Four months ago, Nathan Morgan lay in a hospital bed and planned his comeback at this weekend's AAA Championships and World Championship trials. Having undergone an operation to remove a loose piece of bone from his left ankle, the Commonwealth long jump champion found himself a frustrated television viewer as the World Indoor Championships played out in his home city of Birmingham.
He knew he could have been a contender. Instead, he cast his mind forward to the next big athletics gathering in the Second City, where he takes his place today at the Alexander Stadium.
But Morgan's plans did not run quite as envisaged. This formidably determined 25-year-old - whose outspoken comments have sometimes set him at odds with the athletics establishment and fellow competitors - has got ahead of himself. Two weeks ago in the Gateshead Super Grand Prix he returned to significant action by jumping a wind-assisted 7.92 metres, a highly satisfying start for an athlete with a personal best of 8.11m.
Last Sunday, at a low-key meeting in Hamburg, the Birchfield Harrier surpassed himself with an effort of 8.26m - one centimetre short of the British record set last season by his rival Chris Tomlinson, and three centimetres further than the record of 1964 Olympic champion Lynn Davies, which stood from June 1968 until April 2002.
Morgan's effort, in temperatures reaching into the 30s, came on his second jump, and he immediately withdrew from the competition as a precaution in order to rest an ankle that still gets sore with this weekend's activities in mind.
But he will be able to jump in his home pit with a sense of confidence, given that his German leap bettered the stiff World Championship A qualifying mark of 8.20m.
Being Morgan he had predicted that he would reach Paris, announcing two days before his trip to Hamburg: "I'll have to jump a personal best to guarantee qualification, but I'm not too far away from that distance at the moment."
Words became action, and now a young man who leapt to prominence by winning a bronze medal at the 1996 World Junior Championships wants to consolidate his position as a genuine contender for a senior World Championship medal next month.
"I believe I can challenge for a medal now in Paris," he said. "Once I've got through the qualifying round I will come away with a medal, because that's what I do best. I suppose the odds are against it, but that's when I pull something out of the bag. I am a championship performer. If I'd jumped 8.26 at the last World Championships I would have had the silver. So I know I'm in range."
Self-belief has never been a problem for Morgan despite a series of injuries that might have deterred less resolute souls. Soon after making his international breakthrough as a 20-year-old with third place in the European Cup at St Petersburg, he suffered a back injury so serious he was told by one medical expert that his career was over.
"A disc was bulging out of my back, and the specialist said I would never jump again. Even after I got back to competition, I kept on pulling my hamstring as a result. If I hadn't had any injuries I think I would have jumped 8.40 by now. But injuries are part of track and field, and you have to accept it. I'm still here and I'm still improving.
"When I jumped my 8.26 I gave away most of the board. I only just got my foot onto it. There's definitely a lot more to come."
That is good news not just for Morgan, but British long jumping, which - in contrast to a triple jump discipline transformed by the all-conquering Jonathan Edwards - has been a relatively moribund area since Davies, now president of UK Athletics, called it a day.
Tomlinson is struggling to find consistent form this season and is not expected to compete in Birmingham having pulled out of last weekend's European Under-23 Championships. But Morgan's 19-year-old training partner Jonathan Moore, now recovered from a serious knee injury he sustained in June last year, remains an outstanding prospect, and Scotland's Darren Ritchie is also in the best form of his career, having achieved his first 8m jump last month with the benefit of wind assistance.
Morgan, however, remains confident of his domestic position. "They're not as good as me," he says. "I'm not being big-headed and that, but I don't believe they are. It doesn't matter to me that Chris has the British record, because I believe when I compete against him I am going to win. If I didn't believe it, I wouldn't do it.
"If Chris can find a way of being consistent he will be a major threat. Jonathan is going to be a major threat anyway. But as long as I'm in 95 or 96 per cent shape, I think I'll get the better of the other British guys."
Morgan's resolve was tested in more than one way during his periods out with injury. He found it hard to manage financially, and wrote a strongly critical piece about the system of Lottery funding in Athletics Weekly magazine.
But, after switching to his current coach Ted King a couple of years ago, the Leicester-born athlete believes he has mellowed in his general attitude.
"I needed a fresh start, and Ted has made me grow up," he said. "I am not so feisty as I used to be - he has calmed me down. I blabbed off my mouth about the funding, but I was younger then. I realise now that athletics is a tough game, and if there are standards set out you have to reach them."
The coaching methods, too, have enabled Morgan to achieve consistency. Commenting on Tomlinson's tormented efforts recently, Davies said that his own prime need as an athlete was to know exactly how he achieved a successful jump so he could reproduce it, but he stressed that it needed to be a matter of instinct.
A similar method informs King's training sessions. "We repeat a lot of stuff so it gets drilled in," Morgan said. "But if things are going bad, we knock it on the head. You don't want to keep any bad habits, so we don't just work through it, we stop and do something else."
Morgan's self-belief was strengthened by his performance at the City of Manchester stadium last summer, when an effort of 8.02m earned him the Commonwealth title in a competition where Tomlinson finished sixth.
"One of the main reasons why I won in Manchester was that for once I was able to train properly through the previous winter," Morgan said. "It's been a rocky road in my career, but it's made me stronger. If I didn't have all these niggles, I would probably feel weird. I'm so used to having something wrong with me, or not quite right, I probably wouldn't know what to do if everything was perfect. Something special - or something tragic. I don't know..."
Who knows what that will be, but Morgan is doing okay for himself as things are.Reuse content