Athletics: May kicks off year of the golden girls

Italian enjoys her 'homecoming' and looks forward to summer rivalry with Jones and Kluft
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When Sebastian Coe visited the new English Institute of Sport Arena in his old home town he lamented that in wintertime in his competitive youth he had to train around the edge of the university tennis courts in Sheffield.

It was similar for Fiona May when she lived in Derby - which made it more than a touch ironic that the star attraction on the opening day of the Norwich Union World Trials and AAA Indoor Championships at the £28m state-of-the-art facility in the Don Valley yesterday should happen be the long jumper who left Britain for Italy in search of better facilities and support.

Born in Slough, raised in Derby and educated at Leeds University, May only fulfilled her potential when she moved to Florence and became a member of the track-and-field azzurri. World junior champion and sixth-placed Olympian at the age of 18 in 1988, she turned to the British Athletic Federation for help when she failed to survive the qualifying round at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993. They offered her £500.

Instead, she accepted a proposal of marriage from an Italian pole vaulter, Gianni Iapichino, and became an adopted Florentine. The Italian athletics federation invited her to their national training camp in Formia and gave her a healthy five-figure salary, plus all the coaching and technical support she required. They also turned her into a world-beater.

Three times a world champion (twice outdoors, once indoors), the 34-year-old former pride of Derby Ladies' Athletics Club took a step back to her old home country yesterday in order to take a step forward on the road to the Athens Olympics. Ninth at the World Championships in Paris last August, while on the comeback trail after the birth of her daughter, Larissa, May opened her year in impressive style. Five of her six jumps were beyond 6.51m, the championship record held since 1989 by Nicole Boegman of Australia. The best was a fourth-round effort of 6.68m.

It was, remarkably for someone who topped the British rankings for seven years, May's first AAA title indoors. It was also her first competition and first victory against her 23-year-old sister. Natasha May, a bronze medallist in the AAA outdoor championships last summer, con- tinued her own improvement, jumping an indoor personal best of 6.08sec for fifth place.

Looming on the horizon for the elder May sister is a renewal of competitive rivalry with Marion Jones, who re-emerged from the pregnant pause in her career at the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden in New York on Friday night. Jones was sluggish out of her blocks in the 60m and, though she recovered to win in a relatively modest 7.21sec, she later confided: "After four steps I looked like a woman who's been on pregnancy leave."

The Californian added that her excitement about a return to long jumping was "ten-fold compared to the sprints", claiming to have smoothed her ragged jumping technique in training this winter. May, who took the Olympic long-jump silver medal ahead of Jones in Sydney four years ago, jumps against the multi-talented American at an indoor meeting in Athens on 22 February. There is also a possibility that they could meet at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham two days earlier.

"Maybe this year she will jump farther," May mused, "and if she beats me in the Olympics, hats off to her. But she's certainly going to find me a bit of a handful. The facts speak for themselves. She hasn't beaten me yet in a major championship." Indeed not. The Derby old girl has beaten the supposed superwoman of world athletics three times in three major championship encounters.

With Jones intending to repeat the "drive for five" gold medals that May and the victorious Heike Drechsler brought to an end in Sydney four years ago, the women's long jump is destined to become a high-profile event in the current Olympic year - even more so with Carolina Kluft, the new golden girl of track and field, talking about contesting it in addition to the heptathlon in Athens in August. At the World Championships in Paris last summer Kluft won the heptathlon long-jump competition ahead of Eunice Barber, who went on to win the individual long-jump title. Kluft competes against May in Stockholm on Thursday, and the 21-year-old Swede could also be among her rivals at the World Indoor Championships in Budapest next month.

"All the best to Carolina as well," May said yesterday. "The more the competition the better it is for the event. I'm not afraid of it. If all of them are in Athens, it'll be nice to beat them in the most important competition of all."

And quite a competition it promises to be, too - with Barber also to be considered in the equation, not to mention the Herne Hill Harrier who finished eighth the final of the women's 60m in Sheffield yesterday. Jade Johnson is concentrating on honing her sprinting speed in the indoor season, but she will be seeking her third major championship long-jump medal in Athens in August.

Runner-up at the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships in 2002 and fourth at the World Championships last summer, the young Londoner is steadily filling the long-jump void Fiona May left behind when she swapped the hills of Derbyshire for those of Tuscany.