Athletics: Faith keeps Golding on right track for Athens

Former Commonwealth champion enters Olympic year in search of top form and confident injury crisis is over

It is just as well for Julian Golding that he has faith. As he looks forward to what could be the most important year of his athletics career, offering a chance to compete for the first time in the Olympics, his view is being impaired by what he trusts - there's that faith again - is a minor problem with his foot.

Should he be right, he will be making his first appearance of the year on the boards at Glasgow's Kelvin Hall on 24 January, when he is due to run the 200 metres for Britain in the Norwich Union Challenge.

Should he be wrong, the 28-year-old Londoner will emerge later in a season which he just has to get right if he is to do justice to the talent which has flared so fitfully, and yet so brightly, in the course of a career that has been punctuated with illness and injury.

The most recent illumination occurred last July, when Golding emerged from what he describes as "three years in the wilderness" to win the World Championships trials and AAA Championships in Birmingham under the direction of his new coach, John Regis. But the fitfulness remains. A month later, he failed, inexplicably, to progress beyond the first heats of the 200m in Paris.

"It just wasn't meant to be," he reflected. "It was a horrible surprise, because I was in the shape of my life going into the World Championships. Every training session I had up to Paris was the best of my career - I ran personal bests at 60m, 80m, 120m and 150m. I was running times in training I had only dreamt about. Perhaps I was even too confident when I eventually got there - but it just didn't happen on the day. I really thought I was going to do something spectacular, but I was like a car that couldn't get out of third gear.

"Obviously I thought winning the AAAs was just going to be the start and would set me up for the rest of the season. Then again, if I end up building on what I did manage to achieve last year and having success at the Olympics, I would happily take that."

At least Golding can start laying plans for his Olympic season, unlike his friend Dwain Chambers. Now the man with whom he used to train with his former coach, Mike McFarlane, is facing a ruinous ban following his positive test for the so-called "designer steroid", tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). "I've known Dwain since 1992," he said, sadly. "I'd rather not speak about it."

Back in the spring of 1998, Golding was looking eagerly ahead to another important season. In terms of British sprinting, the year was effectively 1AL - After Linford. Into the vacuum left by Christie's retirement hurried a host of talented young athletes, of whom the spindly Golding was very definitely one.

He felt he was going to have a fantastic year - and he was right. Four months later, he became the Commonwealth champion in Kuala Lumpur, finishing ahead of his Welsh friend and rival Christian Malcolm in a personal best of 20.18sec.

At 23, the man who looks in danger of being blown away by anything stronger than a stiff breeze had arrived; and by 25 he had effectively departed, weakened by a blood virus that left him so tired he could barely walk.

Although he recovered in time to travel to the 2000 Olympics as a member of the sprint relay squad, he did not get a run. The following season was ruined by a gruesome sequence of haemorrhages in his groin, and 2002 was effectively knocked on the head by a badly bruised heel which prevented him doing any training until April.

Towards the end of that season, he attempted a 200m in Spain which proved to be the low point of his career. "I ran 22.24," he said. "That really sealed it for me. When people saw the result in Athletics Weekly they thought it was another J Golding."

So low was Golding that he contemplated retirement. But his faith - he is a Christian who does all he can to avoid training on a Sunday so he can worship at his local church in Sydenham, the Bethesda Ministry - helped him cope with the huge sense of frustration. His music helped, too. Self-taught on a battered piano his father bought for him as an 11-year-old, Golding regularly plays gospel music at his church, helping out at times on the bass, drums and euphonium.

He has also been anchored in his life by the woman he married four years ago, Sam, after meeting her through the church. "She has no connection with athletics, which is just the way I like it," he said.

He can pinpoint the moment when he felt he had effectively returned to top-flight competition - it came as he crossed the line in the 200m semi-final during last year's Birmingham games at the National Indoor Arena. "I saw the clock stop at 20.8, and it was such a huge relief," he said. "Julian Golding was back, and it felt great."

Inevitably there was another hitch before he got to the AAAs, a hamstring pull which he took some time to recover from. But overall, despite the anti-climax in Paris, Golding feels content when he looks back at the 2003 season.

As an avid enthusiast of athletics statistics - his favourite is Carl Lewis's distinction of having gone 10 years without defeat in the long jump - Golding is only too aware that his own personal best has stood for almost six years.

"I really thought I was going to do it last year," he said. "But this year I'll beat it - without a shadow of a doubt." Given all that has gone before, that would be a statistic to cherish.

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