Athletics: Gardener halts charge of the young pretender

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The Independent Online

Jason Gardener was making up for lost time at the Welsh National Indoor Athletics Centre yesterday. Two years ago the Bath sprinter was unbeatable in the indoor season, taking the European 60-metre title and a clutch of notable scalps. He returned to the boards in spectacular winning style yesterday on the concluding day of the Norwich Union AAA Indoor Championships, taking the prized scalp of the young man who has been threatening to eclipse him and the rest of Britain's senior speed merchants.

It was a mightily close-run thing, though. After Gardener crossed the line with the muscular figure of Mark Lewis-Francis having closed alongside him, the 26-year-old had to endure a nervous minute's wait before the slow-motion replay on the giant video screen showed that he had shaded victory ahead of his 19-year-old rival.

Confirmation soon followed that Gardener had indeed won, in a time of 6.52sec, the fastest by a European this year and the third quickest on the world ranking list. It was an emphatic announcement of Gardener's return to form, not least because of the high speed credentials Lewis-Francis has gained in the senior ranks.

The teenage Birchfield Harrier was a 60m bronze medallist at the World Indoor Championships in Lisbon last March and won the European Cup 100m race in Bremen in June. He might well have been a pain in the neck for Gardener, who has been so troubled by back pains in the past two years that he has sought the healing influence of the Munich medical guru who sits on the bench for Bayern Munich and the German national football team. Dr Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wolfhardt, the father-in-law of Lothar Matthäus, has clearly done a good job too.

"It's not been an easy time for me," Gardener said. "This has been my first competition. It has been even more challenging because Mark is running so well."

Colin Jackson, 35 next month, enjoyed a more comfortable ride in the 60m hurdles final. In his first domestic appearance of his 16th – and more likely than not final – year of senior international competition, the native Cardiffian eased to victory in 7.60sec.

It was Jackson's seventh AAA indoor title. A fourth European indoor crown beckons in Vienna next month – followed by a third Commonwealth gold in Manchester in July and a fourth successive European outdoor championship in Munich in August.

Ashia Hansen won her first European indoor title with a world record 15.16m triple jump in Valencia four years ago. The Shaftesbury Barnet Harrier has already jumped 14.41m to top the world rankings this year but yesterday she struggled to gain her usual rhythm on the runway, winning with a fourth-round jump of 13.53m.

"I was just lacking a bit of motivation today," Hansen confessed. "I knew there would be a lack of competition for me. That's why I ran in the 60m." Perhaps the Commonwealth champion was a little drained from her exertions. She reached the semi-finals of the 60m, crossing the line sixth in 7.71sec and then running directly to the back straight for the start of the triple jump.

The championships doubled as a trial for Vienna, the first test of Britain's track and field strength since the disappoint-ment of the World Championships in Edmonton last year. Only two British athletes returned with medals – Jonathan Edwards, with gold from the triple jump, and Dean Macey, with bronze from the decathlon.

It is just as well, then, that the production line from the junior ranks is functioning so proficiently. Lewis-Francis has already rolled off it with a high-speed vengeance and yesterday, in the wake of 16-year-old Amy Spencer's stunning 200m win on Saturday, Jenny Meadows, a 20-year-old first-year senior, claimed the women's 800m title, clocking in 2min 05.07sec.

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