Edwards jumping to no conclusions

Mike Rowbottom meets Gateshead's favourite son who goes to next weekend's World Athletics Championships as Britain's latest holder of a world record
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The Independent Online
Jonathan Edwards has an identity problem. That man on the television and in the papers, the triple jumper who has been staggering rivals and statisticians with his prodigious performances this season - can it really be himself?

Frankly, Edwards is finding it hard to believe. "It is difficult to take in," he said. "In my mind there is still a distance between what I read about and who I am. People are comparing my performances to those of Bob Beamon and Butch Reynolds, and that feels very odd because these are legends in the sport. And this is just me."

There is no trace of false modesty in the tone of this physics graduate and former research biochemist who is so committed a Christian that for several years he refused to compete on Sundays.

And to be fair, it is hard to take in the way that this pleasant, articulate 29-year-old has transformed himself this year from a respected world-class performer to a jumper who is stretching the limits of his event.

Before 1995, there had been only two triple jumps over 18 metres - one by the 1991 world champion, Willie Banks, and the other by the Olympic champion, Mike Conley. Edwards has now done it four times in the space of a month, reaching out to 18.43 at the European Cup in Lille - more than 20 centimetres further than any man had managed before.

Although none of those four efforts was valid for record purposes, due to illegally strong wind assistance, Edwards finally claimed the legal world record on 18 July in Salamanca when he added a centimetre to Banks's 10-year-old mark of 17.97. He thus became the first Briton to hold a world jumping record since the late, exalted polymath, C B Fry.

If Edwards can reproduce such form at the World Championships which start next weekend it is hard to see anyone seriously challenging him for the gold medal. Not that you will get him to say that himself. He is approaching Gothenburg like a man bearing an unexpected and precious gift, keenly anxious not to let it slip.

Earlier this month, having jumped over 18 metres for the third time in his life at his home town stadium in Gateshead - "I am no longer an adopted Geordie, I'm just a Geordie now" - he expressed impatience about the World Championships. "I wish they were next week," he said. Now that they are looming, however, he feels the need to stop dwelling on them. "I want to deflect some of my attention from Gothenburg," he said.

Accordingly, he competes today at the Italian ski resort of Sestriere. If Edwards gets it right at this high altitude venue he could be reaching out towards 19 metres, never mind 18.

In Salamanca, Edwards's achievement was marked by a dinner invitation from the town mayor. A world record in Sestriere will win him a Ferrari.

The thought of such booty is not foremost in his mind, however. The Edwards clan - Jonathan, wife Alison and young boys Nathan and Samuel - can be comfortably and safely ensconced in the family Audi. "A Ferrari would be a bit useless to us really," he said.

Edwards's real objective today, apart from distracting himself, is to settle back into the technical routine which has helped him to take such a giant leap forward this season.

Developed in conjunction with his new technical coach, Peter Stanley, it has proved effective in converting his tremendous natural speed - he has covered 60 metres in 6.77sec - into distance, something he has previously been unable to do.

In his run-up, he now employs a "double arm shift", exaggerating the forward and backward swing of the arms as he launches into his take-off in order to remain balanced. His "hop" section has always been a strong point, but the "step" and "jump" which complete the exercise have been improved by maintaining a low trajectory and, in his own phrase, "using arms actively rather than in reaction to what the legs are doing".

But the technique is not all. Last Sunday in Sheffield, despite relapsing into his old method of jumping, Edwards once again surpassed 18 metres. Asked afterwards if it was possible for him to explain his great improvement in simple terms, he paused for a moment before replying: "No."

His advances this season are all the more remarkable in that he was debilitated last year by the Epstein-Barr virus which has afflicted many top sportsmen. Roger Black, the former double European 400m champion, was similarly affected in 1993, and has speculated in conversation with Edwards that both may have come back stronger. "Maybe I just needed a good rest," Edwards said.

When asked to imagine what the reaction of some of his rivals might be to his recent jumping, he replied: "They probably think I'm on drugs or something."

He can certainly understand how the likes of Conley and others might be feeling more than a little threatened. He confessed to unchristian feelings of glee when Banks's 18.20m jump and Conley's 18.17 were disallowed for record purposes because of wind assistance. "When the world record remained at 17.97 it seemed somehow attainable," he said. There are other factors operating for him now, not least his consistency. And of course, the inexplicable but central factor of his Christian faith. "Obviously God has a lot to do with my jumping," he said. "And whether you believe he gave me supernatural strength, or whatever, my faith is fundamental to me."

Perhaps it is that which has created the self-belief he exhibited in Salamanca, where he found himself in competition with Conley for the first time this season.

Edwards recalls seeing the American jump 17.68 last year, at a time when he was laid low by the virus. "I thought at the time, 'He's awesome. There's no way I can match him'," Edwards said.

Conley, indeed, was the jumper whom Edwards chose to study on video as he reshaped his technique throughout last winter. But it soon became evident in Spain that Edwards was not inhibited by a competitor whom he still maintains is a far more talented athlete than himself.

"In my first jump there I missed the last phase," Edwards recalled. "I had no proper jump. As I was walking back, Mike asked me how far I had gone and I said 17.39. He said, 'Hey, this is the triple jump, not the double step'. I think he was pretty non-plussed with what I was jumping." At which point he allowed himself a little bemused smile.

Edwards has earned the right to a feeling of satisfaction in his achievements. But this is an athlete who, more than any, is unlikely to lose his sense of proportion. "I don't believe that I am the greatest thing since sliced bread," he said. "In the end I am only jumping into a sandpit."


June 11: Loughborough: 17.58 metres (beating Keith Connor's 13-year-old British record of 17.57).

June 17: Lille: 17.46m.

June 25: European Cup, Lille: 18.43m (furthest triple-jump, discounted for record purposes by high following wind, as were other jumps of 18.39m and 17.90m. British record of 17.72m).

July 2: Gateshead: 18.03m (illegal wind assistance).

July 7: Crystal Palace: 17.69m (retired early with injured ankle).

July 18: Salamanca: 17.98m (legal world record, beating Willie Banks's 10-year-old mark by 1cm).

July 23: Sheffield: 18.08m (once again, illegal wind assistance).