Cricket: Lewis admits to having trouble with new love in her changing world

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The Independent Online
British athletics' leading lady is preparing for the shock of the new as she seeks to reach the pinnacle of her event. Mike Rowbottom hears her plans for 1998 and beyond.

Denise Lewis has a clear vision of her future in athletics - and it has nothing to do with the glasses which, in the manner of David Beckham, she has recently taken to wearing purely as a fashion item.

Like a golfer taking apart their swing and reconstructing it, Britain's leading woman athlete in the wake of Sally Gunnell's retirement is in the process of pulling every one of her seven prescribed events to pieces with the aim of putting them all together to stunning effect in the next Olympics - or even earlier.

Having established herself as the event's No 1 challenger with a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics and silver in last year's World Championships, this 25-year-old Wolverhampton-born athlete is striving to take the last step towards the top of the podium.

"Half a second in the hurdles, or seven centimetres in the long jump might make all the difference, and I want to give myself that chance," she said yesterday at a launch event for next month's Bupa Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham.

"When I studied the videotapes of my recent performances I realised that I was naturally strong and quick, but I could gain a lot from working on the technical aspects of my competition. I'm sledgehammering the whole lot," she added with a cheery smile.

Lewis, who will do the heptathlon in the European Championships and then defend her Commonwealth Games title within the space of a month this summer, is well aware that she is taking a risk. "But," she said, "it is better to do what I am doing now than in 1999, when all the pressure will be on me for the Olympics. I am not the best heptathlete in the world. I want to be."

To that end, she is now spending 60 per cent of her time working in the Netherlands under the direction of the Dutch national multi-events coach, Charles Van Commenee, who shares responsibility for guiding her career with her long-time coach, Darrell Bunn.

Preparation for her least favourite event of the seven - the 800 metres - now involves regular running through a forest on the outskirts of Amsterdam with the aim of adding variety to her routine.

"My coaches are telling me to embrace the event," she said with more than a trace of scepticism. "I have to learn to love it so I can improve in it."

But her new love interest is still behaving stubbornly. "It doesn't think I'm serious," she said. "It keeps on walking out on me."

Lewis's ambitions have received some important assistance from the organisers of the European Championships. At last year's World Championships in Athens she found the 8am starts to each day hard to adjust to, and performed crucially below par in her first events. She learned yesterday, however, that the Budapest officials - with no murderous noon-day sunshine to avoid - plan to start the event at 9.30 on the first day, and 11am on the second.

"Bliss," she exclaimed. "It will make a big difference. No matter how much you try and prepare for it, being short of sleep does affect you."

Further help in her onward progress to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney has come, ironically, from a major sponsorship deal with an Australian insurance company, Colonial, who are also supporting three other British Olympians in Paul Palmer, Ben Ainslie and Greg Searle.

Lewis is manifestly comfortable with her increasingly high profile. She was unfazed by appearing on that high-risk TV panel game, They Think It's All Over, and remains unabashed by the stir caused last year when she posed for photographs in virtually nothing but Union Jack body paint, pictures which found their way into the tabloids.

"I enjoyed them," she said, cool as you like. "I just didn't know paint could work in that way."

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