Athletics: Merry planning to make up for two years of frustration

Norwich Union Super Grand Prix: Britain's 400m Olympic medallist and triple jump world champion return to competition in Gateshead tomorrow

Katharine Merry was reminiscing earlier this week. She and her training partner, Darren Campbell, were driving up to Manchester where they were due to take part in a ceremony handing over last year's Commonwealth Games stadium to its new owners, Manchester City FC. And as they made their way up the motorway, their thoughts turned to all the junior athletes with whom they had competed a decade ago.

"We thought, 'My God, we are virtually the only ones who are still going'," Merry said. "All those people who used to run with us don't run any more."

That neither of these Olym-pic medallists has been lost to the sport is partly a matter of luck, and largely a matter of character. Campbell became so disillusioned with athletics that he gave it up to play football for Weymouth and Plymouth Argyle - but he returned to win the 1998 European 100m title and, two years later in Sydney, the 200m silver.

Merry, who runs her first major individual 400m in two years at the Norwich Union Super Grand Prix in Gateshead tomorrow , has had her own turbulent journey in the course of the last 10 years.

At 16 she was a prodigy with a cluster of age-group world records to her name. The nice middle-class girl from Dun-church, near Rugby - for years, her favourite public expletive was "Crumbs!" - was the Next Big Thing in British athletics. A camera crew followed her for six months. She won four English Schools titles and took two golds at the 1993 European Junior Championships.

"I've still got a couple of world age records for a 14-year-old," she recalled this week. "I did 7.35sec for the 60m indoors - I don't know where that came from. That was just madness. If I'd have carried on progressing like that it would have been stupid. It would have meant running the 100m in 10.5, or 10 flat."

Inevitably, once the teenage prodigy moved into the senior ranks in 1994, the line of achievement dipped, and almost petered out. She was a fragile talent, requiring two operations on her knees.

Her fortunes only truly turned four years later when, as a member of the group coached by Linford Christie, she moved up from 200 to 400m. Everything came together for her at the 2000 Sydney Olympics where, on her 26th birthday, she broke 50 seconds for the first time in winning the bronze medal behind the inspired home champion, Cathy Freeman.

The following season, with Freeman taking a year out, Merry lowered her best to 49.59sec, which put her top of the 2001 world rankings. She was ready to take her first global title at the Edmonton World Championships. And then her Achilles tendon broke down.

"I was world No 1 one day, and then I had two years obliterated," she said. To add insult to the injury, she wasted a year after getting a series of false diagnoses. By the time she was told she required an operation - which she had in June last year - she had damage to 30 per cent of her Achilles tendon.

"It was utterly, utterly frustrating," she said. "I was getting totally bad information about my injury for so long. It got to the point where I thought, 'Oh my God. Am I missing something here? Is this all in my head?' Ninety-five per cent of my life is athletics, and sometimes when I couldn't run, it seemed like I had no life at all because I have been running since I was 10."

What deepened her frustration was seeing the world title, and the following year's Commonwealth and European titles, won in times slower than she had run. "I believe I would have run 49sec or perhaps even a bit under in Edmonton," she said. "So it was absolutely devastating when I saw the gold go in 49.86."

Merry surprised many by going out to Edmonton to work with the BBC commentary team, but she could not face going live during the final, preferring to watch it elsewhere. "I didn't want to make a prat of myself on national TV," she said. "When I saw it I was gutted. I cried."

A year later in Manchester, again working with the BBC, the ordeal was even worse for her as she saw the Commonwealth title won in 51.63sec. Two weeks later, Russia's Olesya Zykina won the European title in 50.45.

"The lack of depth in the event is a double-edged sword," she said. "Seeing titles won in times like that pees me off, but at least it means I am still in touch. Cathy is only talking about running relays now, and I don't think we will see much more of her. The event has not moved on, and I don't think it's going to change in the next couple of years."

Which raises the question of how soon she will return to the levels of performance that made her the main contender. Understandably, she is playing things cautiously. Having run for Britain in last month's European Cup 400m relay in Florence, she missed the following week's meeting in Glasgow to allow her fragile feet to recover. Last Sunday, she ran a low-key 400m in Cork, clocking 52.42sec, and she waited until Wednesday before deciding to compete in the north-east.

"I honestly don't have any plans beyond Gateshead," she said. "Simply to be there is a really good feeling because a lot of people never thought I could get back at all."

Merry has been aware of those sceptical voices within the sport for many months. But she has already shown the ability to thrive in adversity after she and her training group had to operate independently at the Olympics following Christie's ban for an adverse nandrolone finding. "We had to train separately, and Linford couldn't get into the warm-up area," she said. "And out of three individual athletes we got two medals. For Darren and myself it was like fuel to our fire. We made a negative into a positive."

In recent weeks it has been the turn of another high-profile British athlete, Olympic hept-athlon champion Denise Lewis, to undergo criticism and censure as a result of association with a coach - albeit the nature of Dr Ekkart Arbeit's wrongdoing on the doping front is of a completely different order given his former position at the head of the now discredited East German track and field programme.

"It did surprise me when I heard about it," Merry said. "She must have known she was going to get bad press for it, because he's such a tainted character with such a shocking past. But she must have a really high regard for him. Now she has to turn a negative into a positive, and I think that's what she did the other weekend in Tallinn when she got the world qualifying mark."

For Merry, meanwhile, the immediate task in hand is a far simpler one. "As long as I can walk off the track in one piece, I will be happy," she said. Step by step, a great performer is returning to her deserved arena.