Athletics: Keeping ahead of the Jones

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The Independent Online

Johnson City, Tennessee, was once home to Daniel Boone and to Davy Crockett. For four years now it has been home to Zhanna Pintusevich-Block. The woman who caused the shock of the World Athletics Championships last summer happens to hail from Nezhin, 140km from Kiev, but it was from the Deep South of the USA that the Ukrainian emerged with the lightning speed that rocked the track and field Richter Scale in Edmonton six months ago.

She struck twice in two hours, beating Marion Jones in the semi-final and the final of the women's 100m, and shattering the aura of invincibility that had come to surround the supposed superwoman of the track.

It ended a winning streak by the American that stretched back four years and 71 races. And it was an upset forged on American soil, on the training track in Johnson City – with the coaching nous of a New York native. As a middle-distance runner at East Tennessee University, Mark Block was, by his own admission, "nothing exceptional". As the coach of the woman he brought to Johnson City to marry four years ago, he has been the reverse.

It was only after the Sydney Olympics that Block – a university coach before he became an athletes' agent – took on the job of guiding his wife's athletics career. His faster half, who lines up in the 60m in the Norwich Union Grand prix meeting at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham today, finished a distant fifth in the 100m final in Sydney and an even more remote eighth in the 200m. Concentrating on her speed out of the starting blocks, Block's prime objective was not so much to get his spouse to keep up with the singular Jones as to get her ahead of the American – and keep her there.

And this he succeeded in doing in spectacular fashion in Edmonton. Pintusevich-Block shot from her blocks in the 100m semi-final and held off Jones by 0.01sec. An hour and 40 minutes later, she did it again in the final. It was the 10.82sec that changed the world – the world of women's sprinting, at any rate.

"The reaction has been interesting," Block mused, as he chaperoned his wife through her media duties at the national Indoor Arena on Friday. "In the Ukraine Zhanna has been in all the newspapers and on all the television shows. And, surprisingly, she's got a pretty good reception in Johnson City as well. Living in a small town in the US, people know who she is now. Before, they never quite knew what she was doing, training all the time. And now they've figured it out. It's kinda nice.

"I've always coached a lot of foreign athletes, so the fact it was a Ukrainian beating an American didn't really enter my mind. As a coach, I don't look at it from a nationalistic point of view. It's just a person beating a person, or a person winning a race."

Six months on from her famous victory, the world champion herself reflects on her Edmonton success in similarly pragmatic light. "It hasn't changed the world for me," she said. "I have become a bit more recognisable in the USA. And I guess it has brought more excitement and more interest to the sprints, because Marion was unbeatable for such a long time.

"It never has worried me if she was in the same race. Every time I race, no matter who I race against, I just try to concentrate on what I'm doing, stay focused on my lane, and maintain my technique. I don't really care if Marion is in the race or not."

At 29, though, Pintusevich-Block does confess to feeling the pressure of a decade of championship competition at international level. She will not be chasing a second European indoor title in Vienna in a fortnight and she might not be in Munich in the summer striving for what would be her first European outdoor crown at senior level. "Every year, for 10 years, I have had the pressure of competing in a championship each summer. This summer I want to concentrate on the Grand Prix meets, I've not decided about the European Championships."

Whenever she does return to the championship arena Pintusevich-Block will do so in the colours of the Ukraine. She might be a resident of the American south these days, but the woman who beat Marion Jones remains passionately loyal to the land of her father – and of her mother, a Ukrainian Jew who had a more vital reason than mere sporting kudos to move quickly in her own youth.

"She was not banished to Siberia," the world champion said, correcting a lingering biographical error. "She was one of the people who escaped there from the fascists to save their lives."