Athletics: Fraser fighting to claw back the 'lost years'

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The Independent Online

As many athletes have discovered, life can change once you reach an Olympic final. So it has proved for Donna Fraser, who missed out on a 400 metres medal by fractions of a second at the 2000 Sydney Games with a world-class time of 49.79sec. Only in her case life changed for the worse.

As many athletes have discovered, life can change once you reach an Olympic final. So it has proved for Donna Fraser, who missed out on a 400 metres medal by fractions of a second at the 2000 Sydney Games with a world-class time of 49.79sec. Only in her case life changed for the worse.

The following year, despite managing to reach the World Championship semi-final, Fraser was suffering increasingly from an Achilles' tendon injury which has required three operations to correct and more than once prompted her to consider early retirement.

Last Saturday, however, the woman who can probably claim the longest legs and the readiest laugh of any British athlete ran her first 400 metres race in almost three years, winning at a low-key San Diego meeting in an encouraging time of 52.63sec. Today she is scheduled to run again in Irvine, California.

"It still feels quite weird to be back," she said. "I don't take anything for granted. I've lost so many years. I'm 31 - so old! But I feel 16 again when I'm back on the track.

"I was more nervous than I have ever been last Saturday, but I said to myself: 'You have to start sometime.' I wasn't looking for miracles, I just wanted to get round in one piece." Having reached Olympic heights, Fraser's career-path has followed a more mundane route in recent years - that of the 176 bus from her home in Penge to Kevin Lidlow's physiotherapy clinic in Piccadilly Circus.

"After the first operation in August 2002 I was on crutches seeing him every single day during my recovery, and I still go twice a week," Fraser said.

"He's been there for me almost constantly. He even came training with me when I was getting back to running, making sure I was placing my feet correctly. I would be thinking 'I can run around this bend and I'll be OK because he's there.' If he hadn't been I wouldn't have had the confidence - I would have been scared my foot was going to go again." Although it was hardly something she considered at the time, reaching the Olympic final effectively underwrote much of her medical expenses in the years that followed, as it elevated her to the top rate of National Lottery support.

Her injury appeared to be almost a part of the territory for British 400m runners, given the way it has also affected Katharine Merry, who beat her to the bronze in Sydney, Mark Richardson and Iwan Thomas. It is only referred to obliquely at Lidlow's clinic: "We never say the Achilles word. It's always: 'How's below the knee today?'"

Inevitably, Fraser has frequented the depths during her long absence. "Probably the lowest point for me was after the first operation," she recalled. "I had always said that if I ever had to go under the knife I would call it a day, but I realised I had to do something more. I was still in pain after surgery, though. I thought 'It's never going to get better.'

A second operation appeared to have got her back on course, until she woke up to discover her left foot had swollen alarmingly with an infection. "The best way I can describe it is to say it looked like Shrek's foot," she said. "I thought it was going to burst.

"It was quite hilarious, actually. I had to have my foot attached to a pump which I carried around for a couple of weeks in what looked like a handbag. It left a hole the size of an old 50p piece. I nearly keeled over when I first saw it - I thought it would never heal up." While recovering from her third operation in hospital, she suffered another psychological blow while watching a televised British meeting. "They were talking about the 400 metres event and they mentioned me, saying I had nearly won an Olympic medal in 2000 and where was I now? The whole point seemed to be that I had finished, that I had had my day.

"That really got my back up. But when I was struggling up hills in training afterwards, remembering what had been said really helped me." Assistance of a more positive kind has been forthcoming from the woman who met the demands of the Australian nation by winning the Olympic 400m title, Cathy Freeman. Fraser spent six weeks training with Freeman, who is now retired, in the run-up to the Sydney Games, and has kept in touch with her.

In the aftermath to Freeman's win, as the gold medallist sat blankly on the infield, Fraser was famously pictured talking to her with her arm around her shoulder.

"When we discuss it now Cathy says she remembered someone talking to her after the race, but she didn't know who it was," Fraser said with a laugh. "I could tell that at the time! She was in complete shock." Until Freeman persuaded her otherwise while visiting last summer, Fraser could not bring herself to see that Olympic final again, such was her disappointment with a run where she appeared to have left her final surge a fraction too late.

"I would only watch the heats, and then fast forward to the relay," Fraser said. "I could never watch my final because it was so gutting. I might have had a medal if the race had been a couple of metres further - either that or I should have had bigger boobs." The boobs are unlikely to change significantly for Fraser. But neither has the standard in the 400 metres changed significantly during her enforced absence, a fact which encourages her in her ambition of reaching Athens this summer.

"I don't think it will be easy," she said. "I don't underestimate the strength of the other girls. But obviously now I am getting back my aim is to make the individual event again at the Olympics."

Fingers crossed for Fraser's below-the-knee region...