Athletics: Thomas relishes her new lease of life: Treble chance beckons for Britain's leading woman sprinter in World Cup final. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
Two athletes - room-mates on foreign trips for seven years, consoling each other, celebrating with each other, sharing experiences. Last month, however, these athletes - Diane Modahl and Paula Thomas - underwent experiences that could hardly have been in more painful contrast.

For Modahl, whatever the result of her battle against an impending four-year ban for a doping offence, the 1994 Commonwealth Games will always be associated with pain. For the ebullient Thomas, the pain and shock of her friend's precipitation into the non-sporting news will always be counterpointed with joy. Bronze in the 100 metres; fourth place in the 200m; personal bests of 11.15sec - the second fastest ever by a Briton - and 22.69; and an inspired last leg in the sprint relay which ensured a further bronze. She had a wonderful Games.

Thomas (formerly Dunn), who runs all three events again later this week in the World Cup final at Crystal Palace, is 29. She was only 21 when she won the Commonwealth 100m silver medal in Edinburgh. It proved a hard act to follow, and although she maintained her position as Britain's No 1 sprinter into the Nineties, she found tangible rewards increasingly hard to come by and her performances diminished.

Such was Thomas's disillusionment that she gave up the sport in 1992 and had a baby son, Kane. But the urge to train and compete returned more strongly afterwards. 'When you have a baby and you go back to train you relate to things very differently,' she said. 'I would train really hard because I knew I had left my son behind to do it. I felt like I should be with him. And if it hurts in training, you know you can do it because you know it will soon stop. When you have experienced so much pain in childbirth - and there is nothing that can be as painful, believe me - you have a different pain threshold.'

A further factor in her success, she believes, was the work done last winter in mental preparation courses arranged by the British Athletic Federation's women's advisory group.

She has recalled her best memories of competing, and settled upon one evocative word to bring them to mind as she went to her blocks. Superstitiously perhaps, she keeps that word to herself. But her subsequent actions have spoken volumes.

It is against this background of mental toughness that Thomas - who works as a sports development officer in inner-city Manchester - has been able to revitalise a career which appeared to have gone into decline.

'When you run so well so young, and do so well in your first major championship, your aspirations go sky high,' she said. 'But I was a complete novice. I started to put too much pressure on myself. I was trying to analyse everything too much. I would come away after a bad race and think: 'Was it my start? Was it the middle phase of my run?' Everything became a big crisis. I was taking every bad race into the next race, and every race was getting slower and slower.'

Now she feels she is 'older and wiser'. But even at the beginning of this season, she was not thought of as Britain's best sprinting hope. That position was filled by 19-year- old Katharine Merry, whose second places at 100 and 200m at the European Cup in June were seen as hugely promising signs.

Sadly, injury and illness have checked Merry's progress since. Athletics is an uncertain business - as Thomas and her England colleagues discovered when news of Modahl's positive test began to break in Canada.

'I was devastated when I heard,' Thomas said. 'I just could not believe it. Diane is a very close personal friend of mine - we were at each other's weddings, and she is godmother to Kane. I have been talking to her recently and giving her a shoulder to cry on. She doesn't understand what is going on.

'Diane pulled out of the Games an hour before I was due to run my 200m first round. Everybody knew I would be very upset so they waited until after I had run before telling me.

'We knew something was wrong, and there were rumours going around about a positive test. A lot of the English athletes stayed up all night in the television room at the Games village to hear a live broadcast of Peter Radford's press conference. You wouldn't believe the amount of people there were in that room. When they said her name we were all really, really upset. There were people in tears.

'Later we saw clips of her getting off the plane in London and that was really upsetting too. But I was glad to see that she didn't cover her face. Because she didn't think she had any reason to.

'It does create doubts in your mind. I had just come home from Canada and I got my letter from the Sports Council with the result of a random test I had done before the Commonwealths. I was really panicking when I opened it. I thought to myself, I know I haven't taken anything - but what if it says I've tested positive?'

For all the doubts which recent events have thrown up, however, Thomas - who talks as fast as she runs - has not lost her enthusiasm or faith in the sport. Were Kane to show a similar talent to his mum, she would welcome it. 'No problem whatsoever,' she says. 'It is probably the cleanest sport in the world. Athletics is one of the best things any young person can do.'

(Photograph omitted)