Athletics: Malachi catches up with new homework

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The Independent Online

The first time Malachi Davis landed in Britain he was plunged into a crash course in the popular culture of his mother's homeland. Having acquired UK citizenship in something approaching Zola Budd record time, courtesy of his Cockney parent, and having claimed a place in the British team for the Athens Olympics, the 400m runner from California was unable to name Tony Blair as Prime Minister or David Beckham as England's football captain.

Eleven months on, Davis is back for his second track season as an adopted Briton and doing some catching up. "I've been watching soccer on TV," he said. "That, and a lot of horseracing. The ironic thing is I had a physio working on me last week who found out my name was Malachi and he had money on a horse called Malachi in the Vodafone race. The horse took second."

It did indeed. King Malachi, a 5-1 shot, edged out Green Pride in a photo for second in the 2.30 at Epsom on Derby day, the Vodafone Woodcote Stakes. The following afternoon in the 2.41 at Scotstoun in Glasgow, the men's 400m in the Norwich Union International meeting, there was no need for the photo-finish equipment. The two-legged Malachi was in truly regal form, pulling clear of his rivals from the United States and Russia in the home straight to record his first win in Great Britain colours. It was a glimpse of thoroughbred potential from the quarter-miler who was a fading also-ran in the four races he contested on British soil last summer.

In Athens last August, Davis was knocked out in the first-round heats of the Olympic 400m and ran the third leg for the British team who finished fifth in the 4 x 400m relay. He then returned to his family home, in the Los Angelean suburb of Brentwood, and started training at the West Los Angeles Stadium - as part of the same stable as Maurice Greene, the former world and Olympic 100m champion.

"I don't do the same training as Maurice," Davis stressed. "He's a 100m sprinter; I'm a quarter-miler. But we're all out on the track at the same time. Darrell Smith is my primary coach and John Smith [Darrell's uncle and Greene's long-time coach] gives me advice.

"When I came over to Britain last year I was training part-time and still working full-time, as a counsellor for at-risk youth. Lottery funding has allowed me to train full-time since I went back home, and I've really bene-fited from the support and resources of UK Athletics. I have a long way to go, but I'm taking a positive step in the direction I want to go."

The grandstand finish Davis produced in Glasgow a week ago certainly pointed his new career in the forward direction. Next weekend he goes to the European Cup Super League competition in Florence as the continent's fastest 400m runner in 2005, having clocked 45.67sec at Eagle Rock in California last month.

He knows all about the concept of the European Cup, thanks to Tasha Danvers-Smith, Darrell's Londoner wife. As Natasha Danvers, she was a runner-up for Britain in the 400m hurdles at the European Cup in Florence two years ago, before her own athletics career was brought to a pregnant pause by impending motherhood.

"Tasha has been giving me a lot of pointers about running over here," Davis said. "She has her baby now and she's back in training, aiming for the AAA Championships in Man-chester next month. She and Darrell are coming over to join me in Loughborough to prepare for that and the rest of the season.

"Tasha has told me all about the European Cup. I've never been to Italy, so I'm looking forward to that: the good weather, the excellent food, the wonderful people, the rich history."

Davis has notable history of his own. Two weeks before his sixth birthday he was diagnosed with Burkitt's Lymphoma. He was taken to the cancer ward at Kaiser Hospital in Sacramento and was confined to bed for the next 18 months. He was nine before he fully recovered.

"Getting over it is definitely something that I don't take for granted," he reflected. "I'm thankful for everything I've achieved and everything I have - most of all my health."

At 27, Davis is also thankful for his second shot at pushing beyond the controversy which greeted his arrival in Britain on the eve of the Olympic trials last summer. "I feel more comfortable with the situation this time," he said. "Last year everything was so unknown to me. It was all a giant question mark for me.

"I told myself no matter where I ended up after the Olympics I was going to take my accomplishments and the down parts from last year and use it all as motivation for 2005. It has made me hungry for the sport."