Athletics: Double act puts Lewis back on track for Athens

Olympic heptathlon champion has gold in her sights after returning to Dutch coach
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Denise Lewis and her coach Charles van Commenee go back a long way - 10 years, in fact, an anniversary which they recently marked with a drink.

Denise Lewis and her coach Charles van Commenee go back a long way - 10 years, in fact, an anniversary which they recently marked with a drink.

What was in the glasses said everything about the attitude this partnership has to the imminent defence of the Olympic heptathlon title which Lewis won four years ago.

"We celebrated with water," said van Commenee. "I'm not even joking. Because everything else will contain calories and we can't use that on the 23rd and 24th of August."

On those two days in Athens, the 31-year-old champion and mother - her daughter Lauryn was born in 2002 - will seek to show that she can still compete at the highest level in an event which has been effectively dominated for the last two years by the vivacious 21-year-old Swede Carolina Kluft, who became only the third woman to score more than 7,000 points in winning last year's world title.

Lewis, under the controversial guidance of former East German coach Ekkart Arbeit, finished fifth in that final, in what was her first championship heptathlon since she and Van Commenee had triumphed in Sydney.

Since then she has resumed her double act with the volatile Dutchman, working assiduously through the winter in order to give herself a fighting chance of a medal in the heat of Athens.

If determination, or indeed general fitness, won medals, Lewis could rest assured. At the British Olympic training camp in Cyprus last month she appeared to be leaner and hungrier than at any point in her 10-year international career, a fact that was pointed out by the picture a tabloid newspaper printed of her in a bikini on the beach, displaying a six-pack that would not have disgraced the Governor of California.

Lewis is proud of her current shape - indeed, she believes she is as fit as she has ever been. But there's a problem - her left foot, which has troubled her ever since she won her Olympic title.

"She still pays a price for what she did in Sydney," said Van Commenee. "It messed her foot up and it hurts her every day. She had to take approximately 10 injections over two days to make it through, but it delivered the gold medal. If she doesn't train, it's all right. But if she does train, like now, it means pain." When the injury flared up again last month, Lewis decided to ditch her plan of competing in Gotzis, and will not now do a heptathlon before Athens. Instead, she will maintain her competitive aspirations by appearing in individual events, starting tomorrow at the Loughborough University meeting with the shot putt and javelin.

That done, she will sit down with Van Commenee and make a decision about how soon she will be able to get back to the running and jumping events. The theory is that she will attempt long jump and hurdles in Gateshead on 27 June.

"It's the story of my life," she says, with a philosophical shrug. "I've been there before, haven't I? Done it before. So I'm not worried. The foot's been problematic since Sydney, so it's a case of trying to manage it. Obviously going into Olympic year you have to take the intensity of the work to another level and try to get the best out of my body which means pushing the barriers. Sometimes you go over that line a little bit, and then you have to find a coping strategy."

Lewis's link with Arbeit, who was strongly implicated in the regime which forced athletes to take drugs, earned her fierce criticism from some quarters of the media. The experience deepened her mistrust of the press, confirming a defensiveness that was already in place and which is still evident today.

Asked recently if she had ever considered whether it would have been better or easier to have retired in the wake of her Olympic victory, given that so much of her time since has been taken up either with injury or the daughter whom she had with Belgian sprinter Patrick Stevens, she responded sharply: "If you don't mind me saying, I don't think my body's in too bad shape apart from the foot. I think I've championed the cause for women and motherhood. When I'm not a mum I'm an athlete. I don't think me being a mother makes me less competitive.

"As a woman you wear different hats. You have to separate two people. When I go and I sit in the shot circle I'm not thinking 'Oh, Lauryn needs feeding'. I'm there doing what I do which is being an athlete. When I step off the track its a different story. Then I'm thinking 'Oh my God, it needs to be done'."

Returning to Van Commenee, with whom she now trains near her birthplace in Birmingham, is clearly something of a relief - but it retains its testing elements. "He's still the same, still a tyrant," she reflected, with the very faintest of grins. "So - you know. We get the job done."

Asked if she had expected anything else of her old mentor, she replied, this time with a wider grin: "I though he might have mellowed with age... but that's fine. I'm used to him, he's used to me.

"Things are much better now than they were last year. I have been able to do more training. I lost a lot of leg strength after my pregnancy - but now I've got my strong legs back and I think my general fitness is as good as it can be for the first time in a long time. It's encouraging. Because the question you always ask yourself is can you get to that physical stage again? I can pat myself on the back - even if Charles won't - that I've got myself back to that good level again."

But not being able to complete a heptathlon before Athens? "Stop reminding me!" she said. "I'm 30 plus, if I don't know by now I'm never going to know it. I think if I compete with single events here and there we can reproduce enough. What I've missed over the years is competition. I need to compete to rehearse some things."

Re-addressing the topic of going out at the top, she added: "Well, I'm sure some people would have had something to say about that if I'd retired after Sydney. But I decide my own destiny. While I still love the sport - and I do, with all its pluses and minuses - then I will continue. When there isn't any motivation you'll be the first to know that I'll be retiring - if my body doesn't retire me first.

"It means a lot to me to be at the Olympics. I love the atmosphere of championships - it's almost addictive, if you like. And the Olympics are something that can't be compared to anything else."

The question of what she might realistically expect from Athens elicits a measured response.

"Apart from the obvious person - Kluft - you have to understand that the event has not taken massive leaps forward," she said. "The last couple of years I've been injured. Yelena Prokhorova, the silver medallist in Sydney, had her problems. Eunice Barber has had her difficulties. The event is still competitive.

"I can't say how I'll do in Athens. I'm at the stage now where I think my actions have to speak louder than my predictions. But yes, I still believe that if I get the work in, and do the best I can, I have the capability of getting in the medal zone."

Van Commenee, characteristically, addresses the same question with hard-eyed clarity. "Whether Denise is a better athlete than she was when she was last with me I'm not sure," he said. "She's definitely more determined. But it's going to be a struggle."