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Athletics: Cool Douglas takes a giant leap forward

British triple-jumping hope aims to peak in 2012 as he plans to emulate the feats of his hero Edwards

Since last Sunday, and his mighty 17.64m jump in the Manchester Regional Arena, the Oxford City athlete has been carrying on with the business of preparing for his next competition, the Norwich Union London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace next Friday night, while ranked at No 3 in the world in his event. With three weeks to go before the World Championships open in Helsinki, Britain suddenly has a contender for a medal in one of the men's individual events. Not that Douglas is raising his head to contemplate the prospect of a place on the podium - not in public, at any rate.

"I'm just thinking about the qualifying round and trying to get to the final," he says. "That's the first stage. If I start thinking about medals I'm sure my brain's going to wander a little bit. It could put me off. I just want to take one step at a time."

The thing is, at the end of his step phase in Manchester a week ago Douglas had ventured out to 12.05m. That happens to be two-thirds of the way towards the 18m mark, triple jumping territory into which only Jonathan Edwards, the greatest of all hop-step-and-jumpers, and Kenny Harrison, the American who won the 1996 Olympic title, have ever ventured. As it was, Douglas - who started the summer with a personal best of 16.95m and improved to 17.27m in Lausanne on 5 July - jumped to that 17.64m. In doing so he broke Edwards' AAA Championships record by 5cm. He also moved within 15cm of the personal best that won Olympic gold last summer for Sweden's Christian Olsson, Edwards' successor as the world's dominant force in the event.

With Olsson out injured this year, Marian Oprea of Romania leads the global rankings with 17.81m, followed by the Brazilian Jadel Gregorio of Brazil, with 17.73m. Then comes Douglas, a quarter of a metre clear of the next man in the world order, Cuban Yoandri Betanzos. A place on the podium in Helsinki is clearly beckoning the spring-heeled Briton but even if he fails to make it, at 22, Douglas has already shown his ability to follow in the steps of Edwards, and in the hops and jumps too.

Not that there is any reason to suppose that the equable young soul described as "Mr Cool" by his coach, Ted King, might allow any pressure to crack him in the heat of competition. Thus far in his embryonic athletics career, Douglas has risen to every big occasion.

At the Horspath track, on the Cowley side of Oxford unfrequented by Inspector Morse in the Colin Dexter novels and the ITV episodes, it takes 20 minutes of interrogation to work Mr Cool into a state of excitement about his newly elevated status in the track and field firmament. He is interested to discover that Edwards, at 22, boasted a best jump of 16.74m - and that the Gateshead Harrier did not venture beyond 17.64m until 1995, in the golden summer when he took the world record to 18.29m.

"Seriously?" Douglas says, his eyes widening. "How old was he then? Do you know?" The answer is 29. Douglas dissolves into a laughing fit. "He was 29!" he exclaims. "That's crazy. I don't think it's right to be comparing but that is a weird and crazy statistic. I didn't know that."

At this point, it is worth mentioning that Douglas will be 29 when the Olympic Games are down the M40 in London. He laughs again. "I keep saying to everyone, I'm going to be peaking my career in 2012," he says. "All along I was saying to my coach, 'I really hope we get the Olympics', because to win a gold medal in front of your home crowd... it's going to be absolutely amazing. I remember before my final jump in Athens last year the Greek dude had just jumped and got through to the final and the whole place just erupted. They were going mad for ages."

The home Olympic crowd could well be going mad for Douglas in London in 2012, in the same way as the Aussies did for Cathy Freeman in Sydney in 2000 and the Greeks did for the 400m hurdler Fani Halkia in Athens in 2004. In the meantime, with Linford Christie's management company, Nuff Respect, providing off-the-track guidance, the Loughborough sports science graduate is happy to keep his head down and spend his time shuttling in his N-reg Corsa between Oxford - where he spent much of his youth being raised by his grandmother and "No 1 supporter," June Douglas - and Birmingham, where he trains under King's astute direction.

Surprisingly, Douglas has spoken to Jonathan Edwards just the once, after he finished fourth at the European Indoor Championships in Madrid in March. On television a week ago, though, the world record holder spoke glowingly about the burgeoning young Briton, praising him for achieving the supreme art of making a long distance hop, step and jump "look effortless".

"It's funny," Douglas muses, "but someone was asking me about Jonathan's 18.29m the other day and I said, 'When you watch him do it, it looks easy, so easy'. That's when you know it's good. The aim of the game is to try to find that consistently.

"I'm never going to be the same jumper as Jonathan, because we have different attributes, but I do study video of his jumps. At my age, I still see myself as an apprentice. There's so much about the event that I still have to learn."