There will be some 4,000 pairs of eyes trained directly on Kelly Sotherton when she launches her competitive preparations for the Commonwealth Games with a double shift for the Commonwealth Select team in the Norwich Union International at the Kelvin Hall indoor arena in Glasgow on Saturday. The one spectator she hopes to impress most of all, though, will be watching long-distance - via television from her home at Ryde on the Isle of Wight.
Yvonne Sotherton is unable to follow her daughter's track and field career at first-hand because of the condition which caused her right leg to be amputated below the knee in April last year. She suffers from lupus, a severe inflammatory disease, and nine months after losing her limb, she still requires surgery and has yet to be fitted with a suitable prosthetic.
"She's facing the prospect of having another operation, a third one, which is not very good really," Kelly reflected. "The NHS have been crap, to be honest. She's not really any further on than she was nine months ago, but her spirits are high. If I perform well, it'll keep her happy. And if you keep someone else happy, it's happy heart, healthy heart, isn't it?"
Sotherton junior was raised single-handedly by her mother on the Isle of Wight and says her lone parent has always been blessed with a "warrior spirit". Her own competitive instincts have taken her from number 57 in the world heptathlon rankings for 2003 to Olympic bronze in 2004 and European indoor pentathlon silver in 2005. She might have suffered a dip at the World Championships in Helsinki last August, with a disastrous javelin throw (33.09m, 7m short of her best) which dropped her from third to fifth, but the late-flowering Channel Islander is determined to remedy the obvious weakness in her all-round athletic armoury and to add Commonwealth gold to her medal collection in Melbourne in March.
"It was just that one event which completely let me down in Helsinki," Sotherton lamented. "It was really disappointing. I should have won the bronze medal, easily. Overall, though, I have to reflect that it was a good championship for me because I came fifth in the heptathlon and eighth in the long jump, which people forget. And it was my first World Championships. People forget that too. They seem to think I've been at this level for about five or six years, but I'm still learning."
At 29, Sotherton has spent the past 12 months learning the ropes as a coach. Since Charles van Commenee left the employ of UK Athletics in Birmingham to work as the performance director of the Dutch Olympic Association, she has directed her own coaching, enlisting expert help with certain aspects of preparing for the seven-event heptathlon - such as javelin throwing, in which she has been assisted by John Trower, the national coach, and also advised by Steve Backley, the former world record holder.
"I am learning from one of the best javelin coaches in the world and from one of the best- ever throwers," Sotherton said. "Last year I had to take a massive step back with my javelin. I had to learn a lot of new things. That's why I didn't throw as far. This year I hope that the things I learned in 2005 will come into play."
The one discipline in which Sotherton has made most notable progress has been the one in which she has coached herself unassisted. Van Commenee famously accused her of "running like a wimp" in the 800m in Athens but in Helsinki she ran the final event like a warrior inspired - holding off Carolina Kluft, the young Swede who has taken a stranglehold on the heptathlon since 2002, and earning an invitation to take part in Kelly Holmes' farewell race over the same distance. Her personal best came down from 2min 12.13sec to 2:07.94 last year. "I must be quite a good coach, then," Sotherton mused, chuckling at the thought.
Over two days of competition in the Melbourne Cricket Ground in March, the budding coach hopes to become a major championship-winning athlete, following in the footsteps of her fellow Birchfield Harrier and former training partner, Denise Lewis, who struck Commonwealth heptathlon gold in 1994 and 1998. In the world rankings for 2005, Sotherton was the highest-scoring heptathlete from a Commonwealth country by a margin of 124 points.
In the World Championships, though, she finished 50 points behind Margaret Simpson of Ghana, who effectively speared the bronze medal position (behind Kluft and Eunice Barber of France) with a mighty 56.36m in the javelin.
"Yeah, her strength is my weakness," Sotherton pondered. "She's only beaten me once in the last three years and I hope it won't happen again. And that was me being at my worst and her being at her best. But I'm not really thinking about other people. I'm just thinking about how I'm going to do. It's the only title that Carolina Kluft can't go for, so I'd like to think I could win it. Anything less than a win would be quite disappointing."
Kluft, however, still looms large on Sotherton's horizon in 2006. The focal point of the summer season is the European Championships in Gothenburg, where Kluft is scheduled to defend the heptathlon crown on home ground. With that over-riding objective in mind, the Swede announced on Friday that she would be cancelling her plans to compete in the indoor season, not wishing to risk aggravating a hamstring problem that has been troubling her in training. She had been due to face Sotherton in the long jump in Glasgow on Saturday.
"It would have been great to compete against Carolina," the Briton reflected, "but Jade Johnson is still in the long jump and I'm in the 60m hurdles as well. I'm sure they'll both be great competitions." And compelling long-distance viewing for Yvonne Sotherton, of course.
ANATOMY OF A COMPLETE HEPTATHLETE
Mental strength is a must over seven events in a heptathlon. Sotherton showed her mettle with a brilliant third-time long-jump effort after two fouls in Athens.
Both aerobic and anaerobic fitness are needed for sprinting 200m and running 800m, and Sotherton improved dramatically in the longer event last year.
A combination of physical strength and technical expertise is required for the javelin and shot. The javelin cost a World Championship medal but Sotherton's shot putting is relatively solid.
Flexibility, particularly in the hip region, is vital for the hurdling, high jumping and long jumping events - three disciplines in which Sotherton excels.
Sotherton's long, powerful thighs give her the natural speed she utilises not just in the 200m but also in the high hurdles, the long jump and the 800m.