Edwards carrying burden of record

OLYMPIC COUNTDOWN: Briton is in perfect shape for his seasonal debut in Atlanta on Saturday. Mike Rowbottom reports
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The Independent Online
It is a notoriously edgy time of the year for athletes. On the brink of the Olympic season, before all the winter training is put fully to the test, even world champions can have their moments of doubt.

Jonathan Edwards, whose extraordinary success in 1995 culminated in a triple jump world record and title, has never been inclined to take anything for granted. It is no surprise then that, as he prepares for his opening competition in Atlanta on Saturday, his emotions are a mixture - of exuberance, confidence, hesitance and diffidence.

Looking forward to the event which will mark the official opening of the Olympic stadium, where he hopes to perform historically two months hence, he hopped, stepped and jumped between conflicting thoughts.

"I am looking forward to jumping in Atlanta," he said. "But I am pretty scared, too. I think it is reality dawning that I had a great year last year, but that this is a new season and I need to do it all again. I am very excited. I think I need a competition now... I am probably the most nervous now approaching the season as I have ever been."

His state of mind is familiar to his father, the Rev Andy Edwards, with whom he keeps in regular contact. "It's par for the course for Jonathan at this time of the year," he said. "It's as if you are in the blocks, but you are not out yet because the lights are still red. Jonathan likes to get on and start."

The image is particularly apt given Edwards' activities last weekend, when he reduced his 100 metres personal best from 10.60sec to 10.48 at a college invitational event - the Seminole Twilight meeting - on the University of Florida track in Tallahassee.

"He was pleased, as you can imagine," his father said. "His speed was channelled and controlled last year and that was the improvement. Now he knows the speed is there again."

Edwards has always had outstanding speed. Before the last Olympics he was training with the likes of John Regis and Marcus Adam and keeping up with them for 60 metres - but when it came to his own event he could not translate the velocity into distance.

The transformation of last season, although dependent on many factors, was based on a technical breakthrough which enabled him to effect that translation as he skipped, rather than stomped through his jumps.

Assuming that his technique is now firmly established, there is no reason to suppose that greater speed cannot produce greater distances than his current world record of 18.29 metres.

In an effort to maintain continuity, Edwards has prepared for this season just as he did at this time last year. For the last two months he has been training with Dennis Nobles in Tallahassee and benefiting from the close family support which is so important to him - his wife, Alison, and young sons, Samuel and Nathan, are living with him in rented accommodation near the track.

"It has been wonderful," Edwards said. "From a family point of view, I don't think we have appreciated how much pressure we have been under until we actually got away from it all. We have had a lot of time just being normal, going around the shops and nobody knowing who I am. That has been very, very enjoyable."

Last year's success clearly bewildered him at times. But he is no impressionable youngster. At 30 - it was his birthday last Friday - he is not about to get carried away by it all. He has downs as well as ups to remember in his career - failing to qualify for the last Olympic final, losing the 1990 Commonwealth title in the final round, seeing his 1994 effectively ruined by the Epstein-Barr virus which has laid so many athletes low.

"On one level, my life is exactly the same. I have got two young boys and a wife and they keep my feet on the ground pretty well. Changing dirty nappies - or diapers, as they call them over here - brings you down to earth. There are still lots of doubts and question marks in my mind about whether I will be able to jump well again, so there is no question of any complacency. I am just as motivated now, and perhaps more so than I was at this time last year."

That motivation will have been further sharpened by the weekend performance of Mike Conley, the reigning Olympic triple jump champion, who will be Edwards' main opponent on Saturday.

Competing in Springfield, the 33-year-old set an outstanding personal best of 8.49 metres in the long jump - the event at which he won a World Championship bronze medal back in 1983.

Conley is clearly in the mood and shape to test the Briton in Atlanta - on Saturday, and perhaps two months hence as well. It will be interesting to see how he handles the mental challenge of facing Edwards after the crushing defeats that the Briton inflicted on him last year.

Needless to say, Edwards is not writing off any of his potential rivals this year and, despite last season's results, Conley retains a special significance in his mind. Studying videos of the American in action made a significant contribution to the change in style Edwards achieved last year.

Conley has carried around a burden or reputation for many years. Now that burden has been transferred to Edwards' shoulders.

"I have always got this 18.29 distance hanging over me, and my expectations are so much higher than they have ever been," Edwards said. "So it has been up and down. I mean, on paper it looks good. Psychologically, I don't feel, perhaps, wonderful, but then I think that I, hopefully, can jump well and instil a little bit of confidence. It is very much anticipation now. The season is so close I can reach out and touch it."

Whatever happens on Saturday and in the coming weeks, Edwards will treat his opponents with respect.

"When I go out to compete, my attitude is to be the best that I can. I am not, 'I must beat X, Y and Z and I will direct a certain amount of aggression towards them...' There is no real question of psychological warfare or one-upmanship. But if I go out and jump further than anyone else and that puts one over on them, well then that is the way it goes."

Which is about as close as Jonathan Edwards gets to issuing a warning.