Athletics: Small step is giant leap for Hansen

Former world No 1 finishes runner-up after four operations and more than two years out
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The Independent Online

For Paula Radcliffe, the pregnant pause has only just begun. For Ashia Hansen, it came to an end at 1.39pm yesterday. After planting her right foot on the triple jump take-off board in the Manchester Regional Arena, the Birchfield Harrier took her first competitive step since June 2004. In terms of distance, it was a small step by Hansen's standards - with the hop and a highly tentative jump, adding up to 11.99 metres in the opening round of the women's triple jump at the Norwich Union European Trials and AAA Championships. It was more than three metres shy of her best. Still, in the wider scheme of things it amounted to a giant leap.

In Hansen's case, it has not been motherhood that has kept her away from the track and field arena but the mother of all injuries. If there was a hint of apprehension in her stride as she approached the take-off board for the first time, it was only to be expected. The last time she ventured so far, at the European Cup at Bydgoszcz in Poland two years ago, she collapsed into the sand-pit and looked down to see a hole where her left knee-cap should have been. She fainted, before emitting a piercing scream that could be heard from the back of the stands.

At 32, the hole in Hansen's career looked beyond repair. Not to her, though. After two years, one month and four operations, the former world No 1, world indoor record holder, and double world indoor champion has a national championship medal to flash at those who penned her triple jumping obituary. Despite suffering a twinge in her reconstructed knee last Monday and being kept out of training all week, she improved on her modest opening effort yesterday to distances of 13.37m, 13.64m and then 13.65m - still mediocre when set against her British outdoor record (15.15m) and former world indoor record (15.16m) but good enough to secure the runner-up position behind Tiombe Hurd of the Unites States, who set a stadium record of 14.15m.

"I'm just glad that I've made it back and that I'm walking away in one piece," Hansen said. "I wanted to prove to people that you can come back after the kind of knee surgery I've had. There were so many negative people saying I should retire - because of my age, and because of what I've achieved. Well, no, I haven't achieved what I want to achieve yet. I want to go to another Olympics in 2008.

"There was one doctor who said I wouldn't be able to jump again. That was when I was going into my third operation. I had to have some internal stitches removed because they started to poke out of my knee. I ended up going to Holland and having them out. That was in October last year. The last operation was in January. I had so much scar tissue I couldn't bend my knee.

"I performed OK today, but not as well as I have been in training. I'm not worried about my knee now. It's stronger than it used to be. We're just not sure what caused the twinge. I've had a scan but nothing showed up."

It remains to be seen whether Hansen, now 34, can recapture the form that took her to Commonwealth and European gold and the world No 1 spot in 2002. Her final jump yesterday matched the European Athletic Association's basic qualifying distance for the European Championships in Gothenburg next month but Hansen, Britain's only reigning female European champion other than the expectant Radcliffe, is not interested in accepting selection unless she can achieve the British team standard of 14.10m. "I don't want to just make up the numbers," she said.

This is not the first time that Hansen has overcome adversity in her life. Born in the United States - in Evansville, Indiana - she was adopted by a Ghanaian family at three months old. The family moved to England when she was eight and her adoptive father was killed in a road accident when she was 15.

Then, when she was preparing for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, she was drawn into a high-profile court case when a former boyfriend faked a racist attack on the doorstep of her Birmingham home.

Not that Hansen was the only woman in the triple-jump field yesterday who has had hardship to endure.

Hurd - who splits her time between her US home in Maryland and Birmingham, where she trains with Hansen and her coach, Aston Moore, and is a member of the Birchfield club - suffers from a degenerative eye condition that makes her legally blind without contact lenses. Even with lenses, she needs wide strips of brightly coloured tape to help to guide her down the triple jump runway. "I've had this condition since birth and instead of letting it stop me I just deal with it," she said.

Hurd has been so adept at managing her condition she has won six US titles, indoors and out, and a world indoor bronze medal. She also holds a AAA Championship title now, of course - picking up a thread of American success which began in 1881 with a victory by the long-striding Virginian Lon Myers in the 440 yards.

As for Hansen, she still has the strands of her own title-winning form to rediscover. At least she has her old career back, though. "I do have an alternative now," she confessed. "When I was out injured I took my qualifications as a beauty therapist."