Athletics: Jade Johnson set for medal assault after rapid rise

British long jumper has coordinated speed and height to generate hopes of success in next weekend's European Cup
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The Independent Online

By rights, Jade Johnson shouldn't be a long jumper, never mind a long jumper so good that she is now numbered among the very best in the world. For a start, she is allergic to the stuff long jumpers land in. Think of a swimmer who reacts badly to water, or a rock climber who suffers with vertigo. This vision of athleticism comes out in a rash every time she encounters sand. There's no remedy, apparently. The best she can do is get out of the pit double quick.

And another thing. In reaching her commanding height of 6ft 1in - or 6ft 3in in the heels she is wont to wear for modelling shots - Johnson put on a growth spurt of five inches in a single year. It turned her temporarily into a gangling beanpole whose lack of coordination earned the nickname which she maintains still applies - "Clumsy''.

"My bones grew, but everything else did not,'' she said, her words cascading out amid barks of laughter. "I was really gangly. If I was stepping up steps, I would miss my step. If I was picking up a cup from the side, I would drop it on the floor. I'm still clumsy now. If I play tennis or table tennis, I can't even hit the ball. I'm so rubbish.''

When it comes to the athletic accomplishment of coordinating speed and height to achieve distance, however, Johnson is not so rubbish. Last summer this 23-year-old Londoner launched herself into the public consciousness by winning silver medals in the Manchester Commonwealth Games and the European Championships. The latter achievement represented Britain's first European female long jump medal since Mary Rand had taken the bronze 40 years earlier.

Next weekend in Florence, Johnson will compete for Britain in the European Cup against a field which will contain almost all of the event's leading performers. It is a measure of the progress she has made in the last couple of years that she goes there with realistic hopes of a medal.

Whether she will get everything together on the day, however, remains open to question. As Johnson freely admits, she never quite knows where she is this early in the season, and her first two competitions this year have reflected that fact. Two weeks ago in Bedford she jumped 6.63 metres, 10cm short of the personal best she recorded at the European Championships in Munich. But on Tuesday, competing near Athens, she managed four no-jumps, a run-through of 6.12m and a jump of 6.30m where she took off, by her own estimation, at least two feet behind the board. "It was a nightmare,'' she asserted, cheerily.

That's Johnson for you. As yet, she has none of the titanium certainty of a Paula Radcliffe. Despite being delighted by her achievements of last summer, and the commercial opportunities that have accompanied that success - body-painted photo-shoot à la Denise Lewis, cover shots on a host of lads' magazines, a contract with the sports bra manufacturers who also supply Anna Kournikova - she still displays a tentativeness when it comes to assessing her place in the sporting scheme of things.

"I don't really see myself as a personality,'' she said. No, honestly. And she meant it.

Johnson also maintains that the experience of the past year has not gone to her head or altered her in any profound way. "I've had some negative publicity for what I've done, but some of it was down to jealous people,'' she said. "I'm a very, very, very loud and sociable person. I love to talk, I love to communicate with people. If I was really quite introverted and had to do a lot of this stuff [interviews] it would mean a change. You have to be a little bit more open when you are doing interviews, but I am naturally quite chatty, so I don't really think I've changed.

"I haven't had to turn anything down, but my management company know the limit of what I will do. The raunchiest I've ever got was when I did the body-painting session before last year's Commonwealth Games. Having seen the pictures, I don't regret it. But it was one of the first photo-shoots I've done, and I didn't know all the circumstances. I didn't know exactly what it entailed. I thought I could wear a bra, and whatever. Luckily I was able to cover up the main bits so I was OK. I'm a lot more experienced now. I know the right questions to ask.

"Just before the Commonwealths began, I found it was all getting a little bit too hectic. So I told my management company that if anyone wanted to speak to me I wanted to wait until the Commonwealths and European Championships were over.'' Competition remains her paramount concern, although she views her athletic standing tentatively. "I still feel like I'm very, very young at what I do,'' she said. "I still feel like I'm learning every single year.''

Helping her in that task is her coach John Herbert, the quietly spoken former British triple jumper who knows what it is like to win at the European Cup. "I'm already physically strong, but the most important thing in track and field is to get your mind right,'' Johnson said. "That is the big part of being a world class athlete, and it's something I've had to work on. I really don't think I would be where I am now, or the person I am now, if it wasn't for my coach.

"He's everything you want - a dad, a best friend, a brother. He's very, very good for me because he's been there and done it. He knows how to be an athlete and how to be a coach. And he is so, so mellow. He calms me down - he is about the only person who can calm me down - because I can get a bit irrational.'' She laughs, before adding, as if clarification were needed: "Sometimes I'm not mellow.''

