Dwain's world on fast track

Andrew Baker meets the Christie wannabe who has Sydney on his mind
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The Independent Online
All week the inquest has muttered on: what is to be done to drag British track and field out of the mire? It will take time, and money. "It could be 2004 or 2008 before you get results," according to Malcolm Arnold, the head coach of the British Athletic Federation. But time and money will achieve nothing without talent. Which is where Dwain Chambers comes in. Chambers is the European Junior 100 metres champion, and he will be 26 in 2004.

As Linford Christie stalks off the international stage, the spotlight of public and media attention seeks another star. Chambers, according to his coach Selwyn Philbert, could be the man. "I think he is going to be one of the best 100m runners Britain has ever seen," Philbert said. "The sky's the limit."

Chambers, a tall, immaculately turned-out student at Enfield College in north London, is ready for the attention. "Handling pressure is something that is going to have to become second nature to me," he said, during a break from training at the New River Stadium in Haringey last week. "But that is one of the things about running at senior level - gaining experience, gaining control. And pressure from the public - I can handle it."

It seems likely that he can. Chambers cuts a supremely relaxed figure as he strolls around his home track, chatting and laughing with the other juniors, who find it hugely amusing when their club-mate poses to have his photograph taken. In fact, strolling around was the limit of his athletic activity last Thursday. Although he is right at the start of his career, he has already acquired that most fashionable athlete's accessory, a hamstring injury. "No work for me this week," he laughed. "Tonight I'll just do some weights to keep my strength up, then I'll really hit it next week."

He will need to, for at the end of the week he flies to Sydney for the World Junior Championships. He will not start favourite - that will be Francis Obikwelu, of Nigeria, who performed impressively in Atlanta - but Chambers is determined to bring something back from Sydney where, all being well, he will make his Olympic debut in the year 2000. "This is a kind of mini-Olympics for me," he said. "And I want a medal."

At the very least he wants to improve his personal best, at the moment 10.41. "I know I can beat that," he said. "In the trials just recently I ran 10.42, but that was far from perfect. We got stuck on the train on the way and I hadn't warmed up properly."

Chambers, like his role model Christie, has the ability to raise his performance level when it counts. "He doesn't run his best times in training," Philbert said. "He is very laid-back - sometimes a bit too laid-back. But he can transform himself once he gets into an important competition." Pat Green, the British junior team manager, has also noticed the process. "Dwain has a special confidence and ease," he said. "And he goes about competing in a very deliberate way."

Philbert has to make sure that his young star treads the right line between relaxation and laziness. "This is a tough sport, and you must focus," he said. "But if you work a young athlete too hard they will burn out. So we train on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Staying out late on Saturday is part of growing up."

Watching Philbert work with the dozen youngsters he coaches for Haringey you see his sympathy repaid: the boys trust him, and work hard for him. And he's like one of the lads, a slight, strong, smiling 32-year-old.

Certainly Chambers, the star of the group, seems far from burn-out. "The thing is, I hate the idea of work," he admitted. "I mean, nine to five work. You don't feel good after it."

Philbert first set eyes on him in July 1993, when Chambers was 15. "He was in a group of kids," the coach recalled, "and I thought, 'He looks pretty useful'. By February of the next year he was the national indoor champion at 60 metres - and still raw."

Philbert describes Chambers - a little fancifully - as "a shade of Michael Johnson". What he means is that the young Briton has his own way of running, which his coach has not tried to influence. "He has natural style and natural strength," Philbert says. "When I saw his technique, I didn't want to change it. Just one or two suggestions."

Philbert has plans for Chambers beyond Sydney. A defence of his European title next year - he will still be a junior - and a place in the senior relay squad for the world championships in Athens. "If we work together, and he listens, he will be scaring the pants off Darren Braithwaite and Ian Mackie next summer." But will he listen? "You know when he is. He's like an alsatian; the same way you know when they are listening, I know that Dwain is listening to me."

Chambers - more greyhound than German Shepherd - is ready to slip the leash. "I hate training," he said. "I hate it. But I like beating people. They come up to me afterwards and say: 'I'll get you next time' and I say 'Maybe'." A great, white-toothed grin. Some bark. Some bite.

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