Athletics: Athens target still remote as Lewis misses out on final

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It looks as if Denise Lewis's most challenging event this season is going to be the 10 miles - which is the distance her coach, Charles van Commenee, believes she is behind the world's top three heptathletes with just over six months to go until she defends her Olympic title.

The 31-year-old Birchfield Harrier's first competitive appearance on British soil for three years here yesterday was enough to demonstrate that she is clearly a long way short of the form which brought her the gold medal in Sydney four years ago. But she remained philosophical about her overall performance at the Norwich Union World Trials and AAA Championships after finishing second in the shot putt with 14.59m - a metre short of her best - and then placing third in the 60m hurdles heats with a time of 8.48sec, which was not enough to get her into the final.

"If I had prepared to do this, I would have been disappointed," she said. "But I only decided to take part at the last minute. It was just 'Come and see, come and compete'. So I'm here." Lewis admitted that she had endured a few worrying moments early in the new year when she had feared that she might not have been able to say that about this season after she had fallen and hurt her ankle while running alone in a forest near her home in Belgium.

"I was lying on the forest floor thinking 'No one is going to find me'," she recalled. "At that moment I was thinking it was more serious than it turned out to be. It was a case of 'Oh God, here we go again, another hurdle, another operation'. I could hear the distant sound of a dog barking. In the end it was a long hop back to the car."

While another Olympic gold medal in Athens remains her target, Lewis acknowledges that she has a long way to go to regain the fitness levels which have been adversely affected by almost two years out of the sport when she had her daughter, Lauryn.

Having parted company with the controversial former East German coach Ekkart Arbeit last summer - a connection which she admits provoked so much criticism that it had become "damaging" - she has returned to Van Commenee, basing her training in Birmingham with the coach who guided her to the Olympic title.

The association has involved a fundamental reassessment. "I'm not Superwoman," she said. "I really did have to battle to get to last year's World Championships in Paris, and this year it has been a case of starting from scratch. I have taken everything apart and started to rebuild." The process may receive an interim judgement at the end of May, when Lewis intends to take part in the heptathlon at Gotzis, in Austria. "That is the plan," she said. "But I don't like to say things like that, because you never know what might happen."

That was a sentiment with which Allyn Condon, who came to these championships with the world's fastest 200m time of the year, 20.64sec, would concur. The 29-year-old Sale Harrier was running away with his semi-final before slowing to a halt on the top bend and sinking disconsolately to the track with what turned out to be a cramped hamstring.

Other events ran more to form in what was the inaugural event for the purpose-built English Institute of Sport in front of a capacity 2,000 crowd who had an excellent, almost intimate view of the action from seats next to the track.

The decision of the meeting promoters, FastTrack, to impose a 25 per cent pay reduction on any athlete competing in either of the other two televised indoor meetings but failing to turn up here may have been a factor in the creation of a field that was far stronger in terms of élite athletes than in recent years.

Jason Gardener's outstanding performance on Saturday, when he won a record-equalling fourth AAA title in the short sprint in a time of 6.49sec, just 0.03sec off his own European record, established him as a strong favourite for the 60m gold in next month's World Indoor Championships in Budapest.

Although he would not be drawn on his chances of winning, the 28-year-old Bath athlete, now under the direction of Colin Jackson's former coach Malcolm Arnold, said that he would be disappointed not to beat his personal best this season. His predictions should clearly be taken seriously, given that he had told Arnold before his final that his winning time would be 6.49.

Kelly Holmes also underlined her gold medal potential for Budapest as she ran away with the 800m in a championship record of 2min 01.40sec, while Catherine Murphy emerged as a possible medal contender in the 400m, where she won in a season's best of 52.54sec ahead of Helen Karagounis, who clocked a personal best of 52.86.