Athletics: Lewis puts her body on the line again

Countdown to Athens: Britain's only track and field star to defend Olympic title ever ready to pay the price for gold

In one respect at least, the Olympic omens are looking good for Denise Lewis. Back in 2000 she carried the pain of injury with her into the heat of the two-day heptathlon battle in Stadium Australia - suffering from not one physical ailment, but two. Swathed in bandages, protecting a damaged right foot and left Achilles heel, the partially mummified Lewis emerged as the golden girl from the seven-event test of all-round athletic excellence. Four years on, she is officially a mummy - Lauryn, the daughter of the British heptathlete and her partner, the Belgian sprinter Patrick Stevens, is two now - and she is preparing for the defence of her Olympic crown with injury once again holding her back.

In one respect at least, the Olympic omens are looking good for Denise Lewis. Back in 2000 she carried the pain of injury with her into the heat of the two-day heptathlon battle in Stadium Australia - suffering from not one physical ailment, but two. Swathed in bandages, protecting a damaged right foot and left Achilles heel, the partially mummified Lewis emerged as the golden girl from the seven-event test of all-round athletic excellence. Four years on, she is officially a mummy - Lauryn, the daughter of the British heptathlete and her partner, the Belgian sprinter Patrick Stevens, is two now - and she is preparing for the defence of her Olympic crown with injury once again holding her back.

On Friday afternoon, at the Norwich Union Camp, the pre-Olympic training base of the British athletics squad near Paphos on the west coast of Cyprus, Lewis was resting in the Mediterranean sun rather than readying herself for her first competitive test of the summer. Not that her mood had been clouded by her withdrawal from the high jump, javelin and 100m hurdles at the Cypriot Junior Championships in Limassol last night, and from the one heptathlon she had planned to contest before Athens, at Gotzis in Austria the weekend after next.

"I'm feeling good," the beaming Birchfield Harrier insisted, parking her lithe figure on a settee at the Coral Beach Hotel. "I'm just taking precautions with my foot, doing what's best in my preparations for Athens."

Even with her damaged left foot, Lewis has been working hard in training in Cyprus these past two weeks, in the company of her coach, Charles van Commenee, and her training partner, Kelly Sotherton. Every wincing shot of pain has been a reminder of her Olympic success. "Struggling through those two days in Sydney gave Denise the gold medal, but she's still paying the price," Van Commenee confided later, out of earshot of his charge. "It mashed up her foot. She will pay the price for the rest of her life, but once somebody's got the drive to be the best in the world, to become a legend, then that's what you're prepared to do. One of the qualities Denise has is coping with injuries in a smart way. She knows when she can push it and she knows when she has to stop."

From Lewis herself, there was not the slightest hint of a moan about her less-than-perfect physical state. Putting her feet up on the coffee table, scars visible on her left shin, the one British track-and- field athlete who will be defending an Olympic title in Athens in August (now that Jonathan Edwards has swapped the triple-jump runway for the commentary box) looked a picture of chilled contentment. "It's Olympic year," she said. "Everybody's motivated. Everybody wants to pull out all the stops. There's a lot to be positive about. Will I be chilled in my third Olympics? Yeah, because maybe I have every reason to be more chilled than some others.

"At the moment I'm in lovely, sunny Cyprus. I think I can afford not to be sitting here biting my fingernails. When the time comes and I need to be just completely switched on maybe I won't be as cool as I appear today. I think I know when to turn the heat on and to turn it off. When I'm on the track I'm focused, whether I'm going to win, lose - whatever the circumstances. I'm a competitor by nature.

"In Sydney I was in a bad state before I went into the competition. OK, I didn't shout it from the rooftops, didn't give it the fanfare, but I was in a bad, bad way. Strength of character got me through. Forget the pain. Really, it was a mental battle. I was waiting for my Achilles to pack up. It could have gone at any moment. No one was really sure that I would finish the two days."

There have been other wounds for the Wolverhampton woman to overcome since she became only the sixth female British track-and-field athlete to scale the very peak of Olympian heights, following in the footsteps of Mary Rand, Ann Packer, Mary Peters, Tessa Sanderson and Sally Gunnell. In 2002 she split with Van Commenee, the Dutchman who had guided her to Olympic gold. He said that motherhood was not compatible with training for multi-events. Then, on the comeback trail last year, Lewis linked up with Dr Ekkart Arbeit, former head coach of the steroid-driven East German track-and-field regime. It was an ill-advised move, certainly, though hardly worthy of the hysterical disapproval it attracted in some quarters, notably from one newspaper which employed a columnist coached by a former athlete who had been banned for failing a drugs test.

Since last autumn, Lewis has been back with Van Commenee, an affably forthright Amsterdammer who is employed as technical director of combined events and jumps by UK Athletics. "We had to put the split behind us," he said on Friday. "It was one of the issues we had to sort out before I decided to coach Denise again. There was no way I could work with her if we kept looking back."

Looking forward to Athens, Lewis faces the daunting prospect of defending her title against the new golden girl of world athletics. Carolina Kluft is 21, 10 years younger than Lewis. At the World Championships in Paris last August, the Swede took the gold medal with 7,001 points. Lewis finished fifth with 6,254 points. Her lifetime best score is 6,831 points.

"Kluft is young," Lewis said. "She has shown that she can do it. She has done well so far. But one thing is for certain in the heptathlon: everyone faces problems at some time. It's the nature of the event. Anything can happen. If you can get to the competition as healthy as possible, battle through the two days, and get on that 800m start line in contention, then you've done a good job."

According to Van Commenee, Lewis is in "much better form" than she was when she faced Kluft in Paris. "Whether it's good enough to win, we'll find out in August," he said, "but Denise is definitely back in the medal zone.

"We're going to Athens to win. That's the idea. Other people will need to do better than the current Olympic champion, which is never easy. Denise is a mentally very strong and experienced athlete. You won't beat her easily."

In deciding to hone her fitness for Athens in individual events, rather than risking the rigours of a heptathlon, Lewis has not exactly taken an easy option. In the long jump in the Norwich Union Grand Prix meeting at Gateshead on 27 June she is scheduled to face Heike Drechsler, Fiona May and Marion Jones. It was as a long jumper that Lewis first competed in a major championship, at the European Championships in Helsinki in 1994, and after Athens she may finish her athletics career as a specialist in the discipline.

"Maybe I'll go to a single event," she said, when asked about her future plans. "Sometimes I wake up and think, 'What a nice, easy life that would be'." An easier life, maybe, but still a painful one - the price of Olympic gold in Sydney.

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