Edwards looks down nervously from his pedestal

Jonathan Edwards believes in God but, as Mike Rowbottom discovers, he is surprisingly diffident about himself
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The Independent Online
It was less than an hour after Steve Backley had earned late inclusion for Britain's Olympic team by proving he had recovered from an Achilles tendon injury. The European and Commonwealth javelin champion, clearly relieved, was asked at his post-competition press conference if circumstances had reduced the burden of personal expectation on him approaching Atlanta.

"I'd agree with that," Backley said. "If you are put on a pedestal and told you are going to win it's never a nice feeling. Just ask this man." And he gestured to the uneasily grinning figure sitting beside him, Jonathan Edwards.

Since Edwards took triple jumping to a startling new level last season, he has more than once given the appearance of a man expecting to wake from a dream. The changes in technique which allowed him to convert his natural speed more efficiently into distance have created a further requirement, namely mental adjustment.

"It has been a case of trying to get my head around a new situation," said Edwards, who turned 30 in May. "I hadn't really prepared for how I was going to feel after all the success which came my way last season. I had never been in that position before. It was a natural human reaction to a set of extraordinary circumstances."

Extraordinary was the right word for Edwards's deeds in a year when he transformed himself from a talented but inconsistent performer into a world champion and world record holder.

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. In the space of a month last summer, Edwards cleared 18 metres four times, including a wind-assisted effort of 18.43, the furthest any man has gone.

Not surprisingly, he has replicated his 1995 preparations this year. This spring, as last, he decamped for training in Florida for a couple of months, accompanied by his wife Alison and two young sons, Nathan and Samuel. He has been working with the same coaches - Peter Stanley, his technical adviser, and his American coach, Dennis Nobles. And, as a committed Christian, he has been seeking God's further guidance.

It is in his nature that he has always talked openly about his fluctuating feelings, even if, at times, it may have given his rivals encouraging glimpses of doubt and hesitation.

"It would have been easy to say nothing, and maybe I've been a little unwise in some of the comments I've made. But that's the way I am. I say what I feel and I think people have become used to me being like that."

For all the trials along the way, he has been able to extend the unbeaten sequence which began back at Loughborough on 11 June 1995. The run appeared to be ending last month at the Rome grand prix, when he cut a despondent figure as he trailed going into the final round. But inspiration arrived.

"Rome was a big turning point," he recalled. "To be able to come out in the last round and win when in my heart of hearts I'd given it up was very important.

"The unbeaten run had been playing on my mind and perhaps I was worrying about my opponents. But it's all been part of the learning process. I've learned to concentrate on what I'm doing."

After taking three weeks off to nurse a sore heel, during which time he missed the Olympic trials, he confirmed his fitness to the selectors with victory at the Helsinki grand prix in 17.82 metres, a distance which reassured him he was back in the kind of mental and physical shape he was required to be in.

Friday night's meeting in Oslo provided further encouragement for Edwards as he maintained his run with a jump of 17.68 metres, his second furthest of the season without the benefit of wind assistance.

Even though he ran through his final jump, his response - a rueful grin and a two-handed wave at the crowd - indicated his state of mind. The little Union Flag marker had already been placed sufficiently far back in the damp sand.

"I felt like I was really flying tonight," Edwards said with a relieved grin. "I felt like the Jonathan Edwards of last year."

For all that, he is still prepared to give healthy consideration to the idea of defeat.

"I'm not scared of losing. The thought of it is probably worse than the reality. It depends on the circumstances.

If I'm jumping poorly, it will be frustrating. But if I perform well and lose, then it won't be too bad.

Edwards is due to compete in Stockholm tonight before stepping out - with customary caution and humility - towards his ultimate ambition.

"The Olympic title is what everyone dreams about and it will be difficult," he said. "I could end up without a medal, let alone the gold. You have to face up to it. But even if I never have another season like last season, I wouldn't regret anything."

Along with the caution, however, there is an underlying faith - in himself, in God - which allows him to proceed with equanimity, even boldness.

Three years ago he gave up his part-time job as a cyto-physicist at Newcastle's Royal Infirmary to concentrate on his athletics, knowing that the only money coming into the household would be from his wife's job as a physiotherapist. A leap of faith indeed.

"We won't be driving about in a Mercedes," he said at the time. "But we've not really got any worries. God will give you what you need."

And lo, within two years there came not only a world championship gold medal but a Mercedes to go with it. No wonder Jonathan feels a little jumpy at times.