Bull eager to charge

profile John Regis Norman Fox explains how the nearly man of British athletics is fast approaching gold standard
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The Independent Online
THIS SEASON, John Regis says it is going to be different. This time it won't be just another silver medal to add to those he won at the 1993 world athletics championships and the 1990 and 1994 Commonwealth Games. This time he has never felt better, never performed better at such an early stage of the season, never felt more confident. Today in France, he expects to start proving his point in a big way. On the fastest indoor track in Europe, in Lievin, he reckons he could become a world record holder.

All very fine, but the real question is whether this so familiar figure, this hunched, charging bull of an athlete, really can be a champion when it matters, at this summer's outdoor world championships in Gothenburg and at next year's Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Unlike most of the other British athletes who are household names, Regis, known on the circuit as "The Tank", is aiming for double success this year by competing both at the world outdoor championships and going for gold at the indoor version in Barcelona next month. Not even the ever- busy Linford Christie is going to Spain, but Regis has some catching up to do.

One of the priorities in his packed schedule is today's race, in which he confidently predicts setting a personal-best 200 metres time. It could also be the best time any person anywhere has ever achieved. His confidence is high, his training and racing are going to plan, his potential is unquestioned: all he needs, so he says, is for the adrenalin to flow.

He suggests that the indoor best time of 20.36sec, set in Lievin by Bruno Marie-Rose, of France, is within his reach, and if he is going to achieve it anywhere it ought to be on the French track, which is nowhere near as tight as the Kelvin Hall helter-skelter in Glasgow where he so impressively ran 20.67sec last weekend. The previous weekend he set a British record of 20.47 on a less restrictive track in Stuttgart.

Not that a good track is as much of a spur as racing against someone you desperately want to beat. Frankie Fredericks, who has denied Regis Commonwealth and world championship golds in the past two years, is also going to be in Lievin. "That really should make the adrenalin flow," Regis said this week. If he beats Fredericks and records the world-best time, the psychological boost would be worth a crucial few tenths of a seconds in all subsequent races.

Now 28, Regis says his improved confidence and maturity can be attributed more to his outlook to training and racing than to any change in his massive (5ft 11in, 14st 11lb) frame which, though honed, is basically inherited from his father who was a body-building champion in St Lucia before the family moved to Lewisham. "I have a different, more relaxed attitude these days. I train in a different way. There's no need to put in so many hours, it's the quality that counts."

The proof can only come if he finally dispatches his reputation as the nearly man. It goes back to Rome in 1987 when with less than five metres to go he looked certain to be the next world champion. "I was still learning. A rush of adrenalin had taken me through to the final but then I suddenly thought, `I shouldn't be here.' " He lost when Calvin Smith, of the United States and Gilles Queneherve, of France, took advantage of his sudden stagefright.

The self-doubt also encroached on his Olympic performances in Seoul, where in the 100m heats a runner in the next lane over- balanced and distracted him. He expected the recall gun but there was silence. He never caught up. The incident played on his concentration and he failed to qualify for the 200m final.

Although he was the fastest in the world last year over 200m and approached the European Championships and Commonwealth Games in the best condition of his life, he was side-tracked by injuries. So he still needs the sort of boost that comes from being a consistent winner of major events. Not that he lacks for medals. In quantity he has a broad chest-full, including the MBE. During the European Championships in Split in 1990, remarkably he won a record four medals (100m bronze, 200m gold, and gold and silver in the relays), but though he was the world indoor champion in Budapest in 1989, that victory in Split is the only major outdoor individual title he has ever won outside the lesser valued Europa Cup.

A thoughtful,communicative man, he accepts that when it comes to the big occasion he lets himself down. Running a relay is different. He never lets down a team, which is curious because he doesn't enjoy relays (especially the 4 x 400 for which he holds the fastest split time ever achieved by a Briton, 43.93sec). He dislikes relays for the same reason that he gave up football after being good enough as a powerful forward, then midfield player for trials with Arsenal, Charlton and Newcastle. He felt that no matter how well he played he was always at the mercy of the rest. His other problem was that he set his sights slightly high. "I wanted to be as good as Pel"; but in reality he was not as good as his cousin Cyrille.

Football, he says, became boring. "I sometimes wonder whether I might have made it, but why play out of your skin and lose 6-2. Athletics is always down to me." He admits that for a while as a teenager he had a bit of the professional footballer's outlook on life - play hard, live harder. "It wasn't anything outrageous; I just enjoyed the partying." He still loves expensive cars and clothes.

None of the football clubs could work out how they would capitalise on his obvious strength and rugged skills, so he decided that it was time to impose some self-discipline. He came to the conclusion that the only thing all the clubs seemed agreed on was that he could run like the wind, storm past 100m and keep going. Not that he enjoys keeping going any further than 200m. "I took to the 200 because you can't do it all flat out. You have to think the race as well. Anything over 200 metres and it starts to hurt. I'm not into that."

A long time ago he admitted to himself that the other reason why he abandoned football and took up the comparatively lonely life of a full-time athlete was because he was uneasy about pressure. So when he became good at his new sport and the spotlight was focused on him alone, he almost yearned for the time when he could perform indifferently and hide in the anonymity of a team game. He realised that the reason why he began to miss out on the big prizes was because he had an "instinct" to panic.

Regis and an American chiropractor, Dr Michael Greenberg, who tackles the psychology of athletes as a sideline, have long been working on his "instinct" problem. It was a damaging instinct that left Regis a supporting artist on the days when Christie, Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson were centre-stage and all of them seemed so good at rising above the pressure.

Regis is of the generation that was inspired to take up athletics by the winning performances of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, and after so many years in the sport he says he is not going anywhere in 1995 "just to finish second".

His preparation has not involved as much chasing the sun as has that of the other British stars, but three weeks in Lanzarote sharpened him up sufficiently to set a good indoor mark of 20.65sec in the Britain v Russia match in Birmingham, where he returns on Saturday for an invitation meeting. If he fails today, he will be having another go at that world record nearer home, perhaps with Christie to give him some competition.

His preparation for the world indoor championships involves eight appearances at various venues around Europe, but only by beating Fredericks will he feel ready. At last summer's Commonwealth Games in Canada, the Namibian won the gold medal at a time when Regis was still suffering slightly from an Achilles tendon injury that had caused him to miss the European championships in Helsinki the same summer. Then in the final he felt a twinge of a groin strain. That, he said, was pretty mean of fate because earlier in the season he had beaten Fredericks in Sestrire, where he set what was then a British record of 19.87sec.

He admitted that his body just seemed to be cracking up. Six months later he seems to have put it together again and last weekend this speeding human juggernaut looked in even more formidable shape. When mind, body and high-quality opposition all come together, something in the record book has to give.