Athletics: Determined Thomas aims to make up for lost time

After four injury-scarred years, Britain's 400m record holder is fit at last and has sights on Olympic success
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Last weekend in Bedford, the British 400 metres record holder completed a full circuit of the track in 46.65 seconds - more than two seconds slower than his best time. He was delighted.

At 29, Iwan Thomas believes - fingers crossed - that he is heading back towards the kind of form which made him invincible in his annus mirabilis of 1998. Since that year, when he won the European, the World Cup and the Commonwealth titles in the space of 53 days and three different continents, the affable Welshman's career has been cruelly scarred by injury.

But as he steps out for his first international race of the season in Floro, Norway today, Thomas has the comfort of knowing that he has had seven uninterrupted months of training behind him, a luxury he has been unable even to dream of since his world first began to fall apart four years ago. "Since 98, the most I've had has been seven weeks," he said. "Maybe even three or four weeks. Every time I got into any sort of rhythm I would get injured again and have to go back to square one. The last four years have been terrible."

It all looked so different after Thomas had rounded off his season of success with a second victory over his domestic rival Mark Richardson in Kuala Lumpur. Pale skinned, powerful, immensely determined, he seemed ready to take the final step to becoming a major global player.

"I think that the next two years will bring out the best in both Iwan and Mark," wrote Britain's Olympic silver medallist of 1996, Roger Black, in his autobiography. "I look forward to seeing them take on the likes of Michael Johnson and Tyree Washington at the 1999 World Championships and the 2000 Olympics."

And lo, it did not come to pass. By the time the incomparable Johnson rounded off his career by winning a second Olympic title in Sydney, neither Briton was in contention. Richardson was dealing with the effects of a positive test for nandrolone, and although he eventually earned early clearance to compete again, it was not early enough to allow him to run in Australia. And Thomas - well, he was injured of course.

Johnson's retirement has only compounded the frustration experienced by Thomas as he has struggled to overcome a succession of problems reported to have begun after he suffered a freak accident while jumping off a trampoline while warm weather training in South Africa early in 1999.

"Michael was the only person you looked at and said 'forget about trying to beat him'. But since he's gone there's no one who is clearly the No 1. The 44.3's that Mark and I were running in 1998 would have won us the world title if we had run them in 2001."

Thomas isn't wrong. His best of 44.36sec would have earned him the gold in Edmonton, where the title went to Avard Moncur of the Bahamas in 44.64. He doesn't like to think about it. But he can't stop himself thinking about it.

The trampoline story has always puzzled Thomas, whose initial difficulties were actually caused by the fact that, unbeknownst to him, he had arrived in South Africa with a stress fracture of his ankle that he now concedes may have been brought about by doing too much in the previous year.

"I felt invincible in 1998," he recalled. "I watch the videos of myself now and I can't believe how consistent I was. You would see me hit 300 metres and it was always the same time. I must have been so hungry for it. You couldn't have stopped me running then. I was enjoying competing, I was winning every time I went out. I was loving it. But maybe I was pushing myself so much that my body broke down."

By the time he arrived for his warm weather trip early the following year his ankle was hurting him, but he pushed the pain to the back of his mind. When he was unable to compete in his first scheduled race in South Africa, the meeting promoter, Andy Norman, told the press it was because of a trampoline accident. Thomas had indeed been, in his own words, "mucking about" on a trampoline a few days earlier, but that had no connection with his injury. "I don't know why Andy said that," he mused.

Whatever the stated origin, Thomas's athletics career since then has been filled with new and dispiriting statistics. He may well hold the Commonwealth record for hamstring injuries. He must certainly be close to the European record for false dawns.

His lowest point in all this came last year at the AAA Championships and European trials in Birmingham. Five years after winning at the same meeting in a British record, he couldn't even make the final.

"I just sat in my car afterwards and I was in tears," he recalled. "It was more than just the injury. I was obviously not properly motivated. I realised that if I was ever going to get back I had to make some big changes."

After speaking to his long-time coach at Southampton, Mike Smith, and consulting numerous other people within the sport including Black, Thomas set about organising what he now describes as his last chance. Having lost many of his familiar training partners at Southampton, he toyed with the idea of joining Richardson's training group under the charge of Tony Lester, but had second thoughts about how things might work out on what was his old rival's territory. In the end he decided to join the likes of 400m hurdlers Chris Rawlinson and 400m runner Sean Baldock in Nick Dakin's group at Loughborough University, buying a house nearby which he shares with his girlfriend, a graphic designer with a lack of obsession about athletics that he finds extremely soothing.

"Southampton had been great to me, and so had Mike, but there had been too many bad memories over the previous four years," he said. "I knew I had to make a fresh start. I am training six days a week, and I am getting the best out of all the facilities there are on site here. Today, for instance, I had physiotherapy from 10 to 11, then I trained from 11.30 to 12.30, had an iced bath, then a massage. I have set myself up as a full-time athlete. In my own mind, this is my last chance."

It is a regime he hopes will enable him to make a smooth and controlled re-entry to the élite level he once frequented. "I see it as a two-year plan," he said. "This year I need to settle into a routine, start having some fun again, and hopefully getting things right at the AAA trials. If I can have another great winter next year I can hopefully reap the rewards at the Olympics." He pauses, then adds with a chuckle: 'That is the plan."

Having kept in contact over the years with Black, with whom he won an Olympic relay silver in 1996, he has been struck by the parallels in their careers. "Roger has been an inspiration to me," he said. "Because the similarities between us are scary. We both started at Southampton under Mike Smith, we won European and Commonwealth titles at a young age, we both broke the British record, and we've both suffered years of injury problems. But Roger proved you can come back from that, and I can do the same."

What has helped him through many of the bad times has been the regard in which he is still held inside and outside the sport. "Obviously the phone does not ring as often now as it did in 98, but people have kept in touch."

Earlier this month Thomas made his latest appearance on BBC's Question of Sport. Earlier this year he featured in a Channel 5 programme Be A Formula One Driver, lining up with 1,000 other hopefuls. Having once ranked fourth in Europe in BMX cycle racing, Thomas drew on his wheeled racing experience over five stages to reach the last 20, falling just short of getting a seven-year contract with Jensen Button's management team.

"I'm a regular guy trying to get back to what I do best," he said. "People probably respect me for that. I think a lot of athletes might have given up in my situation, but I haven't." Can Thomas reclaim his career? Fingers crossed. Legs crossed. Everything crossed.