

As for the discontent, last winter's trip by Regis, Jarrett and Adam was strongly criticised by those who questioned why the British Athletic Federation should finance sprinters to travel to LA and stay in apartments near Beverley Hills when other British athletes, particularly those from the endurance and middle-distance side, had to pay for their own training trips.

But Cadogan is as eligible, if not more so, for any financial help going. He has no expectation of a job when he returns to this country.

So it had better be worth the upset. Cadogan believes it will be. In company with Oakes, he has studied videos of his races and identified opportunities to reduce his personal best of 49.25sec by at least a second. Next season, Cadogan is looking for a time of around 48sec over the hurdles - perhaps in the European Championships final - and 45.7sec at 400m flat.

Earlier this year, Young told Cadogan that the only thing he had to worry about in his new event was 'stride pattern, stride pattern, stride pattern'. Now the Briton will gain a fuller insight into the pattern that has taken Young beyond even the standards set by Moses. 'I have to get used to the rhythm of the race,' Cadogan said. 'Now, if I see someone on my shoulder, I instinctively put in leg speed. At 400 metres hurdles, that is not the thing to do. When you look at how Kevin runs the race, it is all about rhythm. He never changes it from start to finish.'

Whether Cadogan can rid himself of the habits of a sporting lifetime remains to be seen as he sets out in bold pursuit of his ambitions. 'A lot of people may laugh,' he said. 'But a lot of people laughed when I started off in my new event.'

(Photograph omitted)