For all her uncertainties about herself, Johnson's vivacious talents have already established her as an aspirational figure for younger competitors. She may have a way to go yet before she reaches the heights achieved by Britain's pre-eminent women athletes - Radcliffe, Lewis and Ashia Hansen, whose natural appeal she shares - but all the main factors are already in place.

Earlier this week, at Crystal Palace, Johnson attended another photo-shoot alongside her namesake, Jade Surman, a 14-year-old from Birmingham who has already jumped 6.07m. Too close for comfort? "She's catching me,'' Johnson responded, with characteristic hilarity. "I think she wanted to do some jumping right then. She made me laugh - the first thing she wanted to know was how to go about getting some sponsorship. Someone asked her if she saw me as a role model. She said she did, but she would be better than me. I said: "Good at you, girl!" that's the right attitude." There followed a brief calculation of how long it might take for Jade the Younger to become a serious threat to Jade the Elder. "Perhaps in four years, perhaps in six years when I will be - what? - 29. Maybe by that time. Or maybe sooner, you never know."

Jade the Younger has her work cut out, however. At 14, Johnson had already jumped 6.24m, a feat which earned her the Southern Under-17 title and a reputation as an outstanding potential talent. And despite her lingering anxiety about her mental toughness, she has already proved herself a strong survivor in an arena even less forgiving than that of athletics.

When Johnson was 14, she was, in her own words, "streetwise, very mouthy and quite boisterous'', but then she had to be after enduring four years in which she was regularly subjected to racist abuse.

"I've got a black dad and a white mum,'' she said. "But when we moved up to Liverpool to be closer to my mum's family we were the only non-white family in the area and there was a lot of racism. We were seen as different, and me and my little sister had to look out for ourselves every single day. Sometimes people would say things, sometimes they wanted to pick fights. We had to stand up for ourselves. We had to grow up fast there, and we hated it. In the end, we moved back down to Clapham. But by the time I was 14 I felt like a 40-year-old.''

Happily, Johnson already had athletics as a more positive outlet for her energy and aggression. As a seven-year-old she was so prodigiously fast that she had to be entered in school races along with older boys, whom she regularly outsprinted. It soon became apparent that she could put her speed to even better use by converting it into natural spring. Her course was set.

But there was another huge test of mental strength ahead. Apart from its deleterious effect upon the household crockery, young Jade's growth spurt had other damaging effects, most particularly upon her lower back, which became so painful that she was unable to compete for more than a year. At her lowest point, she was bedridden.

Injury is every athlete's unwanted shadow. Despite the fact that she can now access the medical support available to Britain's established sporting performers through lottery funding, Johnson is still having to proceed with caution. Earlier this year she missed the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham in order to give a knee problem time to heal.

Delivering the promise that was so blindingly evident in her as a 14-year-old is something she is determined to manage, but she has learned - slowly and painfully - that it is a process requiring a quality with which she is not much blessed. Namely patience.

She is adopting the same approach to the target of jumping over seven metres, something she almost achieved two years ago in Arles when she had an effort measured at approximately 7.10m ruled out as a marginal foul. "I believe I have been ready to jump seven metres for a long time,'' she said. "People are always saying to me that I'm capable of it. But I don't really concentrate on distance any more because I was getting this big hang-up about it. I could jump seven metres every year and not ever get a medal in a major championship. And I'd rather have a medal than seven metres.

"I am the sort of person that feels like I will do things when the time is right. Every now and then the universe shows me what I'm capable of, and then something goes, 'Not yet, not yet'. I don't think I will give myself a pat on the back and think 'wow' until I maybe get an Olympic medal one day. Then I might say to myself 'OK Jade. You've arrived a little bit'.''

If and when she does, it will be an arrival worth the wait.

Jade Johnson the life and times

Born: 7 June 1980.

Height: 1.85m.

Weight: 72kg.

Event: Long jump.

Club: Herne Hill Harriers.

Coaches: John Herbert, Clarence Callender and Donovan Reid.

Personal best: 6.73 metres (7 August 2002, Munich).

2002 European Championships: Silver medal. 2002 Commonwealth Games: Silver medal.

Johnson came 35th in a recent newspaper poll of the 100 sexiest black women.

Her silver medal in the European Championships in Munich last year was Britain's first European long jump medal since Mary Rand's 42 years ago.

At the European Championships in Munich last year she beat her childhood idol Heike Drechsler.

A year ago she was a sales assistant in the sports store, selling trainers.

She says: "I am very, very, very ambitious. I've wanted to do this since I was seven years old, and I don't think I've come anywhere close to what I think I can do. I feel I've only just started on my journey to the top. I just have to make sure that I keep my feet on the ground."

"I am the sort of person that feels like I will do things when the time is right."

They say: "She is fast enough to be a sprinter." John Regis, former British 200 metre runner.