Athletics: Danvers is left distraught by foot injury

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The Independent Online

Like a bad dream, misfortune revisited Natasha Danvers here last night. Just over a year after she fell at the final obstacle while holding the bronze medal position in the Commonwealth Games 400 metres hurdles final, the 25-year-old came to grief again as she injured her right foot while warming up for last night's heats in the AAA Championship and World Championship trials.

Danvers was distraught as her heat got underway without her. She will remain in Birmingham this weekend to have treatment on torn fibres in her foot. She has lowered her personal best three times this year, and her form should have assured her of a place in the World Championships in Paris next month. But the injury has come at the worst time for an athlete who seemed on the brink of fulfilling her potential after several years of frustration.

Danvers had arrived for the trials on a high, having reduced her personal best three times in the space of a month, most recently at the Rome Golden League on 11 July. Her run in Italy underlined her intention to compete consistently after winning the Zagreb grand prix in the previous week in the time of 54.32sec. That installed her as the British all-time No 2 behind the ex-World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth champion Sally Gunnell, whose former world record of 52.74 still stands as the best time ever run by a European.

"Running 54.3 to me is not a big deal," Danvers said in Zagreb. "It is where I should have been for some time now." The Sydenham-born athlete seemed to be on the brink of great things four years ago when she ran 55.69sec in the United States while studying at the University of Southern California.

After reaching the final at the 2000 Olympics, where she finished last, she joined the HSI Group and trained under John Smith with the world 100m champion Maurice Greene. In 2001 she won the World Student Games in 54.94sec and seemed ready to start earning medals at international level.

So confident was she that 2002 would be her year, she allowed a television documentary crew to follow her for six months of a season which was set to conclude with the Commonwealth Games and European Championships. What the camera recorded, however, did not make pleasant viewing.

In front of a capacity 38,000 crowd in the City of Manchester stadium she found the last hurdle too much for her, just as she had done in the previous year's European Cup, and landed flat on her face, thumping the track in frustration before walking across the line seventh and last. She will not want to be reminded of her time, 1min 27.12sec.

But soon Danvers' story was being altered by the woman who remains the event's greatest exponent. Gunnell watched the final as part of the BBC commentary team, and soon began advising Danvers. "Sally talked about the things she did - like visualisation and a committed diet - and I have adapted some of those things," Danvers said. "Now, hopefully, I can recreate what she created. You can get all the advice in the world from your coach, but there is nothing like hearing it from somebody who has done it."

Danvers has now left the HSI Group, but is still coached by Smith's nephew, Darrell. She has taken on board important technical advice from Gunnell, who suggested she kept up her hurdling drill through the winter, which she had not done previously because of the risk of injury. This season Gunnell has witnessed an athlete whose approach to the event seems to have been transformed. After watching her run in Zagreb, Gunnell said: "It was a different Natasha out there." It seems, however, Britain will have to wait to see if it has another genuine contender for international medals in the 400m hurdles.