Commonwealth Games: Lewis looking good as gold

Andrew Longmore in Kuala Lumpur talks to the heptathlete about the pressures of being favourite
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FOR ONCE, because she is a fluent interviewee, Denise Lewis is lost for words. No, she cannot remember when last she was such an overwhelming favourite for a title. "Eighty metres at school sports day," she laughs. It was that long ago. But, barring injury or inexplicable lapse, Lewis will end her season where she began it, as the champion heptathlete of the Commonwealth. "I'm not complacent about it. Jane Fleming thought she would walk the title four years ago and then this girl from England came along and beat her. I won't make the same mistake."

This girl from England has come a long way since livening up a dull day on the athletics track in Victoria at the last Commonwealth Games. Lewis was a godsend then; bubbly, attractive, naive, unknown. Good copy for a morning or two. The photographers loved her, still do. Something to do with the long neck and the elegant set of the head, with her background as a dancer and the grace of her movement. What many seasoned observers missed was the streak of pure tungsten inside the sassy gal from the backstreets of Wolverhampton.

Four years on, Lewis can boast a full set of campaign colours - Olympic bronze, world championship silver and European gold - and a position as the undisputed golden girl of British athletics, a role recently vacated by Sally Gunnell. Of the nine gold medals won by British athletes in Budapest, Lewis posted the only one by a woman. And it seemed a fair reflection of her career that it should be won against the odds, after a season of niggling injuries, and be largely lost in the gold spewed out by the sprinters.

Lewis returned home, was guest of honour at the traditional street party thrown by her mum in Wolverhampton and celebrated her 26th birthday with her mates before moving into a new house in fashionable West Hampstead. Perhaps only now, in far away Kuala Lumpur, is it beginning to dawn on her that favouritism is to be her lot for the next two years, through to the world championships and the Olympics.

"It is very different now," she reflects. "I wouldn't say the European Championships were a breakthrough, but I found a way to win. I had to be very sharp mentally because it had been a difficult year physically. In Victoria, I can remember being thrust into the lead after the javelin and being very, very nervous before the last event. I wanted to run away. Now I can handle all the emotions, and I think I have proved that I can."

Never more devastatingly than in Atlanta in the sort of desperate day that can make or break a potential champion. A poor long jump on the morning of the second day of competition had consigned Lewis's chances of a medal to dust. In the cavernous tunnel beneath the main stadium, Lewis was inconsolable. She cried on her mother's shoulder while her faithful coach, Darrell Bunn, talked of turning the remaining events into a learning experience for Sydney. But, that night, Lewis threw the javelin further than she had ever thrown it before and ran for her life in the 800m to retrieve a bronze by the flick of a finger. It made fools of some of us who had been broadcasting her demise to the nation. "It was the feeling of failure, for myself and for the people who had supported me," she recalls. "I didn't understand it and I certainly didn't like it. But I managed to turn it to my advantage and that sort of experience stays with you, not consciously, but sub-consciously if I ever find myself down and out again."

It is unlikely. Not only is Lewis rapidly turning into a supreme championship competitor in the manner of Daley Thompson, she is also building a following not entirely related to her success in the shot putt circle or the long- jump pit. A series of photos in Total Sport magazine revealed more of Denise Lewis's physique than was good for red-blooded males and a touch more about the commercial instincts of Ms Lewis herself. In appearing in nothing more than a painted bodystocking, Lewis risked the wrath of feminists who thought the publicity cheap and the disdain of sporting myopics who had just begun to take her seriously as an athlete. After years striving for recognition in an unglamorous discipline, Lewis won instant fame at the click of a camera lens. The implied criticism has been met full frontal.

"No regrets," she says. "If I can show other girls that you don't have to be built like an east European shot putter to win multi-events - you can look good and perform well - that gives a strong message to young girls who fall away from sport at that critical age, say 15 or 16." It also propelled Lewis into a new league of off-field earners. "Yes, it can take you over. But, for me, the commercial side of my career has always been a bonus. I'm an athlete and a heptathlete first and foremost, that's what I'm paid to do. I'm grateful to all my sponsors, believe me, but they have to realise where my priorities lie."

Lewis starts the defence of her Commonwealth title on Wednesday morning. For the first time in her life, at least since the playing fields of Wolverhampton, she can enjoy the luxury of competing within herself, of controlling an event from the first step of the 100m hurdles through to the last gasp of the 800m two days later. Renewing acquaintance with Sabine Braun, the world champion, recently beaten in Budapest, and with the formidable Olympic champion Ghada Shouaa of Syria, injured for the past two seasons, can wait for another year. "Usually at this time of the year I'm lying on the beach soaking up the sun. I'm tired, everyone is." For once, surprise will not be a key element in victory.