Denise Lewis earned the right to contest next month's World Championships as she exceeded the qualifying standard of 6,105 points yesterday in her first heptathlon since winning the Olympic title in Sydney three years ago.
Competing at the Spar European Cup of Combined Events in Tallinn, the 30-year-old Birchfield Harrier finished ahead of everyone except Sweden's 20-year-old European champion, Carolina Kluft, who will be one of her key rivals in Paris six weeks from now.
Lewis's achievement took place against a background of sustained criticism for the role played in her preparations by Dr Ekkart Arbeit, formerly in charge of an East German track and field programme that made routine use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The association, set up by Frank Dick, the former British national coach who now acts as Lewis's overall advisor, has been described as "unwise" by the International Olympic Committee's president, Jacques Rogge, and lambasted in some quarters of the media.
"You have to put it to the back of your mind," she said after completing two days of competition in the Estonian capital with a score of 6,282 points, a performance which helped earn the British team promotion to the élite level of the competition. "My job was to qualify and I did. I know it's not everyone in the media who is criticising me, but you would have thought every corner of the country would want to support their Olympic champion."
Dr Arbeit, hired to offer Lewis his expertise on throwing events, was present in Tallinn and he would not have been disappointed at what he witnessed as Lewis produced excellent efforts in the shot put and javelin.
However, the Olympic champion teetered on the brink of failure at one point yesterday, having produced sub-standard performances in the first two of her three allowed long jumps before coming through with a jump of 6.33 metres.
"I knew what I had to do but it didn't happen the way I wanted it to," she said. "I found myself under increasing pressure after two poor long jumps. I was really concerned. You can imagine how I felt when I managed 6.33 on my last attempt. I badly needed that."
Lewis had gone into yesterday morning's long jump with an overnight score of 3,658, which was slightly under the target she had set herself for her opening four events - the 100m hurdles, where she ran a below par 13.80sec, the high jump, where she revived her ambitions with a clearance of 1.74m, the shot, where an excellent effort of 15.54m saw her close the gap on Kluft to just nine points, and the 200 metres, where she lost ground again as she ran out of energy in the home straight and recorded 25.39sec, well outside her personal best of 24.10.
But after reviving her fortunes in the long jump, she went on to effectively secure a place in Paris with an excellent performance in the javelin, where she followed a respectable first effort of 45.24m by sending the spear out to 49.57, just a metre and a half short of the personal best of 51.13 she achieved three years ago.
"My javelin rescued me again," Lewis said. "I'd done a very good first-round score, and then came the big one. So by the time I came to the 800 metres I knew exactly what I had to do and I just did enough."
A concluding time of 2min 20.34sec, well outside her best of 2:12.20, gave Lewis one of the top six scores in the world this year. She still has a way to go to reach the level achieved by the Frenchwoman who beat her to the 1999 world title, Eunice Barber, who leads this year's rankings with the 6,694 points she scored last month in Arles. But, barring injury, the Briton is now sure to be selected for an event where she won silver medals in 1997 and 1999 before pulling out on the brink of the competition two years ago in Edmonton.
That decision, officially put down to a stomach upset, appeared at least partly prompted by a late realisation that she had not prepared sufficiently well. Whatever the case, Lewis took time out after Edmonton, giving birth to a daughter, Lauren, in April of last year before putting her career under Dick's supervision last November.
"It has been a marvellous second day for Denise, far better than anyone in her coaching team expected," said Dick, who had predicted before the event that Lewis would score 6,200 points.
Lewis said: "My total for the first day wasn't quite as high as I wanted, but I have qualified, and that is the main thing. I feel proud to have been a part of the British team today. We are now back in the Super League where we belong."
So, too, despite all the voices which have been raised against Arbeit providing his assistance in that progress, is Lewis